SANDF declined exercises with US, but proceeding with Russia and China

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The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) has been offered opportunities to carry out naval exercises with the United States, but declined, and is instead proceeding with Exercise Mosi II with Russia and China later this month.

This emerged during a media briefing last week with Rear Admiral Chase Patrick, Director, Maritime Headquarters, US Naval Forces Europe-Africa, who spoke to the media about Exercise Obangame Express 2023, which has just concluded in Nigeria.

“We do invite South Africa to our exercises, and they’ve, as I recall, have declined to participate in those. We do have upcoming exercises, for example Cutlass Express, which is focused on some of our partner countries on the eastern side of Africa which I think would have been a really good place to involve South Africa, but they’re just – they’re not playing in that exercise this year,” Patrick said.

He added that “in terms of our relationship with South Africa, we’re always keen to build – to building and growing that relationship. We do make it a point to send our ship in port to that country anytime that we circumnavigate the continent. And in fact, we did have the Hershel ‘Woody’ Williams there just – I think just this past fall…and that’s not the first time we’ve done that. So any opportunity we get to actually exercise with our partners in South Africa, we do seek that.”

South Africa’s decision to host Exercise Mosi II with China and Russia between 17 and 27 February off the coast of KwaZulu-Natal coincides with the anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, and this has drawn criticism from some quarters.

Kobus Marais, opposition Democratic Alliance party Shadow Minister of Defence and Military Affairs, has said the exercise “could further alienate SA from our largest and most important trading partners.”

He also criticised the SANDF’s decision not to allow media onto ships during the exercise, condemning the lack of transparency, and suggested the ANC government is ashamed of how it’s let the military and its capabilities go to waste.

The Russian Navy will be sending the frigate Admiral Gorshkov to South Africa and Russian news agency TASS last week reported that it will perform a training launch of a Tsirkon (Zircon) hypersonic missile during Exercise Mosi II. An unidentified official said this would be the first-ever event of its kind, but the launch has not been officially confirmed.

The Zircon surface-to-surface hypersonic missile has a range of around 400-1 000 km at speeds of Mach 5, although a speed of Mach 8 has apparently been achieved in testing. The weapon was test-fired from the frigate Admiral Gorshkov from January 2020 and is expected to enter service this year, when it will arm Russian cruisers, frigates and submarines.

The upcoming Exercise Mosi II and January’s visit by Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov have shone the spotlight on South Africa’s foreign policy, which maintains strong economic and political relations with the global north as well as the global south, but experts fear the shift to Russia, Cuba, and China could alienate the country’s biggest Western trading partners. South Africa has been reticent to criticise Russia openly for invading Ukraine. The country abstained during each vote criticising Russia at the United Nations. Some have read this as tacit support of Russia.

Josep Borrell, the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs, paid a visit to his South African counterpart Naledi Pandor at the end of January for the 15th session of the SA-EU Ministerial Political Dialogue and said that, “We have always respected South Africa’s traditional non-aligned stance in foreign policy. The European Union doesn’t ask Africa to choose sides. We are just asking all the countries in the world to stand on the side of the United Nations Charter. Nothing more. But nothing less.” He also urged South Africa to use its close ties with Russia to push for peace in Ukraine.

Last month the Ministry of Defence and Military Veterans explained the decision to proceed with Mosi II. “The envisaged exercise will benefit all countries involved through interoperability of the naval systems, joint disaster systems management enhancement, maritime cooperation and anti-piracy exercises,” said Minister of Defence and Military Veterans, Thandi Modise. In addition, Exercise Mosi II will serve as a platform for the three nations to share operational skills, expertise and experience, the Ministry added, with the exercise set to “benefit all three participating nations”.

The Ministry of Defence stated that, “contrary to the assertions by our critics, South Africa is not abandoning its neutral position on the Russian-Ukraine conflict. We remain firm in our view that multilateralism and dialogue are keys to unlock sustainable international peace. We continue to urge both parties to engage in dialogue as a solution to the current conflict.”

Pointing out its other defence diplomacy ties, the Ministry reported engagements with counterparts in recent months in the United Kingdom, the People’s Republic of China, Nigeria, Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana. “There was no hype about any of these countries, especially with regard to the USA wherein we held an even longer exercise, known as Exercise Shared Accord in KwaZulu-Natal last year regarding our military health capabilities.”

Defending Mosi II as business as usual, the Ministry said that the South African National Defence Force plans and budgets for military exercises with other nations across the globe, both at bilateral and multilateral levels, with Mosi II “no exception”.

“In addition, the biennial maritime Exercise Oxide between South Africa and France took place in November last year at the Simon’s Town Naval Base.”

This will be the second time Mosi will be taking place with the first one held in November 2019 in Cape Town. Exercise Mosi II will see over 350 SANDF personnel from various arms of services and divisions participating alongside their Russian and Chinese counterparts.