Defence minister enters the spy satellite fray

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Responding to the saga of South Africa’s cancelled spy satellite, defence minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula insists information regarding state security should not be compromised for political points. However, shadow defence minister David Maynier maintains a satellite not yet in orbit “hardly comprises national security”.

The two are embroiled in a bout of verbal warfare following an investigation by Democratic Alliance MP Maynier into an apparent contract entered into by the former Chief of Defence Intelligence, now Armscor chairman, for South Africa to acquire a radar reconnaissance satellite.

The contract, Maynier said, was “bungled” to the extent South Africa would have been dependent on the Russian provider to supply imagery, the delivery of which South Africa would not be in charge of.

Project Flute, later renamed Project Consolidated Flute, apparently goes back to 2006 when Lieutenant General Mojo Motau, then SA National Defence Force (SANDF) Defence Intelligence Chief, was the main driver of a contract with NPO Mashinostroyenia for the development and launch of a Kondor-E radar reconnaissance satellite, according to Maynier.
“We do not have all the facts but believe the contract was frozen sometime before 2008 by the Department of Defence, causing NPO Mashinostroyenia to threaten legal action. The project is believed to have been frozen, in part, because a flaw was discovered in the contract which Defence Intelligence failed to recognise,” Maynier said.

A statement issued by Mapisa-Nqakula’s office said: “The vulnerability of our state security should be the concern of us all. I appeal to all South Africans to respect the need to handle matters of our security with responsibility.”

She also “vowed” to protect the SANDF as a national asset serving all South Africans without being subjected to political manipulation.
“Certain state security matters cannot be discussed or haphazardly thrown into the public domain. This is to ensure none of our citizens’ security is jeopardised as a result of exposing state security features and capabilities,” the statement said, adding “protection of the integrity of security capabilities should be balanced with the need for accountability”.

Maynier said the Minister is “clearly under political pressure” but he still wants answers from her on whether the satellite due to be launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome next month is for Defence Intelligence. The launch of the first export version, the Kondor-E, for an undisclosed customer, is currently scheduled for February 27.
“I also want to know whether there is an ongoing project to develop a radar imaging satellite; how the project to develop it was bungled; who was held accountable for the bungle following an investigation by the Auditor General and how much has been spent on the project,” he said.

The fallout from the South African Kondor-E project resulted in the Russian military’s refusal to later launch South Africa’s SumbandilaSat earth observation satellite. SumbandilaSat was later launched by Roscosmos which is not part of the Russian Ministry of Defence.