Ever see those signs on the highway that read "speed limit enforced by aircraft"?
Well, if you're in South Africa, you might just start seeing similar signage declaring anti-poaching laws are being enforced by the country's Saab JAS 39 Gripen fighter jets.
Of course, this doesn't necessarily mean that illegal hunting could be dealt with using a JDAM strike, or even a gun run with the Gripen's 27 mm Mauser cannon. However, it definitely does herald a new mission for the South African Air Force, and brings to the forefront the struggles the country has had over the years with curbing rampant poaching across its outback.
The SAAF aims to use the Litening III pod to track poachers at night near the South Africa-Zimbabwe border. Built by Rafael Advanced Defense Systems of Israel, the Litening is widely used as to designate targets for guided munitions, enhancing their effectiveness in combat situations.
Instead of designating poachers for an airstrike, the SAAF will use Litening's reconnaissance capabilities, allowing them to see activity on the ground clearly, even while flying at night. The pod can be slung underneath the aircraft on its wings, or beneath its fuselage on a "belly pylon."
Litening has already more than proven its worth in night operations in Afghanistan and Iraq over the past 15 years.
Using a datalink developed in South Africa known as "Link ZA," information on the location of poachers as well images of them in action can be shared with other aircraft in the area, or even controllers on the ground. This would presumably be used to vector rangers on the ground to the general location of the poachers.
Poaching has been a widespread and seemingly unstoppable issue in South Africa for decades, causing an alarming decrease in the country's rhino population. Combat veterans, hired by private security companies and smaller organizations such as Vetpaw have been deployed to the area to combat poaching in recent years.
The Gripen is a multirole fighter with air-to-ground and air-to-air capabilities, serving with a number of countries across the world. Designed and manufactured in Sweden, it was built as a versatile competitor to the likes of the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, Dassault Rafale and other similar fighters of the current era.
The single-engine fighter currently flies in Thailand, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Sweden, in addition to South Africa, and will soon enter service with the Brazilian Air Force. Saab is still aggressively courting a next-generation version of the Gripen, called the Gripen NG - slightly more on par with Boeing's Advanced Super Hornet.
South Africa began taking delivery of its Gripens in 2008, purchasing a total of 26 planes — a mix of single and two-seaters. In 2013, less than half of these aircraft were operational at any given time. Slashes made to the country's defense budget forced the SAAF to limit flight operations while placing a group of its brand new fighters in storage as they could not be flown.
It was reported last year that the SAAF began rotating its Gripens in and out of storage, activating some of the mothballed fighters to return to service, while storing others to be reactivated later on. Since South Africa does not face any military threats, none of these Gripens have ever been involved in combat situations.
It's possible that using fighters in such a role might prove to be too expensive for the South African government, though, necessitating the SAAF to explore utilizing a different aircraft for its anti-poaching operations. However, this in itself could be problematic as the Litening pod can only be equipped to fighter and attack jets.
Using Gripens, orbiting high above poaching target zones, will likely turn out to be a decent interim solution while the South African government comes up with a cheaper and more cost-effective solution. Until then, poachers beware, you're being watched by state-of-the-art fighter jets in night skies above.