The secret is out: Defence Minister Mosiuoa Lekota cancelled the purchase of a military spy satellite from Russia, putting relations between the two countries under strain and potentially creating a R1-billion liability for South Africa.
Protracted shuttle diplomacy has failed to resolve the dispute, which Russia is said to be taking to the international arbitration court in The Hague.
In retaliation the Russian military has also delayed launching a separate homegrown satellite that is the flagship of South Africa’s incipient civilian space programme.
The top-secret and costly attempt to enable the SANDF to snoop from space was driven by defence intelligence chief Moreti ”Mojo” Motau.
It is unclear why Lekota cancelled the contract. NPO Mashinostroyenia, the Russian state company from which Motau ordered the spy satellite, referred all queries to Lekota’s ministry.
Lekota would not answer Mail & Guardian questions, including whether Motau had the authority to contract in the first place — and if not, whether disciplinary action had been taken. His spokesperson said he did not want to prejudice ”ongoing negotiations” with the Russians.
The civilian and military attempts to launch satellites represent the apex of South Africa’s drive to get back into space after the apartheid-era military space programme was aborted following Western pressure.
The apartheid government built three intermediate-range ballistic missiles in the 1980s related to its nuclear weapons programme. Two were test-fired and the third converted with the intention, eventually abandoned, to launch a locally manufactured spy satellite.
Spy satellites, also called reconnaissance satellites, typically produce high-resolution photographs and other remote sensing data to snoop on enemy military installations, hardware and personnel.
South Africa’s first post-1994 satellite, the tiny civilian SunSat, was built by Stellenbosch University and launched by America’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration in 1999.
The Cabinet accelerated South Africa’s return to space when it approved the establishment of the South African Space Agency under the science and technology department in 2006.
In the same year the department acquired SumbandilaSat, a civilian earth observation and research satellite, from a company spun off from Stellenbosch University. It was to be launched by Russia’s civilian space agency, Roskosmos.
SumbandilaSat’s launch is now expected in December after two years of delays as the dispute over the military spy satellite unfolded quietly.
The first hint that South Africa had a parallel military space programme came in January this year when Roskosmos head Anatoly Perminov was quoted in Russia explaining yet another delay in SumbandilaSat’s launch. He said: ”Unfortunately, the Russian defence ministry refused to launch [SumbandilaSat], as the South African defence ministry in its turn refused to use our satellite.”
Roskosmos was to have launched SumbandilaSat from a Russian navy submarine, hence the Russian defence ministry’s say in the matter. Perminov did not elaborate on the South African defence ministry’s refusal to use a Russian satellite.
In retrospect the signs that the SANDF wanted its own space capability had been there for some time. The intelligence chapter of the defence department’s 2003/04 annual report — Motau’s domain — warned that ”worldwide developments in information technology, sufficient bandwidth, the availability of collection databases and space technologies” might require expenditure ”beyond defence intelligence’s current budget allocation”.
The 2004/05 annual report was more specific: ”The collection capability of defence intelligence is being expanded continuously and needs further improvement at huge cost to stay abreast of new technological developments — [The] inflexibility of commercial satellites and bad weather limit the use of satellite reconnaissance over equatorial regions.”
The SANDF’s expanding peacekeeping commitments in the Great Lakes region would also have been a strong motive for a better satellite-snooping capability than could be rented commercially. Enter the Russians.
A source in contact with role players, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that the satellite built by NPO Mashinostroyenia was not only capable of high resolution photography — about six times as detailed as the civilian SumbandilaSat — but it also had the ability to ”see through” clouds.
Motau travelled to the Russian Federation to buy the satellite. The price tag, as hinted by the annual report, was astronomical. Including ground facilities and launch costs, the satellite could cost between -million and -million (between R2,2-billion and R2,4-billion). The expenditure is recurrent, as satellites have a lifespan of only a few years.
The defence intelligence annual budget in 2004/5 was comparatively miniscule, at R140-million.
South African-Russian relations picked up early this decade after government changed its original focus on West European trade partnerships, not least in the controversial 1999 arms deal.
