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

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


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 campaignagainst 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.


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 Hiroshimaduring 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.


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 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. 

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