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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

"It is unquestionable that the Republic ofSouth Africa has the technological capacity to manufacture nuclear arms as well as sophisticated systems of delivery with the desired accuracy and penetration."
Commodore H. F. Nel, speech to the South African Institute of Strategic Studies, 1980

Missile Programs

The rocket technology developed in South Africa was tied to military applications but, as it grew in sophistication, the possibil-ities of additional applications became apparent. On 17 December, 1968, South Africa successfully launched the first military rocket (wholly developed and manufactured in South Africa) from the new rocket launching range near St. Lucia. (The Minister of Defense asserted that the rockets were defensive and not offensive weapons). During the 1970s and 1980s, a number of rockets were built by the South African military, some of them reportedly so powerful that they were capable of placing satellites in orbit.

Rockets were developed for military use, with no known commercial adoption. As South Africa had little if any experience with relevant technologies such as high-thrust engines, propellant production, and inertial guidance systems at the time, the expertise of Israel was called upon (Interestingly Israel was one of the few countries to provide military technology to South Africa after the UN imposed embargoes on the country for its apartheid regime in 1963).

South Africa's secret nuclear weapons program began in the mid-1970s at the same time an effort was made to acquire or build a long-range missile, which led to quite some International speculation. In 1978, Armscor formed Kentron (now Denel Dynamics) who was tasked with the development and manufacturing of guided missiles. External assistance was a crucial component to the devel-opment of South Africa's rocket technology.

Kentron successfully produced the shorter range RSA-1 and RSA-2 missiles, and also, with Israeli help, undertook development of intermediate and long-range ballistic missiles, the forerunner of the RSA-3. Certainly the South African rockets bear the unmistakable imprint of Israeli technology, whose influence can be seen in the first two South African rockets, which are clearly replicas of the Jericho class ballistic missiles. The RSA-1 was a single-stage intermediate range ballistic missile whose motor bore the hallmarks of the Jericho motor. Following from this came the development of the RSA-2, another intermediate range ballistic missile with a two-stage rocket.

The deterrent was to be RSA-3 based on mobile platforms. The RSA-3 rocket (developed as satellite launcher) began development as a launch platform in the 1980s because of the perceived threat around the South Africa borders. The RSA-3 LV was based on the Israeli Shavit rocket and was supposed to launch South Africa´s first satellite. South Africa worked with Israel on rocket technology, using the Jericho ballistic missile as the basis of the RSA-1 and RSA-2 ballistic missiles, and in the 1980s, development of the RSA-3 space launch vehicle (aka Arniston) began.

The RSA-3 was an SLV derivative of the RSA-1/2 with a third stage added to inject a satellite into orbit. The first and second stages of RSA-3 used the same rocket motor loaded with 9 tonnes of propellant. The first stage used vanes in the exhaust for steering during the first 16 to 20 seconds of flight, after which the fins at the base of the vehicle provided aerodynamic control. The second stage had a higher expansion nozzle and may have been equipped with TVC for steering.

The objective of the satellite launcher was to place a small surveillance satellite (330 kg) into a 41 degree, 212 x 460 km orbit around the earth. The launcher was also capable of delivering a nuclear payload. South Africa, with Israeli technological assistance obtained the capability of constructing the ten-ton solid propellant rocket motors that powered the Jericho-2 missile. South Africa's large industrial and scientific base indicates that indigenous production of ballistic missiles would not be difficult to achieve. The possible mission of such a weapon, however, was somewhat of a mystery, as South Africa enjoyed a vast military superiority over its neighbors. The ascribed 1,450 km/1,000 kg capability of the Arniston would enable the South African armed forces to hit targets in all the "front-line states": Angola, Mozambique and Namibia.

The prototype RSA-3 rocket had the capacity to carry a tactical nuclear weapon. It could also put a small surveillance satellite into a low level orbit around the earth. RSA-3, is today on display at the SAAF museum

The RSA-3 was was assembled in the Bredasdorp launch site, and reportedly successfully tested three times within South African territory during the latter 1980s and early 1990. The Overberg test range – known as OTB from its Afrikaans initials – from which the prototype rockets would be launched, was established near Bredasdorp in the Western Cape, and a static rocket motor test facility was set-up at Rooi-Els, also in the Western Cape. According to the information publicly displayed at the South African Air Force (SAAF) museum at Swartkops AFB in Pretoria, at its height in the early 1990s, the space and rocket programs involved from 50 to 70 public and private companies, and directly empoyed between 1,300 and 1,500 people. Most of the companies involved in the rocket program were part of Armscor, and later the Denel group.

In October 1989, NBC News reported that a missile produced by ARMSCOR (Armaments Corporation of South Africa) was launched on July 5, 1989, and flew 900 miles southeast over the Indian Ocean. (1) It was subsequently reported that "knowledgeable U.S. officials" confirmed the NBC report that an intermediate-range missile "was constructed and flown by South Africa July 5 using technology acquired from Israel." (2) The "apparently successful test is regarded by U.S. experts as the first of several needed for the white-minority government of South Africa to have a reliable missile force." (3) The missile was launched from a facility named Arniston by the CIA, but locally known as the "RSA" from its Overberg test site at the southern tip of Africa.

Reportedly this first test was followed by a second on 19 November 1990. A third test-firing of South Africa's intermediate-range missile was expected in the spring of 1991 but was never reported to have occurred. The South Africa government's official statement was that the missiles were booster rockets for a peaceful space program.

The larger (RSA-4/5) ICBMs would be silo based, with the ability to deliver payloads to both Washington and Moscow. The fourth prototype, the RSA-4, another all-solid orbital launchvehicle, was in the making when the programme was shut down in 1994. As initially planned it could serve dual purposes: as an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering a payload world-wide or as satellite launch vehicle capable of putting its payload into orbit around the earth. The rocket motor was reportedly never tested. The reasoning being that everyone quietly understands the capability to deliver, and the threat. Certainly, the scope was a lot more ambitious than what was officially airily, casually declared, and rapidly buried by the political leaders. And then never mentioned by them again.

There was little doubt that South Africa had the technical capability and experience to produce nuclear warheads. South Africa ended its nuclear weapons programe in 1989. All the bombs – six constructed and one under construction – were dismantled. On 19 August 1994, after completing its inspection, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed that one partially completed and six fully completed nuclear weapons had been dismantled.

On March 25, 1993, Prime Minister P.W. DeKlerk announced that six of a planned seven atomic bombs had been built, but then dismantled in 1990. (4) This is the first case of a country voluntarily scrapping its nuclear weapons. (Later examples are Belarus, Kazahkstan, and Ukraine.) South Africa signed the NPT in 1991.

Development of the RSA-3 continued even after South Africa ended its nuclear weapons program in 1989, and plans were made for a larger SLV, the RSA-4, which had a bigger first stage (reminiscent of the Peacekeeper ICBM) to allow for heavier payloads to reach orbit. However, the RSA-3 never made an orbital launch, because Denel canceled further development of the RSA-3 as well as the RSA-4 in June 1994,

With the advent of the Mandela government, the Arniston was been cancelled, nuclear weapons development was repudiated, and South Africa joined the MTCR in October 1995. In February 1999, South Africa's first satellite, Sunsat was launched into space on board a US Air Force Boeing Delta II rocket.


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Page last modified: 06-07-2021 16:31:12 ZULU