Head of Russian naval contingent says Zircon missile will not be deployed during drills off South Africa’s coastline.
Russia will not fire its new generation Zircon hypersonic missile during a joint naval exercise with South Africa and China, a senior Russian naval officer has said.
The 10-day Mosi II exercise, which is taking place off South Africa’s eastern coast and coincides with the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, has raised alarm among Western governments.
Russia’s TASS news agency reported earlier this month that a frigate participating in the drills – the Admiral Gorshkov – would perform a training launch of the Zircon missile system during the exercise.
However, Captain Oleg Gladkiy, who is heading the Russian contingent, told reporters on Wednesday that no test launch would take place.
“The hypersonic weapon will not be used in the context of these exercises,” Gladkiy said. “There is no hidden meaning in the exercises that we are performing today.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin has called the Zircon, which can travel at more than five times the speed of sound, “unstoppable”.
Despite their name, analysts have said the main feature of hypersonic weapons is not speed – which can sometimes be matched or exceeded by traditional ballistic missile warheads – but manoeuvrability.
The weapons are seen as a way to gain an edge over any adversary as they can potentially evade missile shields and early warning systems.
Russia is in a race with the United States and China to develop them.
South African government criticised over drills
Gladkiy’s remarks came precisely halfway through the maritime drills being staged from Durban and Richards Bay, ports in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal province.
Media coverage of the exercise, which runs until February 27, has been restricted.
South Africa has faced domestic criticism for participating.
The opposition Democratic Alliance said it shows the government is not neutral in Russia’s war in Ukraine.
But the South African National Defence Force says the drills are simply “a multinational maritime exercise”.
The naval drills will “strengthen the already flourishing relations between South Africa, Russia and China” with the aim of sharing “operational skills and knowledge”, the military said in a statement.
The three countries previously held the Mosi I naval drills in Cape Town, in 2019.
South Africa is among many African countries that maintain relations with Moscow and abstained from voting on a United Nations resolution condemning Russia’s war in Ukraine.