South Africa and weapons of mass destruction

South Africa and weapons of mass destruction

During the 1970s and 1980s, South Africa pursued research into nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. Six nuclear weapons were assembled [] . With the anticipated changeover to a majority-elected government in the 1990s, the South African government dismantled all of its nuclear weapons, the only nation in the world to date which voluntarily gave up nuclear arms it had developed itself.

The country has been a signatory of the Biological Weapons Convention since 1975, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty since 1991, and the Chemical Weapons Convention since 1995.

Nuclear weapons

South Africa developed a small finite deterrence arsenal of gun-type fission weapons in the 1980s. Six were constructed and another was under construction at the time the program ended. [cite web|publisher=National Security Archive|date=1993-12-19|accessdate=2008-08-26|title=South Africa: Nuclear Case Closed?|url=]

Testing the first device

The AEB selected a test site in the Kalahari Desert at the Vastrap weapons range located at coord|27|50|S|21|38|E north of Upington. Two test shafts were completed in 1976 and 1977. One shaft was 385 meters deep, the other, 216 meters. In 1977, the AEB established its own high-security weapons research and development facilities at Pelindaba, and during that year the program was transferred from Somchem to Pelindaba. In mid-1977, the AEB produced a gun-type device--without an HEU core. Although the Y-Plant was operating, it had not yet produced enough weapon-grade uranium for a device. As has happened in programs in other nations, the development of the devices had outpaced the production of the fissile material.

AEC officials say that a "cold test" (a test without Uranium-235) was planned for August 1977. An Armscor official who was not involved at the time said that the test would have been a fully instrumented underground test, with a dummy core. Its major purpose was to test the logistical plans for an actual detonation.

How that test was canceled has been well publicized. That summer Soviet intelligence detected test preparations and in early August alerted the United States. U.S. intelligence quickly confirmed the existence of the test site. On August 28, the Washington Post quoted a U.S. official: "I'd say we were 99 percent certain that the construction was preparation for an atomic test."

The Soviet and Western governments were convinced that South Africa was preparing for a full-scale nuclear test. During the next two weeks in August, the Western nations pressed South Africa not to test. The French foreign minister warned on August 22 of "grave consequences" for French-South African relations. Although he did not elaborate, his statement implied that France was willing to cancel its contract to provide South Africa with the Koeberg nuclear power reactors.

In the summer of 1993 de Villiers said that when the test site was exposed, he ordered its immediate shutdown. The site was abandoned and the holes sealed. One of the shafts was temporarily reopened in 1988 in preparation for another test, which did not take place, as a means to end the war with Angola and Cuba; afterwards, they signed a cease-fire. The decreasing influence of the Soviet Union at this time also played a part in the cease-fire since Moscow started to cut off aid to its African client states.

Possible Detonation

In September 1979, a double flash over the Indian Ocean detected by a U.S. satellite was suspected of being a South African nuclear test, in collaboration with Israel (this event is known as the Vela Incident). No official confirmation of it being a nuclear test has been made, and expert agencies have disagreed on their assessments. In 1997, Deputy Foreign Minister Aziz Pahad stated that South Africa had conducted a test, but later retracted the statement as being a report of rumours. Pahad apparently had no inside information about the program. [ [ Aziz Pahad's statement and retraction discussed here] ] A number of other sourcesWho have quoted anonymous Israeli officials verifying that some sort of test took place, but none of this has been officially confirmed by the Israeli, South African, or United States governments. However, in February 1994, Commodore Dieter Gerhardt, the convicted Soviet spy and former commander of South Africa's Simon's Town naval base was reported to have said::"Although I was not directly involved in planning or carrying out the operation, I learned unofficially that the flash was produced by an Israeli-South African test code-named "Operation Phenix". The explosion was clean and was not supposed to be detected. But they were not as smart as they thought, and the weather changedndash so the Americans were able to pick it up." [ [ South Africa and the affordable bomb (David Albright)] ] [ [ Proliferation: A flash from the past (David Albright)] ]

Viable delivery

The six bombs were not particularly sophisticated, being designed to be delivered from one of several aircraft types then in service with the South African Air Force (SAAF). The Canberra B12 in service with 12 Squadron SAAF was chosen as the primary air drop vehicle as it was highly reliable, spares were readily available from several countries (unlike the Buccaneer and the maritime reconnaissance Shackleton, grounded due to UK refusal to supply spare parts), and it had both a significantly greater radius of action and a much higher operating altitude than the Buccaneer and Cheetah. There was also much more internal space for the fitting of weapons system control equipment.

