Botswana is still actively seeking a replacement aircraft for it’s aging Canadair CF-5 Freedom Fighters.
The Botswana Air Force operates fourteen modernized F-5A fighter jets and F-5D trainers (locally designated as BF-5s) acquired in 1996 from Canada to replace the BAC Strikemasters.
The deal which was worth around $50 million came along with spares and accessories, including 20 mm aircraft cannons.
At the time, the government was criticised due to the high cost of acquisition and operation of the CF-5s for a country which has only 1.5 million inhabitants and a high degree of the population living below poverty level.
A standing Defence Industrial Cooperation Memorandum of Understanding between Botswana and Canada signed in November 1999 ensures that the aircraft will continue to be maintained by Bristol Aircraft Corporation.
A plan to upgrade the aircraft to the E-model mid-2017 to continue serving for the next 10 years as a cost-saving measure was shelved.
Since then, the serviceability of the BF-5Es has declined, there’s renewed call for replacing the fleet. As of 2004, only 16 aircraft was in service, the fleet was later grounded in late 2011 due to lack of serviceable ejector seats.
In due course, the serviceability issue may have likely caused a number of crashes in recent times. On 18 April 2002, a BF-5 jet crashed at Thebephatshwa Air Base during a routine flight, killing the pilot.
In the same fashion, on 27 April 2018, a day before BDF Day, another BF-5 fighter aircraft crashed at the Gaborone Golf Club during aerobatic rehearsals, also killing the pilot.
To replace the BF-5s, the Botswana Defence Force (BDF) was allocated P14.8 billion ($1.35 billion) funding under the National Development Plan 11 for the Fiscal Year 2017-23 to modernize its capabilities.
Aircraft makers, General Dynamics for F-16s, Saab JAS-39, Leonardo M-346, and KAI T-50/FA-50 made offers to Botswana.
Defence Minister Ramadeluka Seretse on November 2013 had discussions with South Korea’s Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) on the possible acquisition of the T-50 and FA-50 aircraft. Although, it appears that negotiations have stalled likely due to funding constraints.
Attempts to acquire high-end F-16s was vetoed by the United States government which stated at the time that Botswana did not need such expensive military hardware, and that procuring the F-16 could potentially spark an arms race in the SADC region.
The inability to procure one of the two aircraft, left Botswana to look elsewhere. In 2016, Sweden offered twelve JAS-39C/D Gripen fighters at a reported cost of $1.7 billion, with former Botswana President Khama visiting Saab’s facilities in Sweden in June to meet the Swedish Prime Minister, Stefan Lofven.
Botswana Defence Force leadership has indicated their preference for the SAAB JAS-39C/D because it will offer the advantage of the interoperability with Botswana’s neighbour, South Africa, allowing access to training and maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) infrastructure.