The Story Of The Jet That Would Have Delivered South Africa’s Nuclear Bomb

The British-made Buccaneer strike aircraft was adapted to carry apartheid-era South Africa’s guided nuclear bomb.

Blackburn Buccaneer
Public Domain

South Africa, an international pariah for much of the Cold War due to its apartheid policy, remains the only country to have developed nuclear weapons and then voluntarily given them up. Before it did so, the main focus of these developments was an air-launched weapon that was intended to be delivered by a Hawker Siddeley Buccaneer strike aircraft. This combination could potentially have struck targets in other countries in sub-Saharan Africa, as part of South Africa’s long-running campaign against regional rebel groups, or even hostile revolutionary governments.

With plenty of uranium available, South Africa had already become interested in nuclear energy as a source of electrical power by the early 1970s. It sought to enrich uranium for its own use and for export and, at the same time, the government began to examine the military potential of these developments. In the same period, the country was becoming increasingly entrenched in the Border War in what was then known as South West Africa, which remained under South African control until 1990, at which point it became the independent country of Namibia. As a sideshow to that conflict, the South African Defense Force (SADF) also became involved in fighting in Angola to the north, where it would meet well-equipped Cuban and other Soviet-backed forces.

Col André Kritzinger/Wikimedia Commons

A South African Air Force Buccaneer S50 at Ysterplaat in 1970. At least one of these aircraft was modified to carry a nuclear weapon.

By 1974, the South African regime had decided to develop a nuclear weapon that could be used, if required, in these escalating conflicts. Not surprisingly, the efforts to build these weapons of mass destruction were conducted in strict secrecy, but after weapons inspectors were invited into the country in 1993, many more details started to become available. There remain still, however, some significant gaps in our knowledge, including the possible test of a South African nuclear device in 1979 — the so-called Vela incident — when a U.S. reconnaissance satellite detected a flash over the South Atlantic, suggestive of an atmospheric nuclear explosion.

What is known is that by 1977, a single gun-type nuclear device — a fission-based weapon like the U.S. Little Boy bomb dropped over Hiroshima during World War II — was nearly ready to be tested, when the Soviet Union and the United States uncovered the plans. At this point, secrecy around the program increased further and it was switched from scientific to military control, led by the arms contractor Kentron, which had established a new facility for the purpose by 1980.

Ultimately, South Africa succeeded in producing five complete nuclear devices that could have been deployed operationally, plus a test device. The first true operational weapon — initially codenamed Hobo and later Cabot — was a six-kiloton device made ready in 1982. One more device was left unfinished by 1989 when it was decided to suspend work on the program. These were all of the gun type, although in 1985, work was also launched on a more advanced uranium implosion device, similar in broad strokes to the U.S. Fat Man bomb also dropped on Japan during World War II, without producing any weapons.

South Africa also began planning for how to deliver its warheads if the need arose. One option was to place the device on a medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM), based on the Israeli Jericho 2 missile. However, the device was always designed to be interchangeable for different delivery systems and was small enough to be accommodated in an air-launched glide bomb. It seems the preferred aircraft to carry this was the British-built Hawker Siddeley Buccaneer, originally developed as a naval strike aircraft that served aboard British aircraft carriers. The United Kingdom had transferred these aircraft to South Africa from 1965, despite having just introduced an arms embargo because of the country’s apartheid policy, one year earlier.

Denel Dynamics

The Raptor I glide bomb served as the basis for South Africa’s air-launched nuclear weapon.

South Africa ordered 16 of the Buccaneer S50 version, a land-based strike variant tailored specifically for the country’s requirements, with the powered folding-wing system found on the British Royal Navy jets deleted and with additional provisions for flying in a ‘hot and high’ environment. These included a pair of retractable Bristol Siddeley BS.605 rocket engines in the rear fuselage to boost takeoff performance, although these were rarely used.

Nimbus227/Wikipedia Commons

A Bristol Siddeley BS.605 rocket engine on display at the RAF Museum Cosford.

To get around the embargo, the United Kingdom had agreed to deliver the Buccaneers on the understanding they would be used for purely defensive missions, such as protecting the shipping lanes around the Cape. In reality, not only would these aircraft see extensive combat in Angola, but they would also be earmarked to carry South Africa’s nuclear weapons. British authorities did subsequently cancel South African options to buy another 14 Buccaneers.

Uncredited

SAAF Buccaneers lined up. 

SAAF

Buccaneers in formation.

After crew training in the United Kingdom, the South African Air Force (SAAF) Buccaneers were delivered between November 1965 and October 1966. Attrition was notably high, with one of the jets ditching in the sea on its delivery flight. By 1979, only six of the 16 Buccaneers reportedly remained in service. Ultimately, no fewer than 13 aircraft were involved in serious incidents during the type’s career, with 10 aircrews losing their lives.

Over Angola, the SAAF Buccaneers were especially active from 1978, including flying bombing raids during that year’s Battle of Cassinga fought against the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO). SWAPO had been using bases in Angola to support its campaign for independence in what would later become Namibia. 

Other raids were flown against SWAPO training camps in Zambia, with the jets employing conventional bombs, unguided rockets, and French-made AS30 guided missiles, the latter of which had a range of up to 7.5 miles. The jets were also upgraded throughout their service, receiving a reconnaissance pod, threat warning receivers, and countermeasures dispensers.

