“Zuma's new R4bn jet": A reality check

Mark D. Young says a realistic look needed at aspect of VIP transport by 21 Squadron of the SAAF

Argument about a new VIP jet - a reality check

Amid the growing chorus of indignation surrounding the defence force's proposed acquisition of new VIP transport capacity, some operational realities (and money saving options) may have been overlooked in the excitement

What a week-end we have had!

While the clamour about statements made by the President of the Republic at a party political meeting have rightfully engaged the nation's media, an equally deafening cacophony has enveloped us regarding a proposed new VIP aircraft.

Headlines and social media posts about “Zuma's new R4 billion jet” had garnered so much attention that the head of Armscor and the head of the South African Air Force felt it prudent to address the issue at a specially convened media briefing at Waterkloof Airbase.

Judging by the continued feeding frenzy about the matter, the media-and the twittering public at large-are not amused by the response. Everyone is fixated on the alleged cost of R4billion.

Leaving aside arguments for and against the alleged costs mentioned in the initial reports that kicked-off the entire matter, a realistic look at the aspect of VIP transport by 21 Squadron of the SA Air Force is, perhaps, needed to put matters into perspective.

I do this so that when we scream and shout, we can at least scream and shout in a more informed manner. And then I intend to show you how we can all, at the very least, pull a R1.4billion rabbit out of the hat if reason is allowed to prevail in this matter which has, according to Hansard, been in the works since 2012.

Firstly, let's consider what is currently on hand at 21 Squadron in regards to VIP transport capability. We have two Falcon 50 business jets, one 34 years old and the other 33 years old. There is a Falcon 900 which is 23 years old plus two Cessna 550 Citations currently entering their 33rd year of service. We also have a Boeing 737 Business Jet (commonly called “The BBJ”) named Inkwazi. She arrived in 2003 and is the youngster at only 14 years old (first flight in April 2001) and the largest aircraft available for VIP duty.

Now, during the sanctions era, the SAAF operated many aircraft types until,the wings fell off (not literally of course but in a manner of speaking). This was because there was simply no method of obtaining replacements for what were-elsewhere-deemed old, outdated aircraft. Some of these types included the famous Mirage F-1 fighters, Buccaneer bombers and Transall C160 transports. All of these types were retired after about 25 years of service. One of the longest serving types was the Canberra bomber which bowed-out after 27 years.

I use these comparisons to show that the issues facing 21 squadron – politics aside – are, in fact, every bit as pressing as those faced by the SAAF of the late 1980s. However, in the case of the VIP fleet, the matter goes even deeper. The operational combat aircraft were not utilised for lengthy flights day-in and day-out throughout their service lives as has been the fate of the VIP fleet.

As the interaction of the Republic has expanded in the past two decades to involve all continents, so has the radius of action of 21 squadron. This has led to an issue not only of pure age (which of itself is not a danger in meticulously maintained aircraft such as these) but of flight hours. Commercial Boeing 737 airliners are regarded as very old beyond 50 000 hours.

The existing 737 BBJ, even taken on an extremely high assumed utilisation of 30 hours per week, every week for all of her 12 years of service, cannot yet have reached 20 000 hours. So, she still has a long way to go.

It's the others that will be nearing the 50 000 hour mark – if not beyond that already. Even more concerning for those smaller frames will be the number of flight cycles they have clocked-up. As the smaller aircraft have a shorter range, they will have had many more pressurisation cycles than the larger BBJ. This number has a direct bearing on service life and safety.

There will be few members of the public that would, knowingly, fly aboard 30 year old aircraft, let alone examples that have exceeded 50 000 hours. Thus, by any measure these aircraft are old and instead of complaining, perhaps the SAAF deserves kudos for having extracted lengthy service from the airframes?

An argument used by many detractors of the proposed increase in capability for 21 squadron is that the cost of the new aircraft-whatever it might turn out to be- is excessive for “Zuma's new jet.” This is nothing but cheap politics and hypocrisy as nobody complained that the original Falcons were PW's, FW's, or Mandels's jet. There was nothing of the like said when the 737 BBJ arrived- it was not labelled as Mbeki's jet. Likewise, the US Air Force One is not Obama's jet, nor was it Clinton's jet or Bush's jet.

