The Vela Incident – Did Israel help the Apartheid regime conduct a nuclear test?

פצצת האטום של דרום אפריקה

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South Africa's Nuclear Bomb
South Africa’s Nuclear Bomb

By Ami Dor On

In 2010 a spokeswoman for Israeli President Peres responded to a Guardian article, that Shimon Peres as a defence minister offered to sell to South Africa’s Apartheid regime Jericho missile and A bombs ,and said that their claims have no basis in reality. According to her the matter was never discussed. The spokeswoman did not comment on the reliability of the South African government secret agreement documents; brought to light in the book “The secret relations between Israel and the Apartheid Regime” by an American researcher; and bearing the signature of Shimon Peres, then Defense Minister in Itzhak Rabin’s government. The world remains baffled, even after decades, by another unsolved nuclear mystery: Did “white” South Africa and Israel conduct a nuclear weapon test 35 years ago in the Indian Ocean, its double flash detected by the American intelligence satellite Vela?

The international community is still baffled by decades-old mystery: Did Israel and South Africa secretly cooperate in developing nuclear weapons, and even conducted a nuclear weapons test in the Indian Ocean 35 years ago?

The experiment, its existence never verified, is known as “the double flash of the Vela satellite.” The first credible source pointing to the existence of nuclear cooperation between Israel and South Africa, under the radar of the intelligence agencies of the western world, was an article in the British newspaper The Guardian. In May 2010 it revealed classified documents dating from 1975, bearing the signatures of then Israeli Defense Minister Shimon Peres and then South African Defense Minister Pik Botha.

The nuclear weapons sale agreement
The nuclear weapons sale agreement

The secret documents, detailing the relations between the states concerning nuclear technology and heavily guarded by the Apartheid regime’s top security personnel, were published in the book “Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa” by the American academic Sasha Polakow Suransky. According to top western intelligence officials the documents prove that Israel has nuclear weapons. Even so, a spokeswoman for Shimon Peres, now the President of Israel, responded in 2010 and said that the Guardian article has no basis in reality. According to her there were never any such relations between the countries. She did not refer to the reliability of the documents themselves, carrying Shimon Peres’ own signature.

The Guardian article revealed the following: The contacts between Israel and South Africa began in 1975, while South Africa was still under Apartheid rule. The Israeli Defense Minister, Shimon Peres, met with the South African Defense Secretary, Pik Botha, on May 31st. Shimon Peres offered to sell South Africa a number of Jericho-2 missiles carrying nuclear warheads, in “three versions and levels of force.” The agreement wasn’t just a weapons sale, it described a cooperation between the states concerning nuclear technology. As part of the deal the agreement itself would be kept a secret.

The Guardian article also mentioned that Lt. General Raymond Armstrong, then South African Chief of Staff, took part in the agreement discussions. He prepared a secret memo detailing the discussion themselves, explaining how the agreement will benefit South Africa – but only if the missiles were armed with nuclear warheads. According to the memo, the Israeli offer to sell nuclear warheads was based on two assumptions: The missiles will be armed with nuclear warheads, and the warheads themselves will either be manufactured in South Africa or purchased elsewhere.

Back then South Africa did not have nuclear weapons production capabilities.

Pieter Willem Botha
Pieter Willem Botha

Two months after signing the agreement Peres and Botha met for a second time in Zurich. In order to preserve secrecy the nuclear Jericho missiles project was nicknamed “Chalet”. The document describing the background of the agreement mentioned that “Minister Botha was interested in a limited number of Chalet units, depending on their cargo capacity.” Peres was mentioned as well: “Minister Peres said that the specified cargo capacity was available in three configuration” That means, most probably, conventional warheads, nuclear or chemical.

According to the Guardian, Botha explained to his colleagues that he did not elaborate further for two reasons: The price set by Israel was high, and Israeli Prime Minister Itzhak Rabin had to authorize the final agreement, which seemed unlikely.