Further, the Buccaneer was designed with a rotating bomb-bay, which needed modification to carry the first-generation 'shape' weapon, raising complexity and reliability issues, and increased fuel consumption, leading to the Canberra B12 being the preferred 'viable means of delivery' in the early part of the program.

South Africa also had a relatively sophisticated intercontinental ballistic missile programme running concurrently with the nuclear programme, and was known to be working on more sophisticated nuclear weapons capable of delivery from such a platform. According to published data one of the missiles, the RSA-4, may have been capable of delivering a 700 kg nuclear warhead from its South African launch site to any point on earth [ [ Jericho ] ] .

Collaboration with Israel

An article at the Federation of American Scientists website claims that South African projects to develop nuclear weapons during the 1970s and 1980s "were undertaken with some cooperation from Israel." [cite web
author=Unknown author
title=RSA Nuclear Weapons Program
publisher=Federation of American Scientists
] However, United Nations Security Council Resolution 418 of November 4, 1977 introduced a mandatory arms embargo against South Africa, also requiring all States to refrain from "any co-operation with South Africa in the manufacture and development of nuclear weapons". [ [ UNSCR 418 of 4 November 1977: States should refrain from "any co-operation with South Africa in the manufacture and development of nuclear weapons"] ] This prohibition on co-operation led David Albright to write in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists::"Faced with sanctions, South Africa began to organize clandestine procurement networks in Europe and the United States, and it began a long, secret collaboration with Israel." Albright continued: "A common question is whether Israel provided South Africa with weapons design assistance, although available evidence argues against significant co-operation." [cite news
title=South Africa and the affordable bomb
publisher=Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists
url= South Africa and the affordable bomb (David Albright)
] According to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, in 1977 Israel traded 30 grams of tritium in exchange for 50 tons of South African uranium and in the mid-80s assisted with the development of the RSA-3 ballistic missile. cite web |url=
title=Missile Chronology (South Africa) |publisher=Nuclear Threat Initiative |month=May | year=2003
] Also in 1977, according to foreign press reports, it was suspected that South Africa signed a pact with Israel that included the transfer of military technology and the manufacture of at least six atom bombs. cite news
url =
title = P.W. Botha felt Israel had betrayed him
accessdae = 2006-11-2
publisher = Jerusalem Post
date= 2006-11-02

Chris McGreal has claimed that "Israel provided expertise and technology that was central to South Africa's development of its nuclear bombs".cite news
title=Brothers in arms - Israel's secret pact with Pretoria
author=Chris McGreal
publisher=The Guardian
] In 2000, Dieter Gerhardt, Soviet spy and former commander in the South African Navy, claimed that Israel agreed in 1974 to arm eight Jericho II missiles with "special warheads" for South Africa. [cite web |publisher=PBS Newshour |date=May 2, 2005 |title=Tracking Nuclear Proliferation |url=]

Nuclear strategy

The South African officials involved in the program claim that the nuclear weapons were only intended to be used as part of a "three phase nuclear strategy" to deter potential adversaries (especially Soviet-backed forces from neighbouring states) and to compel Western involvement should deterrence fail; this is known as a finite deterrence. Phase one involved neither confirming nor denying its nuclear capability. In phase 2, if faced with imminent attack, Pretoria would reveal its capability to Western leaders to force their intervention. If that failed, phase 3 would involve overt nuclear testing to demonstrate South Africa's ability and willingness to use nuclear weapons. In 1988, South Africa even took preliminary steps necessary to put phase 3 into effect when it clandestinely reopened one of the boreholes at the Vastrap test site (and built a metal concealment shed over the shaft) as part of a contingency plan to help bring an end to the Angolan war. Undeclared phase 4 contingency is borne out by South Africa's substantial investment in the development and production of intermediate-range ballistic missiles to be eventually fitted with nuclear warheads, and the completion in 1989 of the Advena nuclear warhead production facility.


