Jump to search Jump to main navigation Jump to main content Jump to footer navigation

South Africa flagSouth Africa

Missile Last updated: April, 2015

South Africa has decades of experience developing missile and rocket technology, but it dismantled its covert ballistic missile program after announcing the end of its secret nuclear weapons program in the early 1990s.

Since the mid-1960s, South Africa has developed short-range tactical missiles; in the 1970s and 1980s, South Africa, with help from Israel, began developing a longer range ballistic missile as a possible delivery vehicle for nuclear warheads. A July 1989 test launch of what South Africa called a "booster rocket" confirmed Pretoria had a ballistic missile program similar to Israel's Jericho missile series, and precipitated intense scrutiny from the United Nations and the United States. [1] South Africa had dismantled its nuclear weapons program by the early 1990s, and subsequently halted its long-range missile program. It is now a member of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), and the Hague Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation (HCOC). [2]


Design Characteristics Tables

South Africa developed the Republic of South Africa (RSA) missile series, based largely on Israeli missiles. Armscor, the principal developer of Pretoria's nuclear weapons system, designed gun-type nuclear devices that could be delivered by aircraft, but it had plans to upgrade the weapons for possible delivery by RSA missiles. [3]

Pretoria developed four missiles whose design characteristics are shown in Table 1. The RSA-1 was an intermediate-range, single-stage ballistic missile with a 1,100km trajectory coupled with a standard warhead mass of 1,500kg. The RSA-2 followed, with a range of 1,900km and the ability to carry a 1,500kg standard warhead mass. [4] The RSA-3, based on the Israeli Jericho missile/Shavit launch vehicle, was a three-stage solid-fueled orbital launch vehicle. While Pretoria wanted to develop a long-range ballistic missile for warhead delivery, it did not have the technology at the time to produce a lightweight warhead for missile delivery. [5] The RSA-3's first stage had control or steering vanes in the exhaust and at the base of the vehicle. A guidance/ orientation/spin-up bus for the third stage and payload, totaling a mass of 583kg, topped the second stage. After second stage burnout, the spin-stabilized third stage placed the payload into orbit. [6] To support its missile development program, South Africa developed an indigenous solid-propellant production capability. The RSA-4 was still in development when Pretoria announced the dismantlement of its nuclear weapons program and subsequently its space program. [7]

South Africa is currently developing a land-attack cruise missile (LACM), Torgos, with a range of 300km, primarily for an export market. [8] The Torgos design was displayed at a 1999 exhibit in Dubai, but a lack of funding has prevented the realization of the missile. [9] The Torgos missile integrates several MUPSOW (Multi-Purpose, Stand-Off Weapon) subsystems. The state-owned firm Denel Dynamics successfully flight tested a 200km-range MUPSOW in 2002. [10] However, in 2006 the South African Air Force faced serious budget cuts which prevented further investment in the development of either the MUPSOW or Torgos missiles, and Denel has said that without a confirmed buyer the weapons are too expensive to develop. [11] 


1960s to Early 1980s: South Africa Increases Missile Range with Israeli Aid
The Armaments Corporation of South Africa (Armscor) began developing rockets and missiles in the mid-1960s, focusing primarily on short-range tactical missiles for battlefield use. By the early 1980s, Armscor produced only two missiles used by the South African Defence Forces (SADF): the 22km range Valkiri surface-to-surface artillery missile, and the 4-10km range V3 Kukri air-to-air missile. [12] However, in tandem with South Africa's secret nuclear weapons program begun in the mid-1970s, Pretoria began an effort to acquire or build a long-range missile. At that time, South Africa had little if any experience with relevant technologies such as high-thrust engines, propellant production, and inertial guidance systems. [13] Thus, Pretoria turned to Israel, an important military supplier since the 1950s, and one of the few countries to provide military technology to South Africa after the United Nations imposed embargoes on the country for its apartheid system in 1963 and 1977. [14]

A March 1975 memo addressed to the SADF Commandant-General from the Chief of Staff indicates that Israel had offered to sell Pretoria 500km range Jericho-1 missiles, and that Pretoria was interested in acquiring the nuclear warheads to arm these missiles. Rather than buy off-the-shelf Israeli missiles, Pretoria apparently decided to use Israeli designs and technical assistance. [15] In 1978, Armscor formed Kentron (now Denel Dynamics), a new subsidiary with a staff of 1,600 headquartered in Pretoria, that was responsible for guided missile development and manufacture. [16] Kentron produced the shorter range RSA-1 and RSA-2 missiles, and also, with Israeli help, undertook development of intermediate and long-range ballistic missiles.

