Botswana gives boost to new fighter jet procurement

Botswana new fighter jet
The Lockheed Martin F-16, Saab Gripen, Leonardo M-346 and KAI T-50 fighters are currently under evaluation by Botswana.

Botswana's search for a new fighter jet has picked up speed after a period of stalemate. The Botswana Defense Force's (BDF's) procurement plan has been revitalized by the large defense budget allocated by the Ministry of Defence, Justice and Security.

The race to modernize the Botswana Defense Force started way back in 2013, but the road has been somewhat tortuous. The service has repeatedly stressed the need to replace the old Canadair CF-5 Freedom Fighter fleet which currently consists of 10 F-5A fighters and 3 F-5D trainers, all purchased second-hand from Canada in 1996.

However, the nation's budget woes have repeatedly stalled business. In order to save money, BDF Air Arm Commander Gen. Odirile Mashinyana proposed in 2013 to upgrade the F-5 fleet instead of buying new aircraft.

"It has been found that while it is profitable to continue using the BF-5, the change in air power dynamics in the SADC region is making the BF-5 strategically obsolete," the report says. "The BF-5 can be equipped with modern weapon systems and can continue to defend the nation for the next 10 years, but the cost-benefit analysis so far suggests it would not offer the BDF good value for money. Therefore, we recommend keeping the BF-5 platform, but switching to the BF-5E variant instead."

This option did not satisfy the defense which in November 2013 started talks with Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) for a possible acquisition of the T-50 and FA-50 aircraft. This interest was later reiterated during a visit to South Korea by former Botsawo president Ian Khama in October 2015.

In 2014, Gaborone also considered buying Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon, but rumors said the United States vetoed the export. Washington reportedly claimed that Botswana did not need such expensive military equipment and that the acquisition of the F-16 could potentially trigger an arms race in the SADC region.

In 2016, Botswana also began targeting the Swedish Gripen with Saab having offered eight to twelve second-hand JAS-39C/D Gripen fighters. Negotiations with Sweden broke down after Ian Khama resigned.

In 2018, KAI renewed its efforts to sell its FA-50 Golden Eagle light fighter to the nation. However, the military leadership in Gaborones expressed their concern over the FA-50. They believe that although the Korean aircraft is well tested, its operational capabilities are not comparable to those of the Gripen which boasts greater autonomy, better radar and weapons loading capacity.

The defense leaders also argue that the purchase of Gripen would favor military interoperability with the neighboring nation, South Africa, which operates the JAS-39C/D. BDF could benefit from South Africa's Gripen training and maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) infrastructure.

During a parliamentary meeting of the Public Accounts Committee, the BDF commander Lt. Gen. Gaolathe Galebotswe said that "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."

However, as the nation continues to try to figure out which type of aircraft simultaneously meets the government's portfolio and the right operational capability, the BDF has put forward a new demand for the replacement of the rapidly degrading fleet. Defense, Justice and Security Minister Kagiso Mmusi recently said that although they have received a large part of the available budget, it will not only be used for the purchase of jets, but also for helicopters, landing systems and radar. This means the funds for the new fighter are however limited.

The renewed call for new aircraft has mobilized several manufacturers, they include Lockheed Martin (F-16), Saab (Gripen), Leonardo (M-346) and KAI (T-50/FA-50). The Brazilian company Embraer also entered the tender by offering the Super Tucano turboprop aircraft, but it seems to have not met the requirements of the BDF.

Written by Matteo Sanzani

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