“Rooikat” – The African Caracal
The Rooikat armored car takes its Afrikaans name from the African Caracal (a type of wild cat). Similar to its namesake, the Rooikat armored car is fast and nimble, being used by the South African Defence Force (SADF) and its successor, the South African National Defence Force (SANDF). The Rooikat is a completely indigenous military vehicle, adapted for the southern African battlespace. It was designed and produced at a time when South Africa was still subject to international embargoes because of its racial segregation policies (Apartheid). This was set against the backdrop of the Cold War in Southern Africa which saw a steep rise in liberation movements backed by Eastern Bloc communist countries such as Cuba and the Soviet Union.
The SADF relied heavily on the Eland 90 armored car (heavily based on the French Panhard AML 90) during the mid-1970’s and early 1980’s conventional battles of the South African Border War (1966-1989) such as Operation Savannah. Although successfully used in combat, the Eland 90`s poor power to weight ratio resulted in poor forward acceleration. This resulted in it lagging behind the more powerful Ratel IFV`s, which it was supposed to escort. What was required was a domestically-built armored car suited to the southern African battle space which necessitates long-range strategic mobility. A wheeled configuration was chosen due to its benefits over tracked vehicles which included better mobility, longer range, less maintenance, better reliability, and less overall logistical support. A wheeled configuration is also more suitable for a mine-riddled theatre, as a wheel could be lost during a mine detonation without disabling the vehicle, whereas a tracked vehicle losing its track would become immobile.
The development of the Rooikat was one of South Africa’s most ambitious undertakings, with the project approval of a new generation armored car being granted in 1974. The user requirements were completed in November 1976, after which the Armaments Corporation of South Africa (Armscor) began compiling technical specifications, leading to several research studies of 6×6 and 8×8 configurations by South African manufacturers. A decision was made in August of 1978 that three prototypes would be built for evaluation purposes which were delivered in 1979. Although the decision to adopt a naval 76 mm main gun already took place in 1978, all the prototypes were fitted with a British 77 mm Mk.2 gun from retired South African Comet tanks. The three prototypes were based on and modified from existing hulls used in the SADF, namely the Ratel Infantry Combat Vehicle (ICV) (Concept 1), Eland armored car (Concept 2) and Saracen Armored Personnel Carrier (APC) (Concept 3) and were of 8×8 configuration. None of the three prototypes was deemed suitable after trials held in 1979 and the project was put on ice.
The staff requirements for the new generation armored car were put forward in 1980. Sandock Austral built three new prototypes for trials which were held in March 1982. The prototypes were divided into light, medium and heavy class (1-3). The Class 1 prototype, nicknamed Cheetah Mk1, was built according to the required light specifications which were for a 17 tonnes vehicle in a 6×6 configuration and mounting a 76 mm high-pressure main gun turret. It featured basic protection to increase the power to weight ratio. The Class 2 prototype came in two variants, 2A and 2B. The Class 2A`s engine was located in the front, leaving sufficient space at the rear to be used as a troop compartment. The Class 2B`s had a traditional layout with the engine mounted in the rear. The Class 2B was nicknamed Cheetah Mk2 and was built according to the required medium specifications which were for a 23-tonne vehicle in an 8×8 configuration with a 76 mm high-pressure main gun turret. The Class 3 prototype, nicknamed Bismarck, was built according to the required heavy specifications for a 30-tonne vehicle in 8×8 configuration with a 105 mm L7 main gun turret.
After the trials, the Class 2B prototype was selected for further development and manufacturing. In 1986/7, Sandrock Brakpan completed an additional five advanced development models. Four of these were used for operational testing and assessment by the SADF in 1987 and christened the Rooikat armored car, while the remaining two were divided between Armscor and Ermetek for testing and development. By late 1988, three more Rooikats were delivered in conjunction with 23 pre-production models (PPM). The first SADF Rooikat squadron was delivered to 1 Special Service Battalion (1SSB) in mid-August 1989. Full production of the Rooikat began in June 1990 and lasted until 2000. Production was done in a series of four lots. The first lot consisted of 28 PPMs. The second (Mk1A), third (Mk1B) and fourth (Mk1C) lot each consisted of a regiment (72) of Rooikat armored cars. With each progressive production lot after the first, slight improvements were made as indicated by their mark designation.
A total of 214 Rooikat armored cars were produced by 2000, which brought the total to 242. Lyttelton Engineering Works (LEW), a world leader in combat reconnaissance turrets, was responsible for designing, developing, and building the Rooikat turrets. Several subcontractors were involved, such as Elopto who supplied the optical equipment for the turret while Kentron manufactured the gyros for the stabilisation system. The Sandock-Austral was responsible for the design, development, and building of the Rooikat hull. A performance and reliability enhancement programme was launched in 2000 under project Arum Lily and lasted until 2006 which saw 80 Rooikat armored cars being upgraded from the Mk1C to Mk1D standard, which is the most modern variant.
The Rooikat armored car was designed with an emphasis on mobility. Firepower was the second most important feature. Protection was the least important as additional armor would have come at the cost of mobility. The principal tasks of the Rooikat as set out by the SADF included combat reconnaissance, seek and destroy operations, combat support, anti-armor and anti-guerrilla operations. Present SANDF doctrine emphasizes combat operations on combat reconnaissance, harassment of enemy concentrations and rear guard units, disruption of enemy cohesion, logistical centres and supply trains and attacking targets of opportunity. During peacekeeping operations, the Rooikat can monitor ceasefires, protect key points, escort convoys, act as a deterrent, reconnaissance and crowd control. In total, the SADF took delivery of 242 Rooikat armored cars. Presently, there are 80 Mk1D Rooikat armored cars in service with the SANDF while a further 92 remain in storage. The Rooikat is assigned to the SA Army School of Armour and 1 SSB at Tempe Military Base in Bloemfontein. In addition, three Reserve Force units are also allocated Rooikat armored cars, namely Umvoti Mounted Rifles in Durban, Regiment Oranjerivier in Cape Town and Regiment Mooirivier in Potchefstroom.
The design, development, and production of the Rooikat were undertaken due to the increasing need for a purpose-built armored car that was suited for the southern African battlespace. Furthermore, there was a dire need for an armored car that could keep up with mechanised formations to protect its flanks. The terrain it would operate in would be some of the most hostile in the world, which alone inflicts harsh punishment. Characterized by its eight massive wheels, mobility, bush breaking ability and versatility as a weapons platform, the Rooikat is well adapted for its role as a modern armored car.
According to the then Lt. Gen. Andreas (Kat) Liebenberg (1988), chief of the Army, “the Rooikat would be pushed into service because it can outmanoeuvre and attack tanks in battle conditions common to southern Africa, where engagements often are at close quarters.”
Interactive Rooikat 76 Mk1D with permission from ARMSCor Studios .
The following sections will specifically cover the Mk1D variant unless otherwise stated.