Israeli technological assistance included the design schematics and the capability of constructing the ten-ton solid propellant rocket motors that powered the Jericho-2 missile. These motors formed the basis of two space launchers for the R5b space program. The overall design and capability suggest that the RSA-2 was either a licensed copy of, or modeled closely after, Israel's Jericho-2 missile. Moreover, the first and second stages of the RSA-3 used the same rocket motor as Israel's Shavit launch vehicle, and the third stage, also like the Shavit, had a five metric ton thrust spherical motor. [17]

While Pretoria claimed that it was funding a space program, it sought to eventually use the rockets as weapons delivery systems. [18] According to one history of South African-Israeli military cooperation: "In 1987 Armscor informed the South African Cabinet it could build a missile, based on Israeli design, which 'could hit a target in Nairobi within 300 yards,' about 2,500 km from South Africa." [19]

1989: Rocket Test Reveals Nuclear Ambitions and Draws International Scrutiny
Despite UN embargoes, South Africa secretly collaborated with Israel on a ballistic missile program under the guise of a civilian space program, referred to as R5b. In June 1989, the Washington Times reported that, South Africa, with assistance to Israel, planned to test-launch a new intermediate-range missile. Later, an Armscor spokesman confirmed that the company had over the past six years built a missile test range at Overberg on the southern tip of South Africa. Around the same time, U.S. intelligence sources reported that South Africa was close to launching a modified version of Israel's intermediate-range Jericho-2, probably from a facility near Cape Town reportedly almost identical to Israel's launch site in the Negev Dessert. South African officials stated that the new missile had been under development since at least 1987, and would also be used as a booster for launching photo-reconnaissance satellites. A U.S. Central Intelligence Agency assessment reportedly suggested that South Africa was also preparing to test the more advanced Israeli Shavit space launch vehicle, which might be converted to a 3,200km-range missile. [20]

On 5 July 1989, Armscor announced that it had successfully tested a booster rocket from the Overberg test range. Outside analysts, however, suggested that the test was of an intermediate-range missile, and U.S. intelligence officials thought that a short-range missile with a rocket plume strikingly similar to Israel's Jericho-2 missile had been tested. The test missile flew 1,450 km southeast toward Prince Edward Island. [21]

After U.S. officials publicly stated in October 1989 that Israel was assisting South Africa in developing a medium-range missile, senior Israeli officials again tried to sidestep the matter, but later Israeli sources confirmed cooperation with South Africa on a variety of projects, including the joint development of a surface-to-surface missile armed with a nuclear warhead. [22]

1990 to 2002: South Africa Terminates Ballistic Missile and Space Programs 
The July 1989 rocket test intensified international concerns that South Africa, with Israeli collaboration, planned to develop nuclear tipped missiles. On 15 December 1989, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 44/113 B, noting its great concern about this cooperation and requesting that the Secretary-General investigate. The resulting 1991 UN report concluded in part:

The South African missile programme relies on foreign technology from various foreign sources. The only source of officially licensed foreign missile technology today is Israel. Much additional technology is acquired clandestinely and illegally....If South Africa deploys long-range missiles, these are most likely intended to carry nuclear warheads. [23]

Under pressure from the international community, South Africa renounced its apartheid system and began to dismantle its nuclear weapons program; in July 1991, South Africa joined the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) as a non-nuclear weapon state. Despite these developments, in September 1991 the United States sanctioned South Africa for importing ballistic missile technologies from Israel in contravention of Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) guidelines. South African President F.W. de Klerk protested the sanctions, claiming that his country was developing space launch vehicles with the dual-use technology. After bilateral discussions on the economics of space launch vehicles, the South African government announced that it would stop subsidizing the space launch vehicle program and direct those in charge of it to determine ways to make it profitable, a prelude to folding the space program. [24]

In 1992, Pretoria halted its missile collaboration with Israel, and in June 1993 South Africa agreed to refrain from manufacturing long-range missiles and to dismantle its capability to produce large space rockets. By this time South Africa had terminated the nuclear program and revealed its existence. President de Klerk announced the termination of the SRA-3 and SRA-4 space launch vehicle programs due to questions about the commercial viability of the South African space industry, a point later echoed by Foreign Minister Pik Botha. Western diplomats pointed to heavy pressure from the United States as the deciding factor to shut down the program. [25] Before South Africa could join the MTCR, the companies — Kentron, Houwteq, and Somchem — that actually built the long-range rockets were forced to dismantle key technologies and to retrieve blueprints and technical files from subcontractors. [26] After South Africa destroyed its plants and equipment used to build space rockets — or ballistic missiles — it was permitted to join the MTCR on 13 September 1995. [27] Under South Africa's 1993 Nonproliferation of Weapons Mass Destruction Act, the government requires import and export permits for controlled missile-related items. To further its contribution to the nonproliferation of missile technology, South Africa assented to the Hague Code of Conduct Against Ballistic Missile Proliferation (HCOC) on 25 November 2002. [28]

