Last year’s events outlined the future of Belarus’ national defense system. Despite the economic recession, 2015 was quite a positive year: military training activities were intensive, new equipment was added to the armory, and arms supply contracts were the biggest over the past 24 years.
The national missile program was apparently successful. This year, Belarus is likely to obtain weapons that can be considered as a strategic deterrence tool.
The defense industry remains the most dynamic sector of domestic engineering, although Belarus’ defense expenditure is lower than that in the neighboring countries, including the Baltic States. The actual position of keeping equidistant from conflicting Russia and the West has become political.
- The strategic deterrence system has been actively created;
- Asian countries are being chosen as partners for political dialogue and security cooperation;
- The territorial defense segment is evolving into a functionally operative system;
- The alliance with Russia ceases to be a factor ensuring military security of the country. The eastern neighbor thus remains the main partner in the area of security.
More than just politics
Without exaggeration, 2015 can be called a year of Asia for Belarus. Alexander Lukashenko held meetings with the leaders of major Asian countries – China, India, Pakistan and Vietnam. Alongside political and economic affairs, they spoke about security cooperation. Actual results were achieved with China, Pakistan and Vietnam.
The Belarusian-Chinese antiterrorist exercise Swift Eagle 2015 took place on June 15–27 in the Brest region. In fact, the parties involved studied each other’s training methods and warfare tactics applied by task forces.
Belarusian-Pakistani relations should be highlighted here as well. During Lukashenko’s visit to Islamabad on May 28–29, the sides reached an agreement on military and technical cooperation. Interestingly, the state news agency BelTA did not cover the event, while a Pakistani source explicitly points at an agreement on cooperation in the field of defense production.1
Prime Minister of Pakistan Nawaz Sharif visited Belarus on August 10–12. Both countries’ interest in mutual cooperation is strong, and defense is among the important matters.
The ‘turn to Asia’ is a strategic rather than opportunistic move, the goal being to gain greater autonomy from Russia and not to become dependent on the West, which the Belarusian leadership does not trust manifestly.
Learn what can come in useful
The past year was full of army exercises. Those training events give an idea what threats the military and political leadership of the country thinks are real. The operational training in 2015 included:
- deployment of forces to the wartime status by calling-out of reserves, formation of new units armed and equipped from the stock;
- interaction between army and border guards to reinforce border security, prevent infiltration of sabotage and reconnaissance groups from a neighboring state, and organization of defensive actions by mechanized units in cooperation with border guards on a broad front;
- ambush actions, service at vehicle checkpoints, search and elimination of sabotage and reconnaissance groups;
- counter-sabotage operations, including those within the emerging organizational and staff structure of special operations forces with an aviation component (UAVs and helicopters), reconnaissance and electronic warfare units and search dogs;
- counteraction to air reconnaissance, infiltration of terrorist groups, arms and materiel by air, repelling of group and single missile and air strikes;
- combat tactics in populated localities, interaction between the army and Interior Ministry troops. It was said that each operational command has training grounds imitating populated localities to practice combat in urban areas on a continuing basis.
All regions of the country were involved in the territorial defense training. The border reinforcement exercise held on June 2–18 near the border shared with Ukraine is worth to be mentioned specifically. Additional outposts were formed of the State Border Committee reserves together with territorial defense headquarters and a territorial defense company in the Yelsk district. The Interior Ministry and the KGB were involved in protection of critical facilities in Mozyr. The main task was to enhance the protection of the border by different law enforcement, security and defense agencies in the shortest possible time and organize effective interaction between them. In fact, the exercises were meant to work out general patterns that can be applied in any direction. The situation in Ukraine was only a pretext for the maneuvers.
About a life in the old dog
Trainer airplanes L-39 have been replaced with Russian Yak-130 trainers since the last year. Pilots will complete their courses and then the old planes will be removed from operational use. Belarus received four Yak-130 jets in April. The air force made it known that Yak-130 is considered as a replacement for Su-25 (after a modification).2
A major arms purchase contract in the history of independent Belarus was announced in June: Russian Helicopters Design and Manufacturing Company will supply Belarus with twelve logistic support helicopter Mi-8MTV-5 on the same terms as for the Russian army. The total amount of the transaction is over USD 100 million.
Ten MiG-29 fighters and two Su-25 trainers came back after repairs on December 1. It was unclear whether they were upgraded during the repairs, as the Russian manufacturers impede the modernization of the Belarusian planes.3 Judging by media reports, serviceability of the mounted equipment was restored and the service life was extended. The planes were equipped with video registers of flight parameters, so it looks like there was no upgrade.
The long story of the supply of four Russian S-300 air defense battalions to Belarus finally ended last year. Belarus received the battalions, and Defense Minister Andrei Ravkov reported in September that the repair was almost completed.
Military-Industrial Complex: Some problems are still there. Certain progress is achieved, though
In 2015, the Belarusian defense industry was working on the creation of unmanned aerial combat vehicles. This became possible as a result of the UAV Burevestnik project. The application range of Burevestnik is up to 290 km. It is designed to conduct real-time reconnaissance and aerial observation. Already during Alexander Lukashenko’s visit to Turkmenistan on December 10–12, Belarusian manufacturers stated that the UAV was capable of carrying weapons.4 It was also announced in December that Belarusian experts were involved in the creation of a Vietnamese long-range UAV HS-6L.5
The Belarusian side did not provide official information on the matter. HS-6L test results allow pilots to test domestic know-how in the creation of long-range vehicles.
