N ALL-TOO-RARE success story on the troubled African continent, Botswana gained its independence in 1966 through the peaceful transition of power, having been the British protectorate of Betchuanaland since 1885. Covering an area of 582,000 sq miles (54,000m2) and with a population of only 1.5 million, much of the country is a vast wilderness of desert and grassland, with some of Africa’s finest wildlife reserves. A well-regulated tourist industry provided the greater part of its foreign earnings, but the discovery of diamond and mineral reserves shortly after independence ensured Botswana’s long-term economic security.
With a peaceable, democratic government in place, a military presence was deemed unnecessary until the mid-1970s, when escalating problems in neighbouring Rhodesia led to repeated incursions into Botswanan territory by Rhodesian forces on the trail of ZAPU (Zimbabwe African People’s Union) guerrillas, led by Joshua Nkomo. The Botswana Defence Force (BDF) was formed under Parliamentary Act BDF No.13 in April 1977, and the Air Wing received its first equipment, a Britten Norman BN-2A Defender, in September that year. The second Defender to be delivered (OA-2) had an unfortunate history: not only was it impounded following a forced landing in Nigeria on its delivery flight from the UK, but it was written off in May 1978. A further five Defenders were delivered between 1978 and 1981, including a replacement for OA-2. Despite many hazardous missions in the early years, most of these Defenders are still in service, there being only one further loss when 0A-4 was involved in a fatal accident while taking off from Kasane in 2001. With the help of a British instructor and a pair of Cessna 152s, a training element was formed in 1979 to be based, alongside the Defenders, at Notwane airfield close to the capital Gaberone.
To enhance the BDF’s transport capability a pair of Short Skyvans was purchased in 1979 and also based at Notwane, as were six British Aerospace Bulldogs acquired to replace the Cessnas in 1980. One of the Cessnas remained on strength until recently, when it was relegated to ground instructional use with the BDF Technical Training School.
The Bulldogs, selected after stiff competition from the Saab Safari, served in the basic training role for over ten years before being replaced in their turn by Pilatus PC-7s in 1990. Only one Bulldog was lost in a fatal accident in 1982, and the survivors were returned to the UK for sale on the civilian market. The proven success of Defender operations led to an order being placed for two BN-2-111 Trislanders.These were delivered in September 1984 and served until they were sold locally in 1991, following delivery of two Airtech CN-235Ms, the first of these being handed over in January 1988.
The same year, a British Aerospace 125-800 was procured for VIP operations. Delivered in June, it was involved in an incident on August 7 that once again illustrated the volatile situation in the region. Following an attack by an Angolan MiG-23, it was damaged and forced to land in Angola, and despite being repaired soon afterwards, it was sold and replaced by another BAe-125 in 1990.
Helicopter operations, which had started in 1985 with the delivery of a pair of AS350B Ecureils, soon became an important part of the BDF’s capability, these being joined by three Bell 412SPs in 1988. Follow-on orders for both types have since been delivered: eight AS-350s and seven Bell 412s are currently in use.
A further significant increase in capability came about in 1988 when nine refurbished former Kuwaiti AF BAe Strikemasters were delivered from the UK to operate in the light strike role. These were supplemented in 1994 by four ex-Kenyan AF examples, three of which acted as attrition replacements. From the outset, the Strikemasters operated from Francistown, in the northeast of the country, close to the Zimbabwean border, making use of hangars once used by the Wenela mining company and its fleet of Douglas DC-4s.
Strikemaster operations continued at Francistown until 1995 when they moved south to a new base being constructed close to the town of Molepolole, 62 miles (100km) northwest of Gaberone. Given the name Thebephatshwa (’Colourful Shield’ in Setswana, the Botswana language), the base is now one of the largest military installations in southern Africa, covering an area of some 13 sq miles (34km2). Constructed principally by French, South African, British and Italian contractors, the base has become the home of the headquarters of the BDF Air Wing, along with four operational squadrons and support units.
The opening of the new facility led to many changes, not least of which was the closure of the old Notwane airfield in 1995. This has been swallowed up in the expansion of Gaberone and now forms part of the city’s university. Of the aircraft and units once based there, the Defenders moved north to Francistown to form Z12 Squadron and were joined there by ten Cessna 0-2s of Z3 Squadron, donated the previous year by the United States Government for use on anti-rhino poaching operations.
The remainder of the transport element — two CN-235S and a pair of newly-acquired CASA 212s — moved to Thebephatshwa with the training and helicopter squadrons.
Due to the distance of the new base from the capital, the VIP flight now operates from Gaberone’s Sir Seretse Kharma International Airport with a Gulfstream IV (which replaced the BAe-125 in 1991), a Beech 200 King Air and a Bell 412EP, which was acquired in 2002.
The ageing ВАС 167 Strikemasters were withdrawn in 1997, and most of them sold to a UK dealer to be replaced by 13 former Canadian AF CF-5A/ CF-5Ds in a deal brokered by Bristol Aerospace. Consisting of ten single-seat CF-5As and three dual-seat CF-5Ds, plus pre-delivery systems upgrades, logistical support and maintenance training, the first deliveries took place in September 1996. They continued through to October 1997, the aircraft being delivered direct into the base on board Antonov 124 freighters. Such an advance in capability and technology has proven to be a challenge and pilots spend time in the US on T-38s to transition from the BDF’s own PC-7s.
Two further CF-5Ds were acquired in 2000 to enhance the squadron’s training capabilities. That only one aircraft has been lost since the introduction is a tribute to the success of the programme. In 1996 the US Government offered South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe a number of surplus C-130Bs; South Africa and Botswana accepted six and two respectively with the first delivery to the BDF taking place in 1997. Three are now in service with Z10 transport squadron, greatly enhancing the BDF’s logistical capabilities.
The BDF Air Wing now has some of the finest facilities in the region. Some types — such as the Cessna 0-2 and earlier Defenders — are in need of replacement and an intermediate trainer may be sought, but it can look forward to the future with some optimism.