It’s hard to know today what actually happened before the original agreement was signed, but it’s important to know that Shimon Peres did not have the authority to finalize weapons sales to South Africa or to any other country, even though he did sign the agreement with the South African Secretary of Defense.

Polakov Suransky
Polakov Suransky

Like in many other cases, blind luck contributed, ironically, to the exposure of the failed deal. Before publishing his book Polakov Suransky asked President Shimon Peres’ office for an official response. The South Africans declassified the documents, left only a few sentences crossed out, and transferred the mostly uncensored documents to the American researcher. Their explanation: The South African government has no intention of washing the Apartheid regime’s dirty laundry.

What exactly pushed the South African to develop nuclear capabilities? The second half of the 20th century was difficult for the Apartheid regime, which was threatened by hostile elements from all sides. In Angola, for example, the MPLA communist underground movement had the backing of Cuba, and 30,000 Cuban troops were sent to Angola. A movement called Ferlimo operated in Mozambique; the white regime in Rhodesia fell, and the country was replaced by Zimbabwe; and the national movement SWAPO in Namibia, then under South African rule, demanded total freedom. To survive as a nation, South Africa decided to develop nuclear capabilities “for peaceful purposes,” which changed to “military purposes” as the international pressure on the Apartheid regime intensified. Up to the mid 1980s South Africa produced six uranium-based nuclear bombs, while, according to foreign reports, aided by Israel.

South Africa Nuclear Bombs
South Africa Nuclear Bombs

Back there were no computer simulations to verify the operational status of the bombs, they actually had to be detonated. That’s why South Africa decided to conduct its own nuclear weapons test. On September 22nd, 1979, the Vela Hotel 6911, an American intelligence satellite passing over the southern Indian Ocean, detected a clear and powerful flash, possibly due to an underwater nuclear bomb detonation. The flash itself could not lead back to South Africa – the Apartheid regime’s nuclear research program was based in the Kalahari desert, and that’s where the nuclear testing site was built.

The Vela satellite
The Vela satellite

The Vela satellite was originally equipped with sensors designed for nuclear explosion detection. In addition, the satellite could detect gamma rays, x rays and neutrons, all byproducts of nuclear explosions. The experts that analyzed the data estimated that the double flash, associated with nuclear explosions, was in fact the result of a nuclear weapons test. The findings weren’t conclusive, but Department of Defense intelligence agencies and experts from the national nuclear laboratories at Los Alamos reached a more specific conclusion. According to them the double flash registered by the satellite on September 22nd 1979 indicated a 2-3 kiloton atmospheric nuclear explosion that took place in the Indian Ocean; between the sparsely populated Crozet Islands, under French control, and the South African controlled Prince Edward Islands. According to all this the explosion was apparently a nuclear weapons test conducted by the Apartheid regime.

Despite being detected decades ago, there are still doubts as to the credibility of the Vela satellite data. The 6911 Vela Hotel satellite was one of two satellites launched on May 23rd , 1969. The other satellite had already stopped functioning at that point, and the Vela Hotel 6911 itself was two years past its estimated design lifetime.

The majority of experts who suggested that the double flash did indicate a nuclear explosion, however, were adamant about it being the result of a nuclear weapons test conducted by South Africa and Israel.

A few years after the detection of the double flash, and despite disagreements having to do with its exact origins, researchers at the national American laboratories at Los Alamos and American Navy experts could agree on the fact that it represented a fairly weak nuclear explosion. American WC-1358 espionage aircraft were sent to the area to verify the fact that the double flash was indeed caused by a nuclear explosion. The WC-1358 was capable of collecting air samples, which may contain airborne particles created during nuclear blasts. These planes searched the area indicated by the Vela satellite findings but found no signs of nuclear fallout. In order to finally solve the mystery of the flash and reach a professional, detailed conclusion on the matter of it indicating a weak nuclear explosion, then-US President James Carter assembled a panel of experts that would go over all the data and theories related to the incident. The Panel was headed by Frank Press, Carter’s scientific advisor. The final report concluded that the incident data analysis could not prove beyond all doubt that a nuclear explosion did take place. The findings and conclusions were then sent to all those related to the case, one of them being Victor Gilinski, formerly the science division head at the famous Rand Corporation, and the chairman of the American nuclear regulatory board. Gilinski said there are serious doubts as to the credibility of the report, because the panel members were influenced by political interest. Leonard Weiss, head of the Senate energy and nuclear proliferation subcommittee, claimed that the only reason the experts panel was assembled was President Carter wishing to avoid embarrassment, and that an Israel-South African nuclear weapons test did actually take place.

