The search to replace the legacy Canadair CF-5 Freedom Fighters operated by the Botswana Defence Force (BDF) Air Arm has picked up speed.
Since 2013, the BDF has repeatedly voiced out its concerns about finding a suitable combat aircraft to replace its aging fighter jet fleet. The BDF operates 14 F-5A fighter jets and F-5D trainers bought from Canada in 1996.
A cost saving measure was proposed in a report published in 2013 by the head of the BDF’s air arm, Major General Odirile Mashinyana, who had recommended upgrading the F-5 (BF-5) fighter fleet rather than acquiring new aircraft, due to funds constraints.
The report further stated that even though the BDF Air Arm is clearly lagging behind comparative country’s in the region, particularly in the area of air capabilities, however, by upgrading the F-5s, Botswana could keep them airworthy for at least another ten years thereby saving the funds for acquring new aircraft.
“It is found even though it is cost-effective to continue using the BF-5, the changing dynamics of air-power in the SADC region are rendering the BF-5 strategically obsolete,” the report said. “The BF-5 can be equipped with modern day weaponry systems and can continue defending the nation for the next 10 years but the cost-benefit analysis so far suggest it would not give BDF value-for-money. As thus we advise that the BF-5 platform should be kept, but instead change to the BF-5E variant.”
However, in November 2013, Botswana Defence Minister, Ramadeluka Seretse, and other BDF officials had talks with South Korea’s Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) on the possible acquisition of the T-50 and FA-50 aircraft, the talk cumulated in President Ian Khama takinh a follow-on visit to South Korea and KAI in October 2015.
An attempt to procure F-16 Fighting Falcon jets In 2014 from the General Dynamics was vetoed by the US which stated l that Botswana did not need such expensive military hardware, and that procuring the F-16 could potentially spark an arms race in the SADC region.
Interests in the KAI T-50/FA-50 fighter/trainer jet had waned because by 2016, Botswana had shifted its interest to Saab’s JAS-39C/D, with Sweden offering eight to twelve JAS-39C/D Gripen fighters at a reported cost of $1.7 billion. Subsequently, former Botswana President Khama visited Saab’s facilities in Sweden between June 19 and 21, were he met Swedish Prime Minister, Stefan Lofven. However, not much came out of the Gripen endeavor after former president Ian Khama left office.
The efforts to acquire the Gripens has been frustrated by budgetary constraints as the Ministry of Defence and Security does not have the money needed to proceed with the acquisition, the 2013 report explained.
Now, Botswana is exploring purchasing a different aircraft from the Swedish Gripens following President Mokgweetsi Masisi’s ascension to office and after a public backlash on the high cost costs of the Gripen fighter jets which cost around P16 billion at the time.
Furthermore, a May 2017 report written by KAI and Titled “FA-50 for the Botswana Defence Force: The right choice for the future” claimed that the Gripen’s life-cycle cost was “three times” that of the FA-50, with higher acquisition and operating costs.
Seeing the uncertainty in choosing a new fighter jet, South Korea’s Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) in 2018 renewed its efforts to sell its FA-50 Golden Eagle lightweight fighter to the Botswana Defence Force (BDF).
However, Gaborones military leadership voiced concerns that even though the FA-50’s is a proven aircraft (and according to KAI, the FA-50’s radar, avionics and weapons suite are comparable to the Gripen C/D, HAL Tejas and PAC JF-17 Thunder) however, its operational capabilities is not equal with the Swedish aircraft, which offers longer combat radius, combat radius, payload/range and ferry range and significantly greater radar and weapons capabilities.
A Gripen buy is being pitched by some other Gaborone military leadership due to it’s potential interoperability with Botswana’s neighbour, South Africa, which also operates the JAS-39C/D. This could allow the BDF to take advantage of South Africa’s Gripen training and maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) infrastructure.
Even though the The paper also quoted BDF sources as saying the military’s desire to acquire Gripens has been frustrated by budgetary constraints as the Ministry of Defence and Security does not have the money needed to proceed with the acquisition.
During a parliamentary Public Accounts Committee briefing, BDF commander Lt. Gen. Gaolathe Galebotswe explained that “The Gripen fits our requirements and could give us a certain edge over our competitors. F-5s have become unsustainable for the BDF. We needed something that is cost-effective but still capable of carrying out our aerial defense mandate because we should have the capability to operate in both contested and uncontested space. I am talking about revitalizing BDF,” Galebotswe said.
“The current F-5 planes once gave us the essential reach in terms of air defense capabilities. In looking for a replacement, we considered the [US-made] F-16, Russian MiG variants, the [JAS] Gripen and some Chinese jets. The Gripen was found to have the lowest operating costs,” he said. “So if this deal happens, it will be between the governments of Botswana and Sweden.”
Over time, as the serviceability and usability of the BF-5Es is declining, there’s renewed call for replacing the fleet. The Botswana Defence Force has been allocated P14.8 billion ($1.35 billion) for the National Development Plan 11, which runs from 2017 to 2023.
According to the minister, government has invested heavily in establishment of the BDF Air Wing. “We need to maintain it and not let it collapse,” he emphasised. “We have trained pilots (who) need to be provided with air assets.”
Since the renewed call for aircraft began early last year, several aircraft manufacturer have pitched their products to the BDF, these includes General Dynamics with its F-16 Fighting Falcon, SAAB with the JAS 39 Gripen, Leonardo (formerly Alenia Aermacchi with the M-346 Master , and KAI with the T-50/FA-50.
Last year, Botswana indicated its interest in procuring the US-made F-16 fighter jet which has enjoyed some export success in Africa, Lockheed has already sold F-16s to Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt.