Zimbabwe Air Force

After independence the air force, under the command of an air marshal, continued to be staffed largely with white pilots and technicians who had served with the Rhodesian Air Force. Their future role became questionable in 1982, however, when white involvement was suspected in the sabotage of thirteen of the service's combat aircraft at Thomhill and when the air force's deputy commander, Air Vice Marshal Hugh Slatter, and other high-ranking officers were subsequently arrested. Regardless of the outcome, it was thought that their detention would have a potentially damaging effect on morale and could lead to increased attrition as the service contracts of whites expired.

Because of the difficulties of procuring new aircraft during the period 1965-79 when international sanctions were used against Rhodesia, the air force operated an exceptionally old fleet of aircraft. Most of them had been delivered in the 1950s and early 1960s to serve with the Central African Federation and were kept functioning by superb maintenance that combined with a dry but dust-free climate, which minimized abrasion and corrosion of equipment.

Four reconditioned Hawker Hunter FGA.9 fighter-bombers joined others in Number One Squadron in 1981, giving the air force a total of thirteen aircraft of that type, but about six of these were destroyed in the sabotage action at Thornhill in 1982. A bomber unit (Number Five Squadron) operated seven English Electric Canberra medium bombers of early 1950s vintage; these had been kept operable during the war by cannibalizing several others of the type that had been grounded owing to main spar fatigue. Vampire strike-trainer iet aircraft, of a type that had first become operational in 1946 and that had served in the country for nearly thirty years, were finally withdrawn from service with Number Two Squadron in mid-1982, after which the first four of eight British Aerospace Hawks were delivered as replacements. The new planes became victims of sabotage within days after their arrival.

The air force also operated a squadron of ten propeller-driven Lynx aircraft, providing observation and a light strike capability, a transp rt squadron equipped mainly with twelve Douglas C-47s of pre-World War II design, and two helicopter squadrons of Frenchbuilt Alouette Ills and American/Italian Bell 205s, which Rhodesia had received in violation of sanctions. Base security was the primary responsibility of an air force regiment of 1,000 former guerrillas divided into two physical security groups, one stationed at Thornhill and one at New Sarum.

In the two years since independence the air force, which was heavily involved in counterinsurgency operations against Matabeleland dissidents in 1982, worked to maintain combat effectiveness. An extensive training program designed to bring Africans into the service aimed at providing the new personnel a high level of proficiency. The task was a difficult one: of a total authorized manned strength of 2,900, less than 900 were pilots and technicians, and -qany of these were trainees. Four hundred others, all of them Pnm-Africans, continued to serve in the volunteer reserve. In 1982 more than thirty fixed-wing combat aircraft and thirty-seven helicopters as well as transport and training aircraft were divided amlong seven operational squadrons. Air units were located primarily at New Sarum Air Station near Harare and at Thornhill near Gweru. They also had access to numerous smaller civilian and military airstrips around the country, including several equipped with hard-surfaced runways.

Most of the veteran white pilots and technicians serving in the air force at independence had been trained primarily by Britain and, after UDI, by South Africa. In the early 1980s a new generation of airmen was receiving most of its instruction in Zimbabwe. The air force had received offers of training from a number of countries, including Pakistan, Romania, the United States, Canada, Egypt, Nigeria, and Britain. The high command, however, was examining the cost-effectiveness of such training in terms of its relevance to aircraft in Zimbabwe's inventory and to the air force's organizational patterns and operational concepts.

The Air Force School of Flying Training operated at Thornhill where Number Six Squadron, equipped with propeller-driven SIAIMarchetti SF.260s, was oriented entirely to flight training. In 1982 carefully selected recruits aged seventeen to twenty-five went through a one-month basic training course followed by six months of general military classroom instruction. Only after that point did ground school begin; it was followed by 225 hours of flight training-including twenty-five hours of weapons familiarization and fifty hours in jetsafter which the cadet received his wings. In 1982 five African pilots who had previous flight training from Romania and Cuba had received their wings. The rest of some 100 pilots in the force were white, although roughly half the pilot trainees at that time were blacks.

The School of Technical Training was located at New Sarum air base. After independence an extensive air force campaign was launched to recruit young Africans with high grades and ability in mathematics or science. Recruits were supposed to undergo a two-month regimental basic training program followed by four months of extensive course work in sciences and technical subjects. At that poirt the recruit was to become an apprentice specializing in air frames, engines, radio and radar electronics, aircraft electrical systems, mechanics, or metalwork. If after thirty months of apprenticeship a trainee's performance was deemed unsatisfactory, he was to be dismissed from the service. If succesful, h e could receive further instruction and experience for thirty months before becoming a journeyman.

In the two years after independence, some specialized training was done abroad in Britain, the United States, and other countries to relieve overburdened Zimbabwean fiacilities. The air force suffered from a dearth of trained technicians lured away by lucrative opportunities in the private sector and in other countries. To retain its technically qualified people, the air force required recruits to sign a contract binding them to serve for ten years. In addition a law passed in 1981 prohibited veterans who left the service from working for a private Zimbabwean company until six months after their discharge.

Because of its wartime experience, the air force was thought by observers to be highly qualified in its ground attack role, but because of the lack of an effective radar network, the limitations of its old aircraft, and the destruction of several of its relatively powerful Hawker Hunters, the service's air defense capability was weak. Nonetheless air defense was boosted somewhat with the formation in 1981 of two air defense groups having a combined manned strength of about 1,000. The two units, largely composed of former guerrillas based at Thornhill and New Sarum, used Soviet-designed antiaircraft artillery: ZPU 14.5mm heavy machine guns and various types of ZSU 23mm guns and 37mm guns (none of them self-propelled) from guerrilla stocks. To improve its capabilities further, the air force had contracted with the British firm Plessey to establish a new airborne early warning radar system to be based at Gweru.

The government was also seeking to acquire modem fighter interceptors and reportedly had expressed an interest in the United States-made F-E as an eventual replacement for the Hunters, but despite the increased need after the sabotage, funding problems could delay a decision on the choice of aircraft idefinitely. Observers expected that the resulting combat force, if morale improved after the 1982 upheavals, would be more powerful than the forces of all the country's neighbors except South Africa-and even in the latter case strong enough to pose a credible deterrent to possible intimidation by the South African air force.

On 14 April 1987 a Zimbabwean Government official denied reports that the country had bought 12 MIG-29 jet fighters from the Soviet Union. The official, Ernest Kadungure, Minister of State for Defense, said in Parliament that the reports about the purchase of MIG-29's were mere ''rumors and speculation.'' But Kadungure did not specify if such a sale was being negotiated or if it had been discussed and then rejected. The reports in the Zimbabwean and foreign press, quoting unidentified United States sources, said Zimbabwe wanted the jet fighters as defense against possible air attacks from South Africa. The reports said the agreement would involve 180 Soviet military advisers to fly and maintain the jets and would cost about $385 million. These would have been the most advanced fighters in the region, far superior to anything then in the inventory of any other Southern African air force.

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