Smikect/Wikimedia Commons

South African troops on patrol near the Angola border in the early 1980s.

Adapting the indigenous nuclear weapon for air-launch by the Buccaneer was to involve a version of the locally developed H-2 television-guided glide bomb, subsequently also known as the Raptor I. The basic H-2 had a range of up to 37 miles and after its TV seeker had locked onto a target, control of the weapon could also be handed over to another aircraft within a radius of up to 125 miles, via a data-link pod. Opting for a glide bomb may also have had the advantage of reducing the need for nuclear delivery programming aboard the aircraft and providing the aircrew with a more straightforward mission profile, without the need for specific bomb delivery techniques.

The Raptor I-based option had the benefit of being able to be launched from a Buccaneer outside the range of the Soviet-made, Cuban-operated air defense systems that were a serious threat to SAAF aircraft operating over Angola. The Buccaneer could also extend its range through aerial refueling, in conjunction with the SAAF’s Boeing 707 tankers, putting many more targets within reach. In a demonstration of the Buccaneer’s endurance, one of those jets had remained airborne for 9 hours and 5 minutes in December 1966, with the aid of two inflight refuelings.

Col André Kritzinger/Wikimedia Commons

A South African Air Force 707 demonstrates aerial refueling with a pair of Cheetah fighter jets. 

The nuclear-tipped glide bomb based on the H-2 received the codename Hamerkop, after a bird native to parts of southern Africa, the appearance of which, according to myth, was a harbinger of death for the people below. 

This delivery system was more within the technical reach of South Africa than an MRBM and it appears that this view that the Hamerkop was more likely to be a success led to the complete termination of the development of such a missile. In a bizarre addendum to the latter, the prototype transporter developed for the MRBM, known as Moerse Lorrie Zonder Naam, or ‘huge lorry without a name’ was repurposed as a fire truck. The same design also served as the basis for an ammunition resupply vehicle for the G6 self-propelled howitzer.

The switch from civilian to military leadership from 1977 had resulted in significant disruption for the South African nuclear weapons program, but there were other, technical, hitches, too. For example, no devices were produced between 1982 and 1986, partly due to concerns with the safety of an air-launched weapon. Tests had shown that a gun-type device, when dropped accidentally or jettisoned from the aircraft carrying it if it suffered a malfunction, could detonate due to the impact alone, without being electrically armed. A significant redesign was required during this period to prevent this from happening.

As far as is known, only a single Buccaneer was ever modified for the carriage of the Hamerkop, probably between 1987 and 1989, coinciding with the period in which most of the usable weapons were completed. This aircraft is serial number 422, today preserved at the SAAF Museum in Swartkop, near Pretoria. While five Hamerkops were built (corresponding with the five functional nuclear devices), there is no record of any test flights or launches of unarmed weapons from Buccaneers or other aircraft. The weapon reportedly had a 20-kiloton yield.

NJR ZA/Wikimedia Commons

Hawker Siddeley Buccaneer S50 serial number 422 preserved in the SAAF Museum at Swartkop.

The final death knell for South Africa’s nuclear weapons program was the presidency of F. W. de Klerk, who came to power in 1989, deciding to do away with it. There was apparently no significant opposition from the military, whose experience in years cross-border campaigns had not revealed any requirement for a weapon of this type. Ultimately, the actual utility of a nuclear weapon in the conflict in Angola was always negligible, and its use would represent an unprecedented escalation while further ostracizing the South African regime. Moreover, the end of apartheid now seemed to be in sight, and possession of weapons of mass destruction would do nothing to enhance South Africa’s international position then, or in the future. While a veil of secrecy remained over the program, de Klerk oversaw the removal of enriched uranium from the weapons that had been completed.

In 1991, South Africa finally signed the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty and, two years later, de Klerk acknowledged the existence of the nuclear weapons program. Survivors of the SAAF Buccaneer fleet were withdrawn in the same year, by which time only five examples were reportedly still airworthy. Some lingered on for some years longer in private hands, including providing flights to thrill-seekers with the Thunder City company in Cape Town. 

That was not the end of the line for the glide bomb, however. In 1998, the conventionally armed H-2 was declassified and began to be marketed as the Raptor I. Further development led to the improved Raptor II, which added different guidance options, and was exported to Algeria and Pakistan, followed by the MUlti-Purpose Stand-Off Weapon (MUPSOW), a jet-powered cruise missile.

Denel Dynamics

The Raptor II glide bomb, derived from the H-2.

South Africa may also have assisted Pakistan in developing its own Ra’ad cruise missile — also nuclear-armed. As Dr. Jeffrey Lewis, founding publisher of Arms Control Wonk.com and an expert on missiles and nuclear weapons at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey points out, it is also conceivable that South Africa may have only worked on a conventional version of the Ra’ad. Either way, if true, it brings the story of South Africa’s quest to build an air-launched nuclear weapon full circle.

Today, very little of the hardware related to the South African nuclear weapons program remains, although Buccaneer 442 at Swartkop stands testament to what might have been, but thankfully wasn’t. 

Contact the author: thomas@thedrive.com