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Russian Navy Denies Plans to Test Hypersonic Missile off S. Africa

Russian navy frigate under way
Admiral Gorshkov (Russian Navy file image)

Published Feb 23, 2023 11:36 PM by The Maritime Executive

The head of a Rusian navy task force has denied reports that it will test a hypersonic missile off the coast of South Africa, where Russian and Chinese warships have joined their local counterparts for a series of exercises. 

The Russian delegation is led by the frigate Admiral Gorshkov, which reportedly carries the new Zircon missile system. With a nameplate speed of Mach 9, the Zircon is designed to outpace the capabilities of existing missile-defense systems. Gorshkov was involved in live-fire trials for the missile system in 2020-21, and she received an operational missile loadout in December 2022, according to the Russian Ministry of Defense. 

Early this month, Russian state news agency TASS reported that Gorshkov would be conducting a "training launch" of the Zircon missile off South Africa at a range of about 300 miles. At the time, TASS said that the test plans were not yet fully confirmed. 

Capt. Oleg Gladkiy, the commander of the Russian task force, told media on Wednesday that there would be no hypersonic weapons test. "There is no hidden meaning in the exercises that we are performing today," he said. 

After transiting the North Sea and the North Atlantic, Gorshkov arrived in Durban, South Africa on February 14 for a rest and resupply port call. She was welcomed at the pier by high-ranking South African military officials. 

The joint drills began on the 22nd and will continue until the 27th, overlapping the first anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. South Africa has drawn criticism from its Western partners for maintaining ties with Russia after the start of the invasion, but it has so far resisted calls to censure Moscow. The ruling African National Congress party has a strong historical connection with Russia dating back to the Cold War, when the Soviet Union provided arms and support to ANC rebels in their fight against South African apartheid. 

Regardless of any controversy, the Russian task force did not attempt to hide its affiliations before arrival. On her stack, Gorshkov carried a white "Z" and "V," the quasi-official symbols of support for the Russian invasion. The U.S. Embassy to South Africa was quick to note the symbolism. "The symbols of 'Z' and 'V' are symbols of hatred and death. Are they symbols which a South African ship should float next to?" embassy spokesman David Feldmann asked in a local radio interview.