Recent Developments and Current Status

South Africa has the technical knowledge to build an intermediate to long-range ballistic missile, but has little incentive to do so. Moreover, Pretoria has championed missile nonproliferation and export control measures. The country is an active participant in international space science and governance initiatives, and government officials have periodically discussed reviving South Africa's space launch vehicle program. [29]

South African companies build and export a variety of tactical short-range missiles, precision-guided weapon systems, and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAVs) systems. The state-owned company Denel Dynamics (formerly Kentron) produces the Umkhonto air defense missile, the Raptor precision bomb, the Umbani long-range surface-to-surface missiles, and the Ingwe anti-tank missile. [30] The Umkhonto missile is used by the navies of both Finland (purchased and fitted in 2006) and South Africa on its Valour class frigates. [31] In 2013, Denel Dynamics successfully tested the sophistication of Umkhonto's surface-to-air missiles, which are currently being integrated into the South African Army's ground-based air defense system. [32] Denel Dynamics collaborates with Brazil on the development of the short-range infrared homing A-Darter air-to-air missile for use by both countries and for export. In 2009, the fifth-generation A-Darter air-to-air missile, developed at a cost of $130 million, was successfully flight tested, and in February 2015 the A-Darter reached 90% completion. [33] 

Additionally, in 2013 Denel announced the design for a long-range air-to-air missile (AAM), the Marlin, which may be the substructure for a naval surface-to-air missile (SAM) for both South Africa and Brazil. [34] While Denel has presented designs for additional air-to-air missiles, such as the 110km-range S-Dartar concept, Denel has not found the funds to further develop them, and the project remains suspended, alongside the MUPSOW and Torgos LACMs. [35]

Denel Dynamics also produces and exports tactical UAVs, including the Seeker 200 and Seeker 400  which were unveiled in 2008. [36] The UAV projects have grown to include the Hungwae civilian and military UAV, which has been undergoing flight tests since 2014. [37] 

