Does South Africa have a working synthetic aperture radar satellite?


David Maynier, the DA shadow defence and military veterans minister, will not be flavour of the month in the Defence Ministry and particularly its Defence Intelligence component.

This after he asked pointed questions about the launch of a Kondor-E earth observation satellite from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in the third week of December.
“Roscosmos announced the launch of a Kondor-E at 06h43 (South African time) on December 19. The launch was initially scheduled for 06h55 (South African time) on December 18 but was reportedly delayed due to technical reasons.
“Significantly, a report claimed the Kondor-E satellite would be launched ‘in the interests of a foreign customer’. The unnamed foreign customers may be South Africa. We cannot be sure, but the Kondor-E launched in December may be Defence Intelligence’s ‘spy satellite’ developed under a secret project called Project Flute,” he said.

Maynier has been seeking answers to South Africa’s possible ownership of a “spy satellite” but has run into closed doors at Parliamentary level.
“That Defence Intelligence has a contract with NPO Mashinostroyenia to develop a Kondor-e radar imaging satellite under Project Flute is an open secret. This is despite Defence and Military Veterans Minister, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, refusing to answer questions in Parliament. The Secretary for Defence, Dr Sam Gulube, conceded at a meeting of the Defence and Military Veterans Portfolio committee there was a contract to develop a ‘military satellite’ and it was on track,” Maynier said.

He now wants to know if the December launch was for South Africa.
“If yes, we need to know the purpose of the Kondo-e satellite and whether after reportedly sinking R1,4 billion into it, it actually works. We also need to know if the satellite will be replaced and at what cost at the end of its five year lifespan.”

At the time of publication neither the Defence Ministry nor the SA National Defence Force (SANDF) had responded to Maynier’s allegations.

One who takes a somewhat different perspective on South Africa’s possible acquisition of a “spy satellite” is defence watcher and writer Darren Olivier.

He maintains, in a post of a South African military aviation forum, that Kondor-E could be a strategic asset for the SANDF as a high-resolution reconnaissance satellite but questions its cost. This in view of far more urgent acquisitions needed for the South African military machine including maritime patrol aircraft, transport aircraft and airborne early warning aircraft.

On Project Flute he maintains that it went ahead is an indication of the “outsize influence” Defence Intelligence has over the national defence budget.
“This has resulted in a mismatch in capabilities, where a strategic intelligence platform is being acquired while tactical intelligence is underdeveloped and tactical aircraft capability continues to degrade.”