2015 was a year of demonstrations of Minsk’s missile ambitions. This is not only about surface-to-surface missiles, but also the ones for antiaircraft guided missile systems.
Designers presented the first Belarusian multiple launch rocket system Polonaise. Little is known about its characteristics yet. It is a high-precision weapon designed to eliminate targets within a range of about/over 200 km. Polonaise almost surely uses missiles of Chinese manufacture, as evidenced by repeated tests of the system in China.
On June 15, Lukashenko heard a report by Minister of Defense Andrei Ravkov, who told the president “about the latest tests of missile and other systems created to protect the territory of Belarus.”6 Those “other systems” can among other things mean anti-aircraft missiles for the future surface-to-air missile system Rapira.7
In November, Lukashenko visited the High-Precision Electromechanics Plant, where achievements and objectives of the national missile program and plans for sophistication of the Polonaise system were publicly announced, and an anti-aircraft missile engine test bench was presented. The missiles were waiting for an upgrade for export. That test bench was a step towards the setting of Belarus’ own production of engines for anti-aircraft and tactical missiles.
The showdown of achievements and stories about large-scale missile plans were distinctly an advertising or warning.
Back in early 2015, the State Military Industrial Committee of Belarus (SMIC) pointed at the poor cooperation between SMIC organizations and inadequate quality of defense products among the biggest issues. The inadequate quality was pointed at specifically during several important events.
The Committee’s export aspirations are liked with the search for new markets. The problem of overdue foreign receivables became acute in 2015 as a consequence of high dependence on the Russian market.
In July, the agency determined priorities until 2020 highlighting five comprehensive systemic projects: fire-for-effect systems; mobility of weapons; military and civil unmanned aircraft systems; combat geo-information systems and integrated systems to counter high-precision weapons. The industrial output (works and services) is supposed to increase at least by 60% against 2015. Exports of goods are to increase by 50%.8 A surplus of output growth over export growth means an increase in supplies to satisfy the needs of national security agencies.
Force development and regional security outlook
Throughout the year, the Belarusian leadership was making statements regarding the future defense buildup and regional security. The government is guided by the assumption that the situation in Ukraine will remain a destabilizing factor in the region for a long time.9 The increasing presence of NATO near the Belarusian borders is seen as a “certain danger”, but not a military threat.
Addressing the army command staff in February 2015, Lukashenko outlined the military buildup as the main task of the army. Everything that can be upgraded must be upgraded, he said. He thus promised to allocate the required funding.
The president also demanded an iron discipline in the army. He voiced particular concern over the “creeping phenomenon of corruption, malfeasance in office ... a betrayal of the interests of the service.” Lukashenko monitors these issues personally. The Belarusian leadership hopes for Russia’s further help in security matters thus intending to rely on its own resources.10 The president instructed to train the troops without looking at the Russian army.
The following main directions of the development of the Belarusian armed forces in the next five years were determined at a command staff meeting held October 30:
- an increase in the numeric strength through the involvement of control and support agencies;
- selective rearmament with a focus on control, reconnaissance, information warfare, camouflage, electronic warfare and air defense systems, missile forces and special operations forces;
- preservation of human resources;
- contribution to patriotic education;
- optimization of expenses to maintain the immovable property and materiel;
- enhancement of the efficiency of military training through the application of modern technical means and technologies.
Lukashenko thus stressed that Belarus would seek to maintain the existing balance of relations with Moscow and Kiev. “Whatever the situation may be, we must not be dragged into the confrontation between them,” he said.11
Russia and Belarus: Friends are OK when the bases don’t get in the way
The fact that Russia failed to secure Minsk’s consent to the placement of an airbase in Belarus was the main outcome of the bilateral relations in the defense sector last year. At the same time, Moscow remains a key partner of Belarus when it comes to supply of military products, repairs and modernization of weapons and equipment.
The question of the Russian airbase in Belarus was raised on the highest level in September. On September 2, the Russian government approved a draft agreement, which was apparently neo-colonial in all but name.12 Russia not only was not going to pay for the lease of the facilities in question, but wanted the costs to be covered in part by the Belarusian taxpayers.
The airbase was planned as a number of military facilities in the territory of Belarus. “Air base” is just a collective name. The base could be used by any unit of the Russian armed forces, not necessarily servicing air defense facilities that would allow a deployment of a land grouping of Russian troops in Belarus under the guise of an air base.
As a result, the Belarusian government, which had long avoided making loud and clear comments, had to take a distinct position on the base. Alexander Lukashenko said on October 6 that “the placement of the Russian airbase in Belarus had never been on the agenda.” On October 11, he once again spoke out against the base saying that Belarus was working on a missile weapon, which was more efficient than planes.
Defense Minister of Belarus Lieutenant General Andrei Ravkov seconded the president on October 22.
Foreign Minister of Belarus Vladimir Makei said on October 28 that the Russian airbase could exacerbate the situation in the region.
Asian countries are playing an increasingly important role in ensuring Belarus’ security primarily through the intensification of technological exchange and cooperation in the creation of advanced weapons.
The media coverage of the military training serves as a warning. The military is not only working on the rapid redeployment of forces to crisis areas, but also increasing them in a very short time by calling out reserves and sending territorial troops.
Obviously, a decision has been made to allocate considerable (for Belarus) funds – about USD 70 million a year – to procure products of the domestic defense industry.
The political leadership of Belarus seeks to distance the country from the conflict between Russia and the West, thus maintaining strong ties with Moscow as a close partner in terms of national security.