Best tanks and aircraft used by South Africa’s military

The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) has a range of powerful armoured vehicles and aircraft at its disposal.

Following the force’s deployment to parts of Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal last week, several videos surfaced on social media in which some of these could be seen transporting soldiers and patrolling roads in looting hotspots.

The main manufacturer of SANDF’s weaponry and vehicles, Denel, faces a severe financial crisis threatening its ability to continue supplying armaments to the force.

Fortunately, the military has several tanks, armoured vehicles, jets, and helicopters used and maintained for many years.

Most of these have been aptly named after South African animals, most often based on their appearance or abilities.

We’ve assembled a list of some of the most noteworthy armoured and/or weaponised ground and air vehicles used by SANDF.

General-purpose vehicles such as trucks and aeroplanes primarily used for utility have not been added to the list.

Weapon systems that are not self-propelled, such as artillery guns that require towing, were also excluded.

Olifant tank

  • Purpose: Main battle tank
  • Quantity: 172
  • Designer: OMC Engineering
  • First year of service: Late 1970s

The only true tank in the SANDF armoury is the Olifant, a heavily modified and modernised version of the Centurion tank, which was the main battle tank used by the British forces post-WWII.

The latest version boasts a 105mm L7 cannon, 7.62mm general-purpose co-axial machine gun, and a 7.62mm anti-aircraft machine gun in addition to a hand-held laser rangefinder and image intensifier.

Denel has also developed a main battle tank turret that can be fitted to the Olifant to support a GT8 105mm or 120mm smoothbore gun.

The tank is powered by a V12 turbo diesel engine that provides 900 horsepower and a maximum speed of 58km/h.

Many of the Olifants have been deemed unserviceable, and the fleet is set to be replaced as part of Project Aorta.

Rooikat ARV

  • Purpose: Armoured reconnaissance vehicle
  • Quantity: 240
  • Designer: Denel
  • First year of service: 1994

Although it boasts an imposing 76mm high-velocity main gun, it does not run on tracks, so the Rooikat is not considered a tank.

Nonetheless, the eight-wheeled armoured reconnaissance vehicle can handle engagements with tanks on the battlefield.

The SANDF now uses it on aggressive search-and-destroy missions and for its anti-tank and fire support capabilities.

These were the vehicles recently spotted on the streets of Durban following the deployment of the SANDF.

Credit: Dean Hutton/Bloomberg

Ratel/Honey Badger IFV

  • Purpose: Infantry fighting vehicle
  • Quantity: 1,200 – 534 in inventory, 666 in reserve
  • Designer: Springfield Büssing
  • First year of service: 1978

There is a good reason the Ratel is named after what many consider to be one of Africa’s toughest animals — the honey badger.

It was the first wheeled infantry fighting vehicle to enter service worldwide.

Many variants have been developed, with modifications to weaponry and other features based on the purpose of the vehicle.

In addition to a main turret, missile or mortar launcher, it can support a 7.62 mm Browning M1919 machine gun in a coaxial, rear ring, or turret roof setup.

The Ratel draws its power from a six-cylinder turbocharged diesel engine with 275 horsepower and can hit a top speed of 105km/h.

Credit: Twitter/Darren Olivier

Badger IFV

  • Purpose: Modifiable multi-role military vehicle
  • Quantity: 238 ordered (reduced from 264)
  • Designer: Patria Land Systems/Denel
  • First year of service: TBD

The Badger IFV is a variant of the 8×8 wheeled Patria armoured modular vehicle developed by Finnish company Patria Land Systems.

Denel is currently building it as part of Operation Hoefyster to replace the ageing Ratel fleet.

The Badger will be available in section, command, mortar, missile, and fire support models.

It comes with a modular combat turret (MCT) system, which can integrate weapon modules like the 30mm externally-driven cam-operated cannon, 60mm breech-loading long-range mortar, a 12.7mm machine gun, or an anti-tank missile system.

A Scania DC13 turbocharged diesel engine allows the Badger to reach a maximum speed of 108km/h.


Mamba APC

  • Purpose: Armoured personnel carrier
  • Quantity: 444 in service
  • Designer: Reumech OMC
  • First year of service: 1990

The four-wheeled Mamba is intended for border protection and internal security purposes and is designed to be mine and blast-proof.

The Mamba has a capacity for up to 10 passengers, excluding the driver.

It comes with a roof hatch that allows a gunner to access the weapon mount, supporting a 12.7 mm machine gun.

Mambas have also been deployed on peacekeeping missions by the United Nations and African Union throughout Africa.

Casspir IMV

  • Purpose: Mine resistant ambush protected vehicle
  • Quantity: 370
  • Designer/manufacturer: CSIR/Henred Fruehauf
  • First year of service in South Africa: 1980

The four-wheel ambush-protected troop carrier was designed by the Defence Research Unit (DRU) of the CSIR to protect soldiers against landmines during the Border War.

It can withstand a triple mine blast equivalent to the force of a 21 kg TNT explosion under a wheel or a double blast equal to 14 kg of TNT under its V-bottomed armoured hull.

In terms of weapons, it can be fitted with a triple setup of 7.62mm machine guns or a 20mm cannon.

