The head of Roskosmos, Russia’s civilian space agency, seems to have accidentally exposed a hitherto unknown South African military space project.
Responding to a question from a correspondent for Russia’s ITAR-TASS news agency regarding Russia’s failure to launch South Africa’s civilian Sumbandila satellite, Anatoly Perminov stated that “unfortunately, the Russian Defence Ministry refused to launch this satellite, as the South African Defence Ministry for its turn refused to use our satellite.
The two countries’ defence ministries decided to go their own way, and we did not interfere in these affairs.
Today there is no opportunity for the launch.” – Sumbandila was meant to have been launched late last year from a Russian submarine; it would have been sent in a special capsule to an integration facility at the Russian Naval Base at Murmansk in northern Russia; the Russian Navy would then have fitted the capsule and the satellite to a Shtil 2.1 rocket, taken the submarine to sea, and launched the rocket.
The key phrase is “the South African Defence Ministry ... refused to use our satellite.” What could this mean?
Firstly, it must be pointed out that the South African civilian satellite programme is run by the Department of Science and Technology (DST), not the Department of Defence. So it must be a reference to a specifically military space or space-related programme on the part of South Africa, separate from that of the DST.
Secondly, refusing to launch the South African satellite is a major decision that could only be made at high-level in the ministry; it breaks a Russian obligation to South Africa, and deeply embarrasses Roskosmos. It could even damage Russia’s reputation in the increasingly competitive international space launch market.
So the Russian Ministry of Defence must have been very annoyed with its South African counterpart. That, in turn, signals that the proposed programme, whatever it was, was a major one. This, further, suggests that it was not a mere matter of South Africa using an existing Russian military satellite, leasing capacity or buying imagery.
Rather, these scanty clues point to something on the scale of actually acquiring a military satellite from Russia – or, more precisely, seriously considering such an acquisition, including negotiations with the Russians (how else would Moscow know about project?), only to terminate the talks or cancel any agreement or deal, and doing so in a manner, or for a reason, which angered the Russian Defence Ministry.
Perminov’s phrase “the two countries’ defence ministries decided to go their own way,” signals that the South African programme was not cancelled, but rather that this country has chosen to order the space vehicle from a third country, rejecting, for whatever reason, the Russian technology.
Assuming these deductions are correct, what kind of satellite could the South African Department of Defence be seeking? Military forces employ two types of satellite – communications, and reconaissance (popularly called spy satellites), with the latter subdivided into a number of categories, notably imagery, radar, and electronics.
The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) can certainly justify either a communciations satellite or an imagery satellite. This is because of its increasingly extensive peacekeeping deployments in decidedly dangerous and remote areas of Africa.
The communications systems for UN forces can be very rudimentary and inadequate, and a national military communications satellite would give South Africa an independent and very secure communications link with troops deployed in places like Darfur. Similarly, possession of an imagery reconaissance satellite would give this country an independent source of very high resolution pictures of crisis areas and situations.
This would allow Pretoria to make critically important decisions (such as whether to join or withdraw from a UN force, or reinforce troops already deployed, or what way to vote in an UN debate) on the basis of some knowledge of what was really happening, instead of being dependent on the assertions and arguments of other countries.
It should be noted that reconaissance satellite technology is jealously guarded. It would have been a great concession to South Africa if Russia had been willing to grant this country access to even part of the latter’s capabilities in this sphere. To turn down such an offer would be a rebuff indeed.
The strength of the Russian Defence Ministry’s reaction to South Africa’s decision not to use a Russian satellite thus suggests that Pretoria is seeking to acquire a reconaissance satellite. And there are less than a handful of countries with the capability to build such a craft. Apart from Russia and the US – which would not sell a reconaissance satellite to anyone – it is basically just France and Israel.
All this, by the way, does not mean that Russia, the country, will not launch Sumbandila. Roskosmos has its own rockets and launch facilities, and is a civilian agency. Scheduling and planned orbit permitting, it could still put the South African satellite in space.