Minister of Science and Technology Naledi Pandor says government’s newly launched SumbandilaSat satellite will not be used for any defence applications by either South Africa or any other country.
She was replying to a parliamentary question about the possible military use of the satellite – launched by Russia for the DST from the Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan last month – by emphasising that the R11 million 81kg micro-satellite was “manufactured purely for research purposes … and to strengthen South Africa’s capabilities in space science and technology”.
Pandor’s reply stressed that SumbandilaSat is “an experimental satellite with an earth observation primary payload which will be used for peaceful purposes”.
The satellite was developed by the University of Stellenbosch-affiliated SunSpace and Information Systems company that designed and built the satellite as part of a R26 million development programme.
The Parliamentary opposition Democratic Alliance party’s shadow deputy science and technology minister Marian Shinn welcomed the response, saying “SumbandilaSat’s polar orbital path is directly overhead many of the world’s non-democratic states with dodgy human rights records and who are quick to take up arms against their citizens and neighbours.”
She says the DA was concerned that the government may have been tempted to hire the satellite’s earth-observation services in support of military agendas.
“This concern is supported by the fact that a number of applicants shortlisted for positions on the South African National Space Agency Board have extensive military backgrounds, citing defence technology research, missile engagement simulation exercises, training and expertise in electronic warfare, biological weapons and weapons of mass destruction,” she says in a statement.
“While the department’s director general Dr Phil Mjwara assured the portfolio committee at parliament this week that there was no military intent behind the government’s space policy, military expertise was essential on the board to guide policy decisions in support of peace-keeping missions, disaster emergency management, border security and coastal resource management,” Shinn noted.
The launch of the SumbandilaSat was, ironically, delayed by a dispute between Russia and SA about the latter cancelling the acquisition of a military reconnaissance satellite from the former under a secret programme worth over R2 billion.
The M&G reported the contract was placed by then-Chief of Defence Intelligence, Lt Gen Moreti “Mojo” Motau. It added that it was “unclear why Lekota cancelled the contract”, but hinted that Motau had signed the deal without authorisation.
The paper adds the cost of the satellite including ground facilities and launch cost would have been between US$150-million and US$300-million (between R2,2-billion and R2,4-billion). “The expenditure is recurrent, as satellites have a lifespan of only a few years.”
Motau unexpectedly took early retirement in March this year.
Current defence minister Lindiwe Sisulu in August said the South African National Defence Force “is involved in a number of highly classified projects to enhance the strategic intelligence collection capability of South Africa,” which could imply a new programme is underway.
The term “strategic intelligence collection capability” has in the past, in the United States and
elsewhere, been used as a euphemism for what the public would call “spy satellites”.
The DoD 2003/04 annual report 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 hinted that an acquisition was underway, noting that 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.”
Pandor`s predecessor, Mosibudi Mangena, has previously argued SA needs its own proprietary satellites and cannot rely on commercial machines for imagery as they may not always be available and may not offer coverage of the area of interest.
In addition, he warned that relying on satellites owned by others had national security implications – the operator and likely their national intelligence establishment would have insight into strategic South African government decision-making.
SA has previously contemplated a satellite programme and the infrastructure created for that is largely still available.
SumbandilaSat successfully completed a series of performance tests at the Institute for Satellite and Software Applications, at Grabouw, near Cape Town in 2006.
The facility, now in the hands of the Department of Communications, was in the 1980s known as Houwteq, part of apartheid SA’s space programme, which was central to a broader scheme to build ballistic missiles tipped with nuclear weapons.
Launch-pads and a launch control facility were built in the Overberg. These are now part of state arsenal Denel`s Overberg Test Range.
Nomfuneko Majaja, the government`s Chief Director Advanced Manufacturing Space Affairs at the Department of Trade and Industry told Parliament earlier this month that “it was hoped that SA would be in a position to be a launching state in five to ten years time.”
According to the PMG, Deputy Minister of Trade and Industry Thandi Tobias said there was “heavy competition to gain access to space and having a satellite would prove beneficial to the country”.
She said that the priority of government was social spending, and having a communications satellite formed part of that.
Advocate Luthando Mkhumathela, chair of the Space Council, added that some of the benefits gained from communication satellites included navigation for aircraft in flight, gaining knowledge of weather patterns and navigation for fishing boats.
They did not say why this would require SA-owned satellites and why existing commercial and military constellations were insufficient.