Chipa Gonditi/Tinashe Kairiza
THE Joint Operations Command (Joc), which brings together the army, police and intelligence service chiefs, convened an urgent meeting after the country’s aviation traffic control system broke down on Monday, disrupting flights, after Zimbabwean airspace was temporarily closed.
The latest breakdown of the radar and aviation traffic control system, while confirming that the country has become a dangerous flying zone, was also seen as a great security risk, considering that undesirable elements could have flown in and out of the country undetected.
Given Zimbabwe’s strategic position in the Southern African Development Community, the breakdown of the control system was also seen as a threat to the region’s security, in view of the number of flights in and out of the region which pass through Zimbabwe’s airspace.
Aviation and security sources this week told the Zimbabwe Independent that a Joc meeting was urgently convened on Monday to deliberate on the matter which rattled security chiefs, prompting them to task Air Force of Zimbabwe commander Elson Moyo to send technicians to the airport to repair the radar and air traffic control system.
Joc is the supreme organ for the coordination of state security in Zimbabwe.“After the aviation radar system broke down at the Robert Mugabe International Airport on Monday, the Air Force commander was asked to send staff from the Air Force to fix the problem. The situation was made worse because air traffic control staff were practically on strike and were not helping the situation,” a security official said.
“A meeting was called where a decision was made to procure a new radar and traffic control system by mid-December. While this breakdown was only for a few hours, on some occasions the system has
been down for almost 24 hours, meaning air traffic can pass through or land undetected.“This also means mercenaries can fly in and out without being detected. It’s a serious security matter, not just an aviation matter, hence the intervention of Joc. There was also concern that smuggling syndicates were also taking advantage of the constant breakdown of the radar system to fly some minerals, particularly diamonds and gold, out of the country.”
The Air Traffic Controllers Association of Zimbabwe has been urging the government to upgrade the communication system in the country for the past two years, but to no avail. They wrote a letter to Transport minister Joel Biggie Matiza last month expressing concern over the shambolic “Air Traffic Control VHF Communications Systems”.
“Our air safety letter issued in September 2017 and May 2019 refers. We note with concern the continued deterioration in air navigation communication performance. There have been several cases in which there was total loss of Air Traffic Services (ATS) Air Ground communications in the upper airspace. Worst case scenarios include the 25th of September, 2019, 29th September 2019 and 16 October 2019, where there was communication blackout lasting a whole day,” the letter reads.
“This chaotic and dangerous situation persisted on October 18 and continues to be experienced now and then. The Air Traffic Controllers Association of Zimbabwe (ATCAZ) has on several occasions called for the urgent replacement of the obsolete communication system. Air Ground Communications is a fundamental and mandatory requirement for a functional ATS unit without which Air Traffic Controllers are incapacitated to actively prevent collisions.”
On numerous occasions, Zimbabwe has relied on neighbouring South Africa for radar assistance information relating to gauging the altitude of planes flying over Zimbabwean airspace.
The letter, seen by the Independent, was copied to Civil Aviation Authority of Zimbabwe (Caaz) acting director-general Margret Mantiziba and director of air navigation and technical services Blessing Ngwarai.
The correspondence also casts light on the dangers that could arise from running an obsolete aviation radar system, including the risks of aircraft collision, failure to promptly identify distressed aircraft, delays and increased operating costs of airlines.
Other risks associated with running a shambolic aviation radar system include “losses of revenue as aircraft avoid the space and portrayal of the country in bad light”.
Importantly, Zimbabwe risked being blacklisted by International Civil Aviation Organisation “due to failure to meet a basic mandatory requirement” the documents warn.
Running and maintaining the aviation radar technology has been a theatre of fierce contestation between Caaz and the country’s security apparatus.As reported by the Independent on December 21, 2018, the country has struggled to find a new radar system after Matiza and Caaz general manager David Chawota allegedly facilitated the awarding of a US$33,3 million tender to Indrastemas & Homt Espana of South Africa for air traffic control equipment without following public procurement procedure.
Although Indrastemas & Homt were initially awarded the tender in 2016, the deal was set aside after a competing Italian firm, Selex ES, won a Supreme Court case challenging the decision on the grounds that the tender did not go through procedures specified by law.
In addition, Indrastemas & Homt did not pass a critical security vetting process by the Central Intelligence Organisation (CIO) and the Air Force of Zimbabwe, as well as other security agencies.
Official documents seen by the Independent last year in December show that Chawota played a pivotal role in ensuring Indra was irregularly awarded the deal, while Caaz officials told this newspaper that the minister authorised it after intense lobbying.
In a letter dated May 2, 2018 and seen by the Independent, Chawota wrote to the Procurement Authority of Zimbabwe (Praz) advising the body to cancel yet another deal with South African company AME Aviation, which Caaz had engaged to supply an air traffic communication system and instead award it to Indra.
However, he emphasised that the urgent need to replace the dilapidated aviation control system.In the letter, Chawota argued that a formal tender would cause further delays in implementing the project, adding that this would result in it being completed by the end of this year.
“The authority (Caaz) needs to proceed without further delay and procure a replacement air traffic management system to ensure safety of air traffic control within Zimbabwe. The Indra implementation schedule will result in project completion by the end of 2018,” Chawota wrote.
“There is dire need to address the communications deficiency in the Zimbabwe airspace in order to comply with international standards and stem out the concerns already raised by major airlines such as South African Airways. Praz is requested to approve the authority to cancel the contract with AME and engage Indra Sistemas for the supply of the required equipment.”
The military has now taken over the procurement of the radar and aviation communication system.