Regular sessions of the Inter-Governmental Committee on Trade and Economic Co-operation (Itec) between South Africa and Russia became the primary vehicle for promoting economic and political relations.
The relationship reached a high point when Russia’s then president, Vladimir Putin, visited South Africa in September 2006. Among the bilateral agreements signed was one on cooperation in space matters, signed by Roskosmos head Perminov and South African Science and Technology Minister Mosibudi Mangena.
The next defence department annual report hinted the cooperation might not just be civilian. It noted that on the same day the two countries agreed to cooperate on space missions, they also signed an agreement to protect intellectual property rights ”in the course of bilateral defence industry cooperation”. In other words, South Africa and Russia would not steal each other’s technology.
At the time Perminov was quoted saying Russia would launch a South African space vehicle — SumbandilaSat — by late 2006. But that deadline passed, as did later launch dates in July and December last year.
It is not known when Lekota decided to abandon Motau’s purchase of the spy satellite, but it appears to have been in late 2006 or early last year.
The defence department’s 2006/07 annual report said defence intelligence’s attempts to ”improve strategic collection abilities” through ”cutting-edge early warning intelligence” had been only partly achieved, as ”some of the acquisitions processes have been put on hold”.
Russia’s repeated failure to launch SumbandilaSat and Perminov’s revelation about a second covert satellite at the beginning of the year led to a round of urgent shuttle diplomacy.
In February Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma visited Moscow for an ”inter-sessional” — in other words, unscheduled — meeting of the Itec bilateral structure.
A foreign affairs communiqué said diplomatically: ”The two sides considered enhanced South Africa-Russia cooperation in the sphere of space research —”
A Department of Science and Technology statement that same day was less upbeat, saying SumbandilaSat’s launch had been ”postponed indefinitely” and the department was looking for another launch partner.
In March Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov paid a reciprocal and equally unexpected visit to South Africa. Relations were strained, with foreign affairs saying: ”The status of bilateral political, economic and trade relations between the two countries” was on the agenda.
Recent confirmation that Roskos-mos has agreed to launch SumbandilaSat as early as December suggests diplomatic efforts have paid off on the civilian side. But a source in contact with role players involved in the dispute over the military spy satellite said the Russians are heading for The Hague, where the international Permanent Court of Arbitration sits.
South Africa’s liability, if the case goes ahead, may equal the contract price — more than R1-billion.
Last week Alexander Kuritsyn, press attaché at the Russian embassy in Tshwane, denied knowledge of the dispute going to The Hague. He would not comment on the spy satellite, saying it was a ”complex matter”. Contradicting Roskosmos’s Perminov, he insisted the spy satellite and the delayed launch of SumbandilaSat were ”not connected”.
Timeline: a failure to launch
- 1980s-1994: Apartheid-era space programme: missiles and spy satellite programme.
- 1999: Democratic South Africa’s first satellite, the civilian SunSat, built by Stellenbosch University, launched by Nasa.
- Early 2000s: Burgeoning relations with Russia.
- 2003-2005: Department of defence annual reports hint at need for military spy capability; defence intelligence chief Mojo Motau travels to Russia to order satellite.
- Sep 2006: Russian President Vladimir Putin visits South Africa; space and military agreements signed.
- Nov 2006: Department of science and technology receives civilian SumbandilaSat from Stellenbosch University-linked company.
- Late 2006/early 2007: Defence Minister Mosiuoa Lekota cancels order for military spy satellite.
- Dec 2006: Russia misses first deadline to launch SumbandilaSat for SA.
- July 2007: Russia misses extended deadline to launch SumbandilaSat for South Africa.
- Dec 2007: Russia misses another deadline to launch SumbandilaSat for South Africa.
- Jan 2008: Russian space chief Anatoly Perminov says SumbandilaSat launch delay due to Russian defence ministry unhappiness over South African defence ministry’s refusal ”to use our satellite”.
- Feb 2008: Foreign Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma makes unscheduled visit to Russia. Space dispute on the agenda.
- Mar 2008: Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov pays an unexpected visit to South Africa. Relations strained.
- Sep 2008: Indications that Russia will launch SumbandilaSat in December — but also that dispute over cancelled military spy order is headed for international arbitration court in The Hague.