MARITIME DRILL FALLOUT
Western diplomats raise alarm on South Africa-Russia-China joint naval exercise during anniversary of Ukraine invasion
By staging a joint exercise with Russia and China at a highly sensitive time, South Africa is undermining its claim of being ‘nonaligned’ in the Ukrainian war and risking good relations with the West.
Western governments are becoming increasingly agitated about the joint maritime Exercise Mosi II, which the South African, Russian and Chinese navies are set to begin conducting off the KwaZulu-Natal coast from Friday, 17 February.
The 10-day drill is widely being seen as a propaganda exercise for Russia, in particular – an opportunity to show off its military prowess, leaving the depleted South African Navy a virtual spectator to a show in its own front yard.
Western diplomats in South Africa, who wish to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals, have told DM168 they are particularly worried because the exercise will take place on the anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February last year. They had also expressed concern that, according to the official Russian news agency Tass, Russia would use the exercise to practise firing its supposedly unstoppable hypersonic ship-to-ship Zircon missile.
However the South African National Defence (SANDF) – which was asked
for comment on this last week eventually told DM168 only on Sunday that
“according to the Protocol agreement signed by the three countries, there is no planned launch of any missile during Exercise MOSI II.”
South African military experts told DM168 that they believe Russia will
send at least its state-of-the art frigate Admiral Gorshkov, which carries the
Zircon and other types of missiles and has been exercising in the western
Atlantic. They think China will send at least a heavily armed Type 055
destroyer. The SANDF has since confirmed that the Russian navy would
send one frigate (plus a support tanker) and the Chinese navy would send a
destroyer- but also a frigate and a support vessel.
The military experts believed that the South African Navy
is expected to contribute just the SAS Protea survey ship and the SAS
King Sekhukhune I, an inshore patrol vessel armed with no more than a
20mm cannon for self-defence. However, the SANDF said on Sunday that
the SA Navy would in fact contribute one frigate to the exercise. It is not
clear if this represents a change of plan to avoid what was looking likely to
be an unbalanced exercise.
The Admiral Gorshkov is a 4,500-tonne vessel with a crew of about 210.
China’s Type 055 destroyer is even larger and is classified by Nato as a
missile cruiser. It displaces more than 11,000 tonnes and has a crew of about 300.
In comparison, South Africa’s four German-built Valour class frigates
displace 3 700 tonnes and carry crews of about 150.
If the expected Russian and Chinese ships arrive, South
Africa would still be heavily outgunned and outclassed, raising questions
about what value it could possibly extract from the unbalanced exercise.
One ambassador told DM168 that several Western countries were discussing the possibility of formally raising an objection to the exercise to Pretoria. However, they are also wary of offending the South African government, which has become hypersensitive to Western criticism of its warm relations with Russia since Moscow attacked Ukraine.
Some Western embassies have raised their concerns in private and been rebuffed. The closest they have come to public criticism was in a blog by the European Union’s vice-president and foreign minister, Josep Borrell, after his recent trip to South Africa for official talks with his counterpart, Naledi Pandor.
Borrell said the EU was not asking South Africa to take sides between Russia and the West, but then added: “In this context, conducting naval military drills with Russia and China on the anniversary of Russia’s Ukraine invasion is a matter of serious concern, to say the least.”
DM168 heard that even this mild criticism provoked a strong rebuke from Pretoria.
One Western ambassador said he had told his capital that, if the exercise had taken place at any other time, he would have said nothing. But the fact that it was taking place on the anniversary of Russia’s invasion worries his government.
In broader terms, as Borrell hinted, several Western governments are saying that, by participating in a naval exercise with Russia, South Africa has undermined its own claim to be nonaligned in the war.
“You’re taking sides,” one ambassador said he had told Pretoria. The riposte of South African officials was “But you’ve also taken sides. You’re arming Ukraine.
“But we say we are only arming Ukraine to defend itself against Russia. We are not arming it to attack or invade Russia,” the diplomat replied.
The report that the Admiral Gorshkov would use Exercise Mosi II to practise its skills in firing the Zircon missile has not been officially confirmed. The Tass Russian national news agency reported it, quoting unnamed military sources. But now the SANDF has said that, at least according to the protocol signed by
the three countries for Exercise Mosi II “ there is no planned launch of any
missile during Exercise MOSI II.”
