Two Russian Aerospace Forces Tupolev Tu-160 ‘Blackjack’ bombers touched down at Air Force Base Waterkloof on Wednesday in a groundbreaking visit to South Africa.
The aircraft arrived at approximately 16:30, later than expected due to a delayed takeoff in Russia due to bad weather. The aircraft were originally scheduled to arrive in South Africa on 22 October but were delayed by more than a day due to technical issues. They departed Engels, refuelled over the Caspian Sea and then headed 11 000 kilometres non-stop to South Africa.
When they entered South African airspace, the Tu-160s (registrations RF-94112 and RF-94102) were escorted by three South African Air Force (SAAF) Hawk Mk 120 Lead In Fighter-Trainers and a pair of Gripens, with the aircraft practicing interception and escort. The two Gripens landed at Waterkloof whilst the Hawks returned home.
Supporting the Tu-160 bombers and accompanying Russian delegation is an Antonov An-124 (registration RF-82034) cargo aircraft and an Ilyushin Il-62 (registration RA-86498) passenger jet, which arrived on the 22nd. Members of the Russian delegation met with their South African counterparts at the St Georges Hotel on Wednesday morning to discuss search and rescue, amongst others.
The SAAF’s deputy chief, Major General Innocent Buthelezi, said on Wednesday it was a privilege to host the Russian aircraft especially as it was the first time such bombers have landed in Africa. He said the visit was part of military-to-military cooperation between Russia and South Africa and looked forward to strengthening relations between the two defence forces.
Buthelezi explained that the visit emanated from a memorandum of understanding signed some time ago. In 1995 Russia and South Africa signed agreements on military technical co-operation and co-operation between their respective defence ministries. More recently, in August 2018 Russia signed a military technical co-operation agreement with the Southern African Development Community (SADC) on the sidelines of the BRICS summit in South Africa.
Buthelezi said the unarmed Tu-160s flew to South Africa to show their operational capabilities, but it was also a chance for the South African Air Force to showcase its own capabilities.
Lieutenant General Sergei Kobylash, commander of Russia’s Long-Range Aviation, thanked the SAAF for the warm welcome after the 13 hour flight. He said the primary mission of the Tu-160 flight was to train crews on long-range missions and improve co-operation with the SAAF.
Siphiwe Dlamini, Department of Defence head of communications, said the Russian visit had been planned long ago and is part of the bilateral defence ties between South Africa and the Russian Federation. He added that South Africa has had exercises with the Russian Navy and competed in Russia’s Army Games, whilst South Africa has military personnel training in Russia. In late November, Russia, China and South Africa will take part in a joint naval exercise in South Africa. Dlamini said the Russian Air Force visit has been in the making for the last five to eight years.
Defence expert and Director at African Defence Review, Darren Olivier, notes that the visit was originally scheduled for 2016, and was to coincide with that year’s Africa Aerospace & Defence exhibition. At the last minute it was postponed, seemingly as a result of Russia being unable to spare Tu-160 aircraft during a key period of its operations in Syria.
The itinerary of the Russian contingent was not divulged, but it is believed the Russian aircraft will be in South Africa for the next few days before returning home.
The Russian Ministry of Defence said the purpose of the visit “is the development of bilateral military cooperation and the development of cooperation between the Russian Aerospace Forces and the Air Force of the Republic of South Africa.”
It added that the event will help to increase the combat training of the flight personnel of the two countries. “Comprehensive friendly relations between Russia and South Africa are built in the spirit of strategic partnership and mutual understanding.”
The visit coincided with the opening of the first ever Russia-Africa summit in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi, which is being attended by President Cyril Ramaphosa, who is also accompanied by the Ministers of International Relations and Co-operation, Dr Naledi Pandor, State Security, Ayanda Dlodlo and Communications and Digital Technologies, Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams.
Russia is heavily promoting its military hardware at the summit, from helicopters to assault rifles and facial recognition systems. Rosoboronexport director Alexander Mikheev told AFP that Russia would like to expand its presence in Africa – African countries now account for 40% of the exporter’s current orders. Mikheev said 20 African countries are working with Russia and African arms contracts are worth $12 billion. Nine countries, including Rwanda, Mozambique and Angola, are set to receive Russian arms this year. Sales include attack helicopters, fighter jets and surface-to-air missiles.
Ethiopia recently agreed to by a Pantsir surface-to-air missile system while Niger on Wednesday agreed to buy 12 Mi-35 attack helicopters from Russia.
Russia has been trying to gain influence in Africa, with Moscow’s ties to Africa on the up. The country has signed military technical cooperation accords with more than 30 African states which it supplies arms to.