South Africa was the first state in the world to give up its nuclear weapons capability voluntarily. When South Africa dismantled its advanced, but clandestine, nuclear weapons program and assumed a leading role in the nonproliferation regime, it was in anticipation of the country’s immense political changes. The then President F.W. de Klerk's decision in 1990 to dismantle the apartheid system paved the way for democratic elections. All the bombs (six constructed and one under construction) were destroyed and South Africa acceded to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1991. South African Ambassador to the United States Harry Schwarz signed the Treaty. In 1993 F.W. de Klerk admitted the scope of the country's past nuclear activities to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and gave them access to the country's nuclear sites for verification purposes. On August 19 1994, after completing its inspection, the IAEA confirmed that one partially-completed and six fully-completed nuclear weapons had been dismantled. As a result, the IAEA was satisfied that South Africa's nuclear program had been converted to peaceful applications. Following this, South Africa joined the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) as a full member on 5 April 1995. South Africa played a leading role in the establishment of the African Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Treaty (the Treaty of Pelindaba) in 1996, becoming one of the first members in 1997. South Africa signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1996 and ratified it in 1999.

Although South Africa declared its fissile material inventory to the IAEA, it did not reveal the exact figures to the public. Moreover, scientists who had previously worked on the nuclear weapons and missile programs could constitute a proliferation risk, and some reports indicate that some South African scientists may have gone to work for Middle Eastern countries. Some individuals and companies in South Africa are known to have been part of the A Q Khan nuclear black market. Other reports suggest that the country's Nuclear Energy Corporation of South Africa (NECSA) secretly sold China some of the equipment from its dismantled nuclear facilities.

Biological and chemical weapons

South Africa pursued secret chemical and biological warfare programs during the 1980s (and abandoned them in 1993), despite having joined the Biological Weapons Convention in 1975. It ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention in September 1995, although reports suggest that South African scientists were helping Libya's quest for biological and chemical weapons. In October 1998, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission released a report containing 3,500 pages of testimony about human rights violations during the apartheid era. It included a chapter on Project Coast, a clandestine government chemical and biological warfare program conducted during the 1980s and 1990s.

Project Coast started in 1983, ostensibly to produce equipment for defensive purposes, including masks and protective suits. Despite vehement assertions to the contrary, testimony showed that the program went well beyond defensive purposes. Key officialsWho said that Project Coast sponsored the production of chocolates laced with anthrax, umbrellas with poisoned tips, screwdrivers fitted with poison-filled cylinders, and clothing infused with lethal chemicals. Biological and chemical agents were developed to make attacks appear to be the result of natural causes.

ee also

*African Nuclear Weapons Free Zone Treaty
*Helikon vortex separation process
*Military history of South Africa
*Israel and weapons of mass destruction
*South African Border War
*Overberg Test Range


*Joseph Cirincione, Jon B. Wolfsthal, Miriam Rajkumar. "Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Threats." Washington D.C.: Carnegie Endowment For International Peace, 2005.

External links

* [ South Africa and the affordable bomb (David Albright)]
* [ Proliferation: A flash from the past (David Albright)]
* [ Birth and Death of the South African Nuclear Weapons Programme] , Waldo Stumpf, Atomic Energy Corporation of South Africa, October 1995
* [ South Africa and the nuclear option] , Marcus Duvenhage, 1998
* [ Out of (South) Africa: Pretoria’s Nuclear Weapons Experience] , Roy E. Horton, USAF Institute for National Security Studies, August 1999
* [ Nuclear guide to proliferation - South Africa]
* [ The Nuclear Weapon Archive account of South Africa]
* [ Israel conducted nuclear experiment in 1979]
* [ South Africa's Nuclear Autopsy: The Risk Report] , Winconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, 1996
* [ Nuclear verification in South Africa] , Adolf von Baeckmann, Gary Dillon and Demetrius Perricos, IAEA Bulletin Volume 37 Number 1

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