Western diplomats said the firing of Zircon or any missile would be extremely worrying. According to one ambassador that would imply that the South African Navy would be practising its skills in combat, not in anti-piracy or any of the other purposes stated by the South African National Defence Force (SANDF).
“But we say in any case what navy? South Africa barely has a functioning navy. So, South Africa will effectively be just a spectator to a Russian and Chinese exercise,” one diplomat said.
Some observers believe Exercise Mosi II will give China and South Africa a rare opportunity to witness Zircon being fired at close quarters and so to check that it performs according to specifications.
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But a South African military analyst said this was simply untrue. “South Africa won’t be able to verify anything. None of its ships deployed has sensors that could reliably determine the real performance of a hypersonic anti-ship missile, let alone any other kind of missile, and the SANDF has no telemetry ranges near there. At Overberg Test Range, maybe, but not on the east coast.
“So, there is absolutely zero reason for South Africa to be a ‘witness’ to the launching of a Zircon, except as a propaganda coup.”
Apart from mounting 16 cells for firing Zircon and other anti-ship missiles and 32 cells of various surface-to-air missiles, the Admiral Gorshkov has a 130mm gun and two turrets, each holding twin six-barrel 30mm cannon and several torpedo tubes.
China’s Type 055 destroyer, described as “China’s most modern and capable surface combatant”, also mounts a main 130mm gun, turrets of smaller cannon and, most potently, pods for firing 112 vertically launched, anti-ship, surface-to-air and land-attack missiles in various combinations, plus several torpedo tubes.
The South African Navy’s four Valour class German-made frigates are each equipped with one 76 mm compact naval gun; one 35mm dual purpose gun;; two remote-controlled 20 mm cannons; a 16-cell pod for vertical launching of up to 16 surface-to-air missiles; and two 4-cell pods for launching up to 8 surface to surface missiles. The operational status of the missiles is unclear.,
“South Africa is getting played here for a Russian propaganda coup,” a
military analyst concluded.
The optics of South African Navy ships exercising with these ships off South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal coast would also be bad at this time. Though foreign governments say they do not believe the Admiral Gorshkov has fired missiles at Ukraine, similar Russian ships have targeted Ukrainian cities with hundreds of missiles from the Black Sea, destroying vast virtually destroying the electricity grid – and taking many civilian lives.
Meanwhile, at least two Type 055 Chinese destroyers were reported to have taken part in a series of drills last year aimed at Taiwan. This was in response to then US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s controversial visit to the island, which infuriated Beijing.
“So, is this going to be an exercise about how to fire missiles at cities? Durban beware!” one observer asked. Or how to recover a “renegade province”?
DM168 asked the Russian and Chinese embassies for comment on Exercise Mosi II, in particular on the specific concerns raised by the Western diplomats.
Neither of them replied in time for their comments to be included in this report.
The DA has already condemned Exercise Mosi II, and ActionSA also did so this week.
“The joint military exercise between Russia, China and South Africa will amount to a propaganda exercise by the Russian government … to portray the country’s military might ahead of a potential escalation in the ongoing Ukraine-Russia war,” ActionSA said in a statement.
“[It] will likely be seen as South Africa aligning ourselves with the Russian government during the Ukraine-Russia war, which may further antagonise our strategic partners and jeopardise trade relations, which is crucial to safeguard the country’s economy.
“Taking on an explicit position of support for Russia may further harm South Africa’s reputation with our international partners.
“At a time where our economy is already struggling, the reality is that we cannot afford to alienate major trade partners by becoming a participant in Russia’s military propaganda, which offers no clear benefit to South Africa.”
The party said it was concerning “that the ANC-led government would contribute in any way to escalating the war”.
“The ANC-led government should respect international rule of law and follow Mandela’s dream of South Africa using the international stage as a champion for human rights.
“Rather than being party to military exercises with an aggressor country, South Africa should be committing itself to help bring the war in Ukraine to an end.”
It is clear that Exercise Mosi II is testing the tolerance of Western countries. All have been highly irritated by South Africa refusing to condemn Moscow for its invasion of Ukraine and it’s abstaining from all resolutions in the United Nations General Assembly last year condemning Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.
But they have refrained from sharp reaction for fear that this could just drive South Africa further into the Russian camp.
However, Exercise Mosi II suggests that Pretoria is drifting that way anyway, and so some Western governments may start to rethink their strategy. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25. It was updated to include SANDF commentary on Sunday 12 February.