There are also 20 firing ports from which troops in the vehicle can fire.

The infantry mobility vehicle (IMV) proved so effective that several other countries — including the United States — have built or ordered their own. 

South Africans often mistake the armoured RG-12 Nyala, commonly used by the South African Police Service during protests, with the Casspir.


G6 Rhino

  • Purpose: Long-range artillery strikes
  • Quantity: 43
  • Designer: Lyttelton Engineering Works
  • First year of service in South Africa: 1988

The G6 Rhino is a mine-protected self-propelled howitzer that can bombard targets with 155mm G5 rounds at ranges between 3km and 73km.

Its six-wheeled armoured chassis is powered by a 525 horsepower engine that allows it to travel at speeds of up to 90km/h or 70km/h off-road.

Paired with a massive 700-litre tank that can provide a 700km range, the Rhino can quickly move to a new position to avoid retaliation from enemies.

Credit: Col. Andre Kritzinger

C-130 Hercules

  • Purpose: Military personnel and cargo carrier
  • Quantity: 6 in service, maximum 2 at a time
  • Designer: Lockheed Martin
  • First year of service in South Africa: 1963

Lockheed’s C-130 Hercules is the world’s longest continuously produced military aircraft and perhaps one of the most easily recognisable, as 68 countries currently use it.

More than 2,500 were built as of 2015, of which South Africa has purchased or received at least 15 since 1963.

The plane was originally intended as a personnel and cargo carrier.

Its versatile airframe has allowed it to be adapted to other roles, including as a gunship, scientific research support, weather reconnaissance, mid-air refuelling, and search and rescue missions.

According to the latest data from SANDF, only two of the C-130BZ planes can be operated at any given time by the South African Air Force (SAAF) 28 Squadron.

These planes have been flying back and forth numerous times between Waterkloof Airbase in Pretoria and KwaZulu-Natal to deploy soldiers.

The plane was commonly referred to as the “Flossie” during the Border War, supposedly after the wife of a flight engineer at the time.


  • Purpose: Advanced light fighter aircraft
  • Quantity: 26
  • Designer: Saab AB
  • First year of service in South Africa: 2010

The Gripen is a single-engine light fighter jet originally developed during the Cold War by Swedish aerospace company Saab AB as a new aircraft that could fight in the air, attack ground and sea-based enemies, and perform reconnaissance missions.

SAAF’s hangars hold two distinct models — the single-seater Gripen C and two-seater Gripen D.

The Gripen can carry various armaments, including air-to-air missiles, air-to-ground missiles, and anti-ship missiles.

The single-seater variant also offers a single 27 mm Mauser BK-27 cannon.

The Gripen has a top speed of 2,470km/h, with a combat radius and ferry range of the aircraft of 800km and 3,200km, respectively.

Saab Gripen

Hawk Mk 120

  • Purpose: Training
  • Quantity: 23
  • Designer: BAE Systems/Denel
  • First year of service in South Africa: 2006

The Hawk Mk 120 is primarily used as a lead-in fighter trainer plane in the SAAF, replacing the ageing Atlas Impalas, which were used between the late 1960s and early 1990s.

These planes are perhaps best known for their use by the Royal Air Force’s Red Arrows display team.

This advanced trainer features a tandem cockpit, a low-mounted cantilever wing, and a single Rolls-Royce Turbomeca Adour turbofan engine.

The Hawk was designed with manoeuvrability front and centre.

It can reach Mach 0.88 in level flight and Mach 1.15 in a dive, which allows trainee pilots to experience transonic flight before progressing to supersonic training.

Credit: SAAF


  • Purpose: Utility helicopter for transporting equipment and soldiers
  • Quantity: 44
  • Designer: Atlas Aircraft Corporation (now Denel)
  • First year of service in South Africa: 1987

The Atlas Oryx is based on the Aerospatiale Puma, a popular helicopter used by the South African Defence Force.

When the need arose to improve the Puma’s capabilities, the government could not import new helicopters due to the arms embargo placed on the country for its Apartheid policy.

The Atlas Aircraft Corporation developed upgrades that included a lighter but more rugged airframe which improved performance and operating costs.

Oryx helicopters are typically equipped with a 50m hydraulic hoist for use by up to two personal in rescue operations.

The cargo bay can also support a large metal A-frame from which up to four personnel can rappel or abseil from the aircraft simultaneously.


  • Purpose: Attack helicopter
  • Quantity: 16
  • Designer: Denel Aviation
  • First year of service in South Africa: 2011

Bearing a striking resemblance to the renowned US Apache attack helicopter, the two-seater Rooivalk’s development began in conjunction with the Oryx and was also based on the Puma.

This time around, however, the focus was on attack capabilities rather than utility.

The Rooivalk is typically fitted with a nose-mounted 20mm cannon but can also carry air-to-air missiles and anti-armour missiles, as well as unguided rockets.

It incorporates a stealth-oriented design, electronic countermeasures, and tough armour to defend itself from an attack on the battlefield.

The helicopter is reputed for its aerobatic capabilities and has a top speed of 309km/h.


Now read: Meltdown at Denel

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Best tanks and aircraft used by South Africa’s military