All the aircraft of 21 squadron are assets of the state available for the use of the state and, whoever happens to be occupying the office of President of the Republic at the time, also has use of these assets when needed. In 20 years time, any new aircraft will, taken on the record so far, more than likely still be serving the incumbent of the day.

The matter of the operational requirement and the person of the office holder needs, I feel, to be separated. This will permit us all to see the matter in the context of the world in which South Africa now finds itself. We do have the need for global reach which cannot be met by commercial airline services. Aside from the obvious scheduling issues, there is the very real matter of confidentiality which cannot be ensured if delegates have to hold a meeting aboard a commercial airliner with 300 members of the world's public nearby – Whatsapping at 33 000 feet does not cut it.

The current BBJ needs, on a trip to Beijing, Washington or Australia at least two fuel stops en-route to meet safety and reserve requirements.

In addition to the fuel stops issue, there is the narrow-bodied nature of the aircraft and the limited capacity in its current VIP configuration. Many trade delegations (and not only cabinet members) are often carried on foreign visits and on such missions more than one aircraft needs to accompany the BBJ with the additional business representatives, or as has been noted, additional aircraft need to be chartered – especially if the other 21 Squadron aircraft are being utilised for other duties.

Arguments that only one VIP jet will do ignore the inevitable scheduling conflicts that will arise and, more importantly, the danger – as so tragically demonstrated by Poland – that there is a great risk to the nation's stability when the full executive travels on a single flight. Thus the head of state and the deputy should always travel in different aircraft. Such a practice is par for the course with all governments.

So, given all the above, what to do?

To save us all some time, I have taken the liberty of digging about to see what current prices are for aircraft on the open market. I have ignored a new purchase as this is impractical given the SAAF's current timing requirements. Any new-build will only be available in about 6 years time unless a cancellation releases an airframe somewhere that is not snapped up by others on the waiting lists of Airbus or Boeing.

This leaves the leasing or second-hand markets. In order to avoid the pitfalls of buying in the lower end of the market (where the pedigree of some parts might be less than genuine) it would be prudent to look only at the top-end examples which will all come with verifiable histories and traceable parts.

I have also ignored the option of a complicated inter-departmental transfer of an ex-SAA Airbus A340 as has been suggested by some media members. While cheap, the maintenance costs of a 4 engined airliner, as well as the added fuel burn, mitigate against such a decision being logical. Ergo no 747s either (so President Obama and the Japanese Prime Minister can rest easy...).

The table below sets out the numbers as they are at present for suitable aircraft:

Model                         Purchase price range         Monthly lease range

Airbus330-200             $26.0 - 90.1M,                     $280-775,000
Airbus A330-300         $17.5 - 110.2M,                     $250-900,000
Boeing 767-300ER     $5.6 – 43.5M,                         $110-380,000
Boeing 777-200ER     $21.4 – 72.5M,                         $380-740,000
Boeing 777-300ER     $59.1 – 160.5M,                     $675-1,250,000
Boeing 787-8             $83.0 - 117.8M,                     $750-1,050,000

So, an Airbus A330-300 could be at Waterkloof for R1.65b on an outright purchase or we can lease one for 10 years for the same money.

A minter of a Boeing 777-300 ER could arrive for just R2.4b or, as with all others, it can be leased for 10 years at the same money – which for the purposes of this exercise, I have costed at R15 to the US$.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of all for me was that the swish new Boeing 787-8 will be better value than the 777 at similar money to an Airbus A330.Having a 787 would be like having the latest iPhone.

So, even if the interior of the new VIP jet is outfitted to the highest standard possible, it would not result in a bill of much more than R3billion on an outright purchase of a Boeing 777 or about R2.3b for an A330or 787.

With a new coat of paint and some cool blue cheat lines like Inkwazi, nobody would know we've shaved R1.4 billion off the price of a Boeing 777.

We could fly anywhere, with full delegations and hold our heads up high knowing we had saved almost enough to fund the zero percent University fee increase.

If we got a 787 or an A330, we could sort the fee subsidy and enjoy Bejing duck at the same time for the amount everyone has assumed has been spent already.

So, there you have it Armscor, RFI done and dusted.