The Botha-Peres Agreement
The Botha-Peres Agreement

Over the years the double flash remained a mystery despite repeated attempts to discover its origin, but the scientific community continued to search for the truth. In 2008, for example, a book was published on the subject by Danny B. Stillman and Thomas C. Reed, titled “The Nuclear Express: A Political History of the Bonb and its Proliferation.” They claimed that the double flash was the result of an Israeli-South African nuclear weapons test.

Another example: In October 1984, an American intelligence agency report on the state of nuclear weapons worldwide stated that despite the event occurring years ago, the intelligence community still isn’t sure whether the double flash indicated a nuclear weapons test, and if so, if it was related to South Africa’s nuclear efforts.

And another example: The Russian-African spy Dieter Gerhardt, who was the commander of the South African navy base in Simon’s Town before being discovered, told the Johannesburg newspaper Des Blow on his release from prison in 1994 that even though he wasn’t directly involved, he had officially learned that the double flash was the result of an Israeli-South African weapons test.

AUS&R 300x250 (2)And yet another: On April 20th, 1997, the Israeli Haaretz newspaper quoted South African deputy Foreign Minister Aziz Pahad, who confirmed that the double flash was actually the result of an Israeli-South African nuclear weapons test. The same Haaretz article mentioned that Israel received 550 tons of uranium from South Africa, and in exchanged supplied information on nuclear warhead design and scientific methods to increase their power. After the publication Pahad claimed that he was misquoted, and all he said was that in that period there were rumors saying that the flash did indicate a nuclear weapons test, and that the matter should be investigated further.

The publications on the origins of the double flash didn’t end there: In October 1999 the subject was discussed by the Senate Republican Policy Committee in the context of preventing nuclear proliferation. The hearings from the discussion mentioned that the origin of the double flash was still unclear – whether it was the result of a nuclear weapons test, and if it was, who was responsible.

In 2006 Tyler Drumheller, a high ranking member of the CIA, wrote a book describing his term of service in South Africa. Drumheller mentioned the Vela incident, saying that the CIA was very successful in all matters having to do with the nuclear capabilities of South Africa. All his most credible sources presented again and again the fact that the Apartheid regime did conduct a nuclear weapons test in 1979, and that Israel helped the regime develop nuclear weapons launch and delivery systems (missiles).

It’s important to mention that according to information on locally manufactured nuclear weapons, published by South Africa after the fall of the Apartheid regime, South Africa could only begin to manufacture these weapons two months after the event detected by the Vela satellite, and so it could not be considered a South African nuclear weapon test. However, the other question remained unanswered – is it possible that the nuclear weapons test detected by the Vela satellite was actually carried out by Israel, in cooperation with top South African defense officials?

Either way, in order to actively prevent white South Africa from developing nuclear weapons, the UN Security Council passed resolution 418 on November 4th 1977. It imposed a total arms embargo, barring all UN member states from cooperating with South Africa on any nuclear weapons research or manufacture.

The embargo may or may not have been effective, and some countries may not have participated in it, but one fact remains clear: After the fall of the Apartheid regime in the late 1980s, all the South African non-conventional weapons projects – nuclear, biological and chemical – were canceled; and the six nuclear bombs manufactured in earlier years were destroyed. Not only that, but in 1991 South Africa signed the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. It became the first nation to both develop nuclear weapons, almost independently, and then dismantle them of its own accord, without pressure from the superpowers, and thereby giving up its nuclear capabilities.