[1] UN Secretary General, "South Africa's Nuclear Tipped Ballistic Missile Capability," New York, United Nations, 1991.
[2] "Note verbale dated 31 January 2005 from the Permanent Mission of South Africa to the United Nations addressed to the Chairman of the Committee," UN Security Council Committee established pursuant to resolution 1540, 1 February 2005.
[3] David Albright, "South Africa and the Affordable Bomb," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July/August 1994, p. 45.
[4] "RSA," Astronautix, www.astronautix.com.
[5] "RSA-3," Astronautix, www.astronautix.com.
[6] "RSA-3," Astronautix, www.astronautix.com.
[7] "RSA-3" Astronautix, www.astronautix.com. See also Astronautix's sections on "Jericho" and "RSA," www.astronautix.com.
[8] Andrew Feickert, "Missile Survey: Ballistic and Cruise Missiles of Foreign Countries," Congressional Research Service, March 5, 2004, p. 27; Robert Wall, "Pivot Point," Aviation Week & Space Technology 161, no. 3 (Jul 19, 2004), p. 166-167.
[9] Eric H. Biass and Roy Braybrook, "Missiles on a Cruise," Armada International, June 2001, p. 1-14.
[10] Rex R. Kiziah, "Assessment of the Emerging Biocruise Threat," The Counterproliferation Papers, No. 6, (August 2000), p. 38.
[11] Michal Fiszer, "First South African Gripen Rolled Out," Journal of Electronic Defense 29, No. 1, (January 2006), p. 32-33.
[12] UN Secretary General, "South Africa's Nuclear Tipped Ballistic Missile Capability," New York, United Nations, 1991, p. 18.
[13] UN Secretary General, "South Africa's Nuclear Tipped Ballistic Missile Capability," New York, United Nations, 1991, p. 20.
[14] UN Secretary General, "South Africa's Nuclear Tipped Ballistic Missile Capability," New York, United Nations, 1991, p. 22.
[15] Peter Liberman, "Israel and the South African Bomb," The Nonproliferation Review, Summer 2004, pp. 47, 52. In May 2010, Israeli president Shimon Peres vigorously denied that Israel offered to sell nuclear weapons to South Africa in the 1970s when he was defense minister. Chris McGreal, et al., "Israeli President Denies Offering Nuclear Weapons to Apartheid South Africa," http://guardian.co.uk, 24 May 2010.
[16] UN Secretary General, "South Africa's Nuclear Tipped Ballistic Missile Capability," New York, United Nations, 1991, p. 49.
[17] "RSA" Astronautix, 16 December 2009, www.astronautix.com.
[18] "RSA," Astronautix, www.astronautix.com. See also, UN Secretary General, "South Africa's Nuclear Tipped Ballistic Missile Capability," New York, United Nations, 1991, p. 41.
[19] Peter Liberman, "Israel and the South African Bomb," The Nonproliferation Review, Summer 2004, p. 55.
[20] "South Africa to Test-launch IRBM," Jane's Defence Weekly, 1 July 1989, p. 1354; Martin Walker, "S. Africa 'About to Test Medium-Range Missile'," Guardian (London), 21 June 1989; Bill Gertz, "S. Africa on the Brink of Ballistic Missile Test," Washington Times, 24 June 1989, pp. A1, A10.
[21] "South African Missile Test," Jane's Defence Weekly, 15 July 1989, p. 59; Michael R. Gordon, "U.S. Sees Israeli Help in Pretoria's Missile Work," The New York Times, 27 October 1989; U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, "Special Assessment, South Africa: Missile Activity," 5 July 1989, declassified and partially released, in South Africa and the United States: The Declassified History, ed. Kenneth Mokoena (New York: New Press, 1993), pp. 167-168; William E. Burrows and Robert Windrem, Critical Mass: The Dangers for Superpowers in a Fragmented World (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994), pp. 446-448; UN Secretary General, "South Africa's Nuclear Tipped Ballistic Missile Capability," New York, United Nations, 1991, pp. 22, 25. Israel conducted a third test of its own improved Jericho-2 in September 1989. The missile traveled nearly 1,300km. A knowledgeable source interviewed by CNS assessed that the timing of the first South African test-flight and the subsequent Israeli flight could indicate that the July Overberg test was actually one in a series of Israeli missile tests.
[22] "State Department Confirms Discussions with Israel on Pretoria Cooperation," Aerospace Daily, 27 October 1989; Michael R. Gordon, "U.S. Sees Israeli Help in Pretoria's Missile Work," The New York Times, 27 October 1989.
[23] UN Secretary General, "South Africa's Nuclear Tipped Ballistic Missile Capability," New York, United Nations, 1991, pp. 40, 41.
[24] Henry Sokolski, "Ending South Africa's Rocket Program: A Nonproliferation Success," 1 September 1993, www.npec-web.org.
[25] Henry Sokolski, "Ending South Africa's Rocket Program: A Nonproliferation Success," 1 September 1993, www.npec-web.org.
[26] "South Africa's Nuclear Autopsy," Wisconsin Project Risk Report, January-February 1996, www.wisconsinproject.org.
[27] "Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR)," Republic of South Africa International Relations and Cooperation Department Web site, www.dfa.gov.za; "South Africa Gives Up Nukes and Missiles; Now Gets High-Tech Imports," Wisconsin Project Risk Report, Vol. 2, January-February 1996.
[28] Note verbale dated 31 January 2005 from the Permanent Mission of South Africa to the United Nations addressed to the Chairman of the Committee," UN Security Council Committee established pursuant to resolution 1540, 1 February 2005.
[29] "Space in South Africa," South African Space Portal, www.space.gov.za; "South African Space Facilities," GlobalSecurity.org.
[30] Hopewell Radebe, "South Africa: SA-Brazil Missile Venture in Full Flight," BusinessDay, 22 April 2010, www.allAfrica.com; Julius Baumann, "South Africa: Fate of Missile Group in Government's Hands," BusinessDay, 19 May 2010, www.allAfrica.com; "South Africa's Denel Dynamics Offering Umknonto Missile to Vietnam," defence.professionals, 7 October 2010, www.defpro.com.
[31] "Umkhonto-R maybe next SA-Brazil project: Denel," Defence Web, December 3, 2010, www.defenceweb.com.
[32] "Denel demonstrates Umkhonto missile capability for South African Navy," Naval Technology, October 10, 2013, www.naval-technology.com.
[33] Keith Campbell, "$130 A-Darter Missile to Be Produced in Both South Africa and Brazil," Engineering News, July 9, 2010; Denel Dynamics, www.deneldynamics.co.za; Denel Dynamics, www.deneldynamics.co.za; "S. Africa Targets Bigger Share of Missile Industry," Reuters, 22 September 22, 2010.
[34] Inigo Guevara, "Trials of regeneration: South American modernisation efforts," Jane's Missiles & Rockets 52, no. 17, (March 2015).
[35] Robert Wall, "Pivot Point," Aviation Week & Space Technology 161, no. 3 (July 2004), p. 166-167; Robert Hewson, "Denel reveals Marlin missile for future co-operation with Brazil," Jane's Missiles & Rockets 6, no. 17, (June 2013).
[36] "S. Africa Targets Bigger Share of Missile Industry," Denel Dynamics, September 22, 2010, www.deneldynamics.co.za.
[37] "Further flight testing for Seeker 400 and Hungwe," Denel Dynamics, July 1, 2014, www.denelydynamics.co.za.

CNS logo

This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents.

Get the Facts on South Africa

  • Built six nuclear warheads before renouncing its weapons program in 1991
  • Developed a chemical and biological weapons program in the 1980s under the name Project Coast
  • Jointly developed medium-range ballistic missiles with Israel in the 1980s