Author: Maj Ntokozo Ntshangase, Acting OC SAAF 

“South Africa requires a responsive and agile air defence capability to deliver airpower to defend and protect the integrity of South Africa's airspace and…..”. Also, “the air defence capability must provide deterrence and powerful interdiction during joint operations, specifically through comprehensive air domain awareness…” (Defence Review 2015: 10-11).

The increase and interest in air transportation worldwide by different economic players has caused many countries, including South Africa, to emphasize the importance of “sound airspace awareness, control, and protection”. According to the Defence Review 2015, airspace awareness is critical in light of continuous human trafficking, narcotic smuggling and possible movement of explosives and weapons by air. Thus, the Defence Review determined the “need to protect South Africa's airspace against such intrusions and against possible terror actions such as have been seen in other parts of the world…” (2015:6-3).

The South African Air Force's (SAAF) Air Picture capabilities allow the SANDF to maintain Air Defence superiority and provide airspace territorial surveillance. At the SAAF’s disposal is 140 Squadron which discharges its responsibility at the eastern side of Air Force Base (AFB) Swartkop. The squadron is responsible for the continuous airspace surveillance which could also be regarded as air policing. Through the radar system, which is manned by the squadron, the SAAF is able to conduct both air defensive and offensive duties. True to its motto: ALWAYS WATCHFUL, the Squadron provides a twenty-four-seven (24/7) airspace surveillance.

The squadron uses both primary and secondary Radio Detection and Ranging (Radar) systems to identify and track/trace aircraft activities in and outside the country’s airspace. Amongst these radars are the Mono-pulse Secondary Surveillance Radar (MSSR) and Umlindi, which provide a real-time Air Picture display with 3D multi-purpose functions.

These systems are strategically situated at the Mariepskop Reporting Post in the Province of Mpumalanga. The air picture information is relayed to the Lowveld Air Sector at AFB Hoedspruit, the Bushveld Airspace Control Sector and Air Force Command Post both at Air Force Headquarters, and at the National Joint Operational Centre at Air Force Base Swartkop East. The radar system is used in conjunction with fighter aircraft. Once the rogue, enemy or unknown aircraft, whether military or civilian, has been detected, fighter aircraft are dispatched to conduct air intercepts and force down intruders.

The historical mandate of the Mariepskop site has always been about providing “effective protection and policing of airspace, improved air safety by monitoring of airspace because of increased flying activity, and an efficient use of the country’s airspace for military as well as civilian use”.

At the centre of the SAAF’s airspace control, air defence and national security is its most prominent resource, the human element. Corporal Rofhiwa Mulaudzi, a Radar Technician from 140 Squadron currently stationed at Mariepskop Mainstay site, is one of the many professionals behind the operational serviceability of the SAAF’s radars especially the Umlindi radar. Her responsibilities include the maintenance and servicing of hardware, software, and related equipment to ensure the utmost serviceability at all times. Furthermore, she ensures that there is proper scheduling of maintenance and inspections on systems. For her, Mariepskop is like a watchdog and 140 Squadron, an eye of the Nation.

Located at AFB Hoedspruit, 514 Squadron provides protection and security services in the area. Providing proactive security services at Mariepskop is no mean feat and not for the faint-hearted. At the highest point of the mountain, surrounded by nothing but the dilapidated buildings of what used to be a fully operating base, rendering effective service goes beyond the normal call of duty. It becomes a commitment. Corporal Phetole Modjadji from 514 Squadron sees the Mariepskop as a National Key Point. For him, serving at Mariepskop is an opportunity to make a meaningful impact and contribution towards the broader national security. “The uninterrupted functioning of systems here means that the Air Force has a clear air space visibility and can provide early warning and detection, timeously. Providing security in the facility means the Defence Force is able to meet its Constitutional mandate”, he said.

The South African Air Force Command Structure salutes all components involved for their role in the country's national security and airspace control.