Smoke, Mirrors: Naval Exercise Mosi II is a Potemkin village

If the South Africans participating in Exercise Mosi II are impressed they would, I suspect, be falling for one of the oldest tricks in the book.

It’s odd how embarrassing news has a way of leaking out in phases. First, you get the broad picture; then the focus is refined; then the real discomfiting stuff finally comes out.

In the case of Mosi II, the naval exercise between SA, Russia and China, the first impression was that it was going to be a limited affair involving two frigates.

Now it turns out that three SA vessels will be taking part from the SA side, that the Russian frigate Admiral Gorshkov is going to demonstrate Russia’s “unstoppable” Zircon (Tsirkon) missile, and that a second Russian vessel will participate. In addition, it turns out the Chinese will be sending not one, but three vessels: the destroyer Huainan, the guided-missile frigate Rizhao and the supply ship Kekexilihu.

So from a minor exercise, Mosi II is turning out to be a pretty full-on military fandango, even without the participation of Brazil, which participated in Mosi I in 2019 but is keeping out of it this time. The event is being held on the anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, so it’s clearly a propaganda event aimed at bolstering support for the invasion. South Africa’s pretence of being in favour of a negotiated solution to the Ukraine crisis dissolves with this exercise.

There is no doubt that a two-week exercise involving at least nine vessels is a serious undertaking. But unless the South Africans are completely naive, it’s also an opportunity to try to impress on SA the huge capacity of Russia’s new military hardware. You could call it, practise “shock and awe”

Yet, if the South Africans participating are impressed they would, I suspect, be falling for one of the oldest tricks in the book. We know the story: during a visit by Empress Catherine II to Crimea in 1787, Russian governor Grigory Aleksandrovich Potemkin supposedly constructed fake settlements to conceal the dilapidated conditions of the towns. The effort became known as a “Potemkin Village”, a ruse involving the construction of painted façades to mimic real villages, full of happy, well-fed people, for visiting officials to see.

There is no doubt that the Zircon is an impressive weapon. It’s a hypersonic cruise missile that can reach speeds of Mach 8, which means it flies too fast to be detected by radar, and too fast for existing countermeasures to be effective. Unlike an ICBM, it flies low and uses a scram-jet propulsion system.

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But there are a bunch of problems here. The fact that it can’t be detected by radar almost means it cannot use onboard sensors to track a target vessel in the main flight stage. The hypersonic speed creates a plasma shield, which affects both incoming and outgoing radar. Being hypersonic, it has to fly higher than normal cruise missiles, and its payload is possibly less impressive than advertised.

But the essential challenge is this: it is a very expensive naval weapon and the conflict in Ukraine is largely a ground war. That’s one of the reasons why Admiral Gorshkov is goofing off around Richards Bay instead of being actively involved in the war.

The Royal United Services Institute, the UK’s leading defence and security think tank, concludes that “fielding the Zircon will do little to change Russia’s immediate fortunes in its ongoing war”. This is because the vessels carrying the missile cannot be redeployed to the theatre of combat around Ukraine via the Bosphorus Strait and even if they were, there are few targets within Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure to justify the use of limited numbers of very expensive missiles.

In some ways, this is a good example of the story of the Ukraine invasion. Russia has theoretically got lots of great equipment, but we see little of it on the battlefield. What we see are many missiles designed a decade ago flying more or less at random into civilian buildings, a strategy that South Africa is now shamefully implicitly endorsing. And on the ground we are seeing “meat grinder” tactics last used in World War 1.

Theoretically, Russia also has a fifth-generation fighter aircraft, the SU-57. But they are invisible in the conflict, and it turns out that they are essentially experimental planes. What is working on the battlefield are two US-made weapons, the Himars artillery rocket system and Javelin anti-tank missiles. They are not the “latest and greatest” but there is no end to the number of missiles available, because, unlike Russia, the US can make zillions. The result is that Russia’s huge advantage in tanks and artillery has been neutralised and the battlefield is in stasis. 

There is another Potemkin village operating here and that is the SA Navy. For this exercise, although the support vessels are South African-made, the essential firepower will be provided by a German-made frigate. I strongly suspect that the Germans will not be supplying that service again any time soon. The SA National Defence Force is now effectively persona non grata in the militaries of the West, and I suspect, among the actually non-aligned, notably Brazil and India.

In addition, the SA military is now completely broke; the once flourishing local defence industry is either bankrupt or sold after being extensively caught up in Guptagate; and the military leadership is made up of, well, I don’t know, but nobody serious.

Mosi is the Sotho word for smoke (uMusi in isiZulu), and trust me, there is a lot of smoke and mirrors going on here. DM/BM

Author: editor

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