Air Weapons: South African Renaissance


December 26, 2019: In late 2019 Brazil and the South African state-owned defense firm Denel completed development of the A-Darter short-range air-to-air missile. Brazil provided the cash to finish the development of A-Darter, which will be license built in Brazil as well as in South Africa. Initial customers are the Brazilian and South African air forces, for use on the Swedish made Gripen jet fighters both countries operate, as well as other jet fighters. Work on A (for agile) Darter began in 1995 as an effort to develop a modern South African air-to-air missile. At the same time Denel had developed, in cooperation with an Israeli firm, the R-Darter which was a longer-range radar-guided missile. A-Darter development was hampered by a lack of development funds and that was overcome with a Brazilian development partnership.

A-Darter is an 89 kg (196 pound) missile that is 2.98 meters (117 inches) long. It uses a laser proximity fuse and has a max range of 22 kilometers. A-Darter is similar to and competitive with the American AIM-9X Sidewinder, which is considered the standard for missiles of this type.

The Sidewinder, the original heat-seeking air-to-air missile, entered service in the late 1950s and has been the most effective air-to-air missile ever produced. The first Sidewinder (AIM-9B) was 3 meters (9.3 feet) long, weighed 71 kg (156 pounds), and had a max range of five kilometers. The most current model, the AIM-9X, is the same size, weighs 87 kg (191 pounds), and has a max range of over 20 kilometers. All models have a warhead weighing about 10 kg (22 pounds). The AIM-9X can go after the target from all angles, as can A-Darter, while the AIM-9B could only be used from directly behind the target. The AIM-9X is about seven times more likely to bring down the target than the AIM-9B. The 9X entered service in 2000, but the older 9M is nearly as accurate, although without the additional flexibility and capabilities. A-Darter costs less than Sidewinder, and most other similar missiles, and Denel is flexible in allowing licensed local production. Currently, A-Darter upgrades continue to be developed and implemented. If Denel can survive, so will A-Darter.

Denel was formed in the 1990s as South Africa abandoned decades of minority rule by whites. South Africa had faced increasing sanctions by the West in the 1960s because of its minority rule where only whites, 19 percent of the population, could vote. Until the 1960s South Africa had been buying most of its weapons from Western nations. With the sanctions, South Africa had to build most of its own weapons. That led to the development of a large number of local manufacturers that produced world-class weapons and sold them to whoever could pay. That, like the minority government, was not sustainable and when white minority rule ended, peacefully, in 1991 most of these firms were absorbed into the new state-owned Denel. For over a decade Denel prospered as it could legally sell to anyone and form co-development deals with a large number of foreign firms. Even China was impressed and attempted to steal Denel helicopter and missile technology in 2007. The Chinese got some of it but not all they were after.

The new South African government became increasingly corrupt and that eventually crippled Denel, which is now undergoing a reorganization in an effort to return to profitability. The corrupt politicians who crippled Denel and the South African economy, in general, are now facing a majority of voters who want them out. This has caused a political crisis that is not yet resolved. If South Africa cannot reduce government corruption then Denel and many other major South African firms will disappear.

Currently, Denel is still potentially viable, although it has shrunk in size and sales over the last five years. Denel still produces world-class weapons, including MRAPs (Mine Resistant Armor Protected) vehicles which were invented in South Africa.




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