Monday, 18 March 2013

From Fledgling to Eagle: The Development of the South African Air Force - Brig-Gen Dick Lord

The information presented was written by Chris Buckham; however, it was published in The Canadian Aviation Historical Society Journal. Therefore, the material is reproduced here by the author with the permission of the journal. If you would like to republish this information or refer to excerpts please contact the Editor CAHS Journal ( Website for the Journal is:

Title: From Fledgling to Eagle: The Development of the South African Air Force
Author: Brig-Gen Dick Lord
ISBN: 9781920143305
Pages: 528
Illustrations: 40 colour, extensive b/w
Publisher: 30 Degrees South Publishers

    Brig-Gen (Ret’d) Dick Lord’s book ‘From Fledgling to Eagle’ traces the development of the South African Air Force (SAAF) from its conception to the end of the Bush War period in 1989. The book commences with a synopsis of the relationship that South Africa has with the international community and the background behind its gradual isolation on the world stage. This sets the environment for the reader and provides context for the main thrust of the book which encompasses the doctrinal and technological development of the airforce during the period of the Bush War years, 1974 to 1989. Interwoven with this, Lord skillfully lays out the main activities/operations of the airforce in support of ground and air operations throughout this period. He also incorporates the regional political and international hurdles that affected the operational effectiveness and capability of the SAAF.   

    Lord covers the efforts of fixed wing fighter, transport and rotary wing assets in such a way as to clearly identify their successes and challenges in support of the air and ground campaign against the African forces of SWAPO (South West Africa People’s Organization), MPLA (Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola) and the Eastern block countries that supported them. He seamlessly shifts from the strategic view of operations (such as discussion of the international embargo on certain technologies and their affect on local development and capability) to the operational (looking at the development of the Fireforce concept of operations) and the tactical (where he discusses in detail the development and execution of operations such as Op Cassinga). 

    His detailed evaluation of Op Cassinga is of particular interest to the reader as it represents the developmental peak and execution of the Fireforce doctrine. Fireforce represented a joint doctrine that entailed close operational and tactical support between land forces, rotary wing infil/exfil, fast air support and operational command and control from an additional onsite airborne platform. This doctrine developed to a great extent from the effects of the international embargo and the regional requirements of asymmetric warfare against the African forces in Angola/South West Africa. It clearly underlines the ability of the SAAF to draw upon lessons learned in the regional conflicts of Rhodesia and SWA.

    From Fledgling to Eagle is written in an extremely engaging style that brings the reader into the forefront of operations throughout the border wars. The depth and breadth of detail that BGen Lord brings to his narrative sheds a great deal of light on the transition of the SAAF into an elite asymmetric engagement force. He does not ignore the opposition however. Concurrent to his tracking the advancement of the SAAF, Lord recognizes the exponential improvement in the capabilities of the SWAPO and MPLA adversaries. They became increasingly hazardous to the SAAF as the primary source of advisors and weapons, the Soviet Union, started providing advanced ground to air weapons systems. Additionally, these groups were reinforced by Angolan (Angola not only overtly supported them but also provided sanctuary for the insurgent groups) and Cuban regular forces. Lord acknowledges and speaks to the bravery of the individual insurgent soldier but is harsh in his criticism of the naiveté of the international community and the leadership of the insurgent groups.

    Additionally, of particular interest is the explanation of the different systems used by the SAAF to intelligence gather and to strike at their adversaries. For example, the SAAF initiated the use of the remotely piloted Seeker UAV, a pusher-propeller driven system that used an onboard data capturing system to record anything of interest. Lord draws attention to a number of the local developments involving weapons systems and command and control functions that augment SAAF effectiveness.

    The production value of this book is very high. Included are in depth appendices that relate tactical innovation of fixed wing operations, comprehensive listing of operations and an outline of SAAF loses throughout the Bush War.

    There is no question that the SAAF proactively recognized the transient nature of operations during the Bush War period. This in turn led to the development of doctrine and tactics in order to facilitate adaption to the new operating environment. BGen Lord’s book traces these changes while at the same time putting a human face on the SAAF. Through his use of personal and institutional anecdote, he provides the reader with both intimate and professional insight into an institution of which he is obviously very proud. A great read and very highly recommended for those interested in the development and unfolding of air operations in South Africa during the turbulent Bush War years. 

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