Airbus grounded at last

It was one of my first big stories for the Mail & Guardian: the government was planning to buy a fleet of eight highly sophisticated A400M military transport planes from Airbus, for what at the time—2004—seemed a staggering R8-billion.

Five years later Armscor puts the price at R47-billion, as much as the entire 1999 arms package. That figure is disputed, but one must assume that the original estimate was far too low and that the cancellation of the purchase by Cabinet on Thursday came as a cash-strapped treasury finally refused to proceed.

Thabo Mbeki’s administration had kept the deal quiet. Air force generals I spoke to had heard only rumours and the reluctant defence parastatal, Denel, was being strong-armed into signing an agreement to manufacture airframe components for the giant heavy-lifter. It was mid-December and Airbus demanded the deal be signed by Christmas.

Nevertheless, an unlikely coalition between then public enterprises minister Alec Erwin and his adversary Jeff Radebe was pushing the programme hard over the objections of Denel’s then chief executive, the late Victor Moche, and then defence minister Mosiuoa Lekota.

No doubt that is why a senior state official met me in a roadside restaurant to hand over documents relating to the deal and why a massive spin-control effort was launched when I started asking Radebe’s special adviser, the late Ian Philips, about it.

Philips, who agreed with Erwin about almost nothing else, insisted, as Erwin did, that the deal would be the saviour of Denel, guaranteeing it lucrative design and manufacturing work on a major global aircraft programme. Denel countered that tooling up its aerostructures division to participate at the price offered by Airbus would push the company even deeper into the red, which is what happened.

But Philips had another angle too—one that was on its face harder to counter: the A400M would assist the military in reorienting its strategic priorities away from outward theatre defence, towards African peacekeeping. It would also bring an end to the practice of contracting extremely dubious Russian and Ukrainian air freight operators to fly troops and equipment to the Democratic Republic of Congo and other hotspots.

The ageing Ilyushin 76 and Antonov 12 cargo planes that squat on the runway at OR Tambo were not only poorly maintained and dangerous, some of them were involved in ferrying weapons and contraband minerals too, and from the very rebel bands South African troops were helping to keep under control.

The excitement in Philips’s voice was undisguised as he told me how a Rooivalk attack helicopter would be able to fit into the belly of an A400M for transport to Bujumbura or Entebbe.

The fact is, however, that a major upgrade of the airforce’s fleet of Hercules C-130s had just been completed and more could have been bought cheaply from the United States. Worse, there was no tender process for the A400M, neither was there any kind of defence review, setting out the shift in strategic priorities and justifying the expenditure before Parliament.

On the contrary, a follow-up to the original defence review that justified the 1999 arms deal was just getting under way in Kader Asmal’s parliamentary portfolio committee on defence. That public process would ultimately be cancelled and the review conducted in secret within the defence secretariat. Its results were due for presentation to Cabinet a year ago, but we have heard nothing substantial about the outcome.

Erwin and Philips justified the lack of a tender process on the basis that this was no ordinary purchase. The participation of Denel, and the politically connected private company Aerosud, meant we were “partners” with Airbus, rather than buyers.

At R8-billion, or R47-billion, that was bullshit of the most obvious kind.

Airbus Military, in its reaction to the Cabinet announcement on Thursday, said it was “studying the possible financial and industrial impact” of the cancellation. That is probably supposed to be a disguised threat to pull the manufacturing contracts. If so, it is an implausible one. The entire programme has been repeatedly delayed, and it seems unlikely that Airbus, or its troubled parent, EADS, would sanction further delays just to take revenge on South Africa.

Either way, while we celebrate the government’s decision, we must remember the larger point: the government is proceeding with other large defence procurements, not least the landward defence programme, “Hoefyster”, in the absence of any kind of robust parliamentary process. That must change. A reorientation of military priorities is more than welcome, but it would be nice if someone told us about it before we commit billions to another pig in a poke.

Nic Dawes

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