Belarusian army aims to protect Russian airspace, not to atack other countries
Belarus’s neighbours regularly voice their concerns about Minsk’s role in a potential Russian invasion of the Baltic states or Ukraine. However, on 15 June, Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenka insisted that although Belarusian and Russian troops were operating in the region ‘as one,’ they had no aggressive intentions.
Just a cursory glance at the Belarusian army raises doubts about its ability to engage in any large offensive operations. To make up for its diminishing national army capacities, the Belarusian government went as far as to bring the emergency ministry’s aviation to the 3 July Independence Day parade, along with equipment from the DOSAAF, a paramilitary sport association. In addition, the government invited a large number of Russian military aircraft and helicopters to airshows in Minsk and Mashulishchy, a town nearby.
Many types of equipment operated by the Belarusian army have become old and are being decommissioned without corresponding replacements. The army’s offensive capacities are especially affected by this deterioration. The government takes proper care of only two elements of the military: air defence and special operations forces.
The reality of the Belarusian military’s decline is becoming too evident for even government officials to deny. Writing on 12 May in the official army daily Belorusskaya Voennaya Gazeta, Aleh Voinau, head of international military cooperation department, and his deputy Valery Ravenka, complained that:
There is a gradual decline going on with regard to quantitative indicators of weapons and military equipment [deployed by the Belarusian army]. Alas, this is not true of the states of the so called ‘good-neighborhood belt’, which are carrying out large-scale modernisation and build-up of weapons and military equipment.
To make their point, they cited the figures of the Belarusian army’s troops and equipment for 2016 and 2017. The decline of military might, however, becomes more clear after one compares the numbers from recent years with even the early 2010s, as shows the table below:
Although official figures may be inaccurate, they more probably exaggerate the amount of equipment rather than the other way around. Besides, no cover-ups have been exposed so far, despite numerous inspection, visits, and survey flights of the Belarusian army by foreign military experts. In 2016 there were 28 such events. Russian aviation spotters also recently conducted an analysis of the Belarusian army’s attack helicopter fleet and drew similar conclusions about its dramatic decline.
Last but not least, the figures in the above table represent the army’s total number of weapons, including those kept in reserve, which may be effectively deficient. Belarusian defence minister Andrey Raukou revealed more realistic data regarding equipment in active service in a presentation for the national parliament on 4 April 2016 (see Table 2 below).
A purely defensive force?
The capacities of the Belarusian army have diminished in all regards. However, this has most affected its capacities for offensive operations. A brief overview of some basic components of offensive might, such as firepower and troop mobility capacities, shows that Minsk places virtually no value on these aspects of its military.
Belarus lacks the modern firepower necessary for any large military operation. Thus, in 2012 Minsk decommissioned its last Su-24 bombers, and its military officials openly deliberated possibly decommissioning the few remaining Su-25 close air support aircraft. Although they ostensibly meant for Yak-130 trainer jets to replace the Su-25s, thanks to the absence of independent media in the country such absurd statements went unchallenged.
As follows from the table above, Minsk also has few attack helicopters, which constitute another possible source of firepower on the battlefield. Moreover, it has no plans to replace them. On 22 May, a source from the Russian helicopter-manufacturing Vertolety Rossii Holding told TASS news agency that it had no contracts concluded with Minsk on attack helicopters.
Another crucial premise for offensive operations – troop mobility capacities – is victim to similar circumstances. Thus, Belarus has just two Il-76 operational transport aircraft. As a result, Russia had to send six of its own Il-76s to conduct the latest Belarus-Russian-Serbian military exercise including an airborne operation in Brest Province in Belarus.
Similar trends are visible with smaller equipment, which is also important for offensive operations. The media have reported stories from recent paratrooper exercises in Belarus which demonstrate this. When in early April Russian paratroopers came to Vitsebsk Province to participate in a joint exercise with their Belarusian counterparts, the Russians had to remember how to use old D-6 parachutes. The Russian army had long replaced them with newer systems such as D-10 and T-10V as early as in 2007. Meanwhile, in Belarus only older systems are available, so the Russian troops had to make do.
Thus, in anticipation of the next paratroopers exercise in early June, which were to be held with Belarusians and Serbs in Brest Province, Russians brought their own new D-10 parachutes, while the Belarusian and Serbian troops used older Soviet models.
Why is it so?
To put it briefly, Minsk has no money even for parachutes. This stinginess is logical: it does not crave the capacity to sent its paratroopers to seize NATO capitals. Official data about the structure of the Belarusian army shows that it has other priorities. The situation as of 2016 is presented in table 3, although the structure of the Belarusian army has remained almost unchanged for more than a decade, ever since Minsk shifted to a brigade-based structure for its national armed forces.
Minsk puts emphasis on two military components: air defence (with its air force ever more directed towards the needs of air defence and mobility of counterinsurgency forces rather than providing support to ground troop offensives) and special operations forces. This is a logical decision.
First, Belarus fosters air defence in order to sell its air space protection services to Russia. In exchange for this intangible and invaluable service, Minsk demands everything else – and above all economic benefits.
Secondly, the Belarusian leadership fears the security risks of Donbas-like scenarios of local insurgencies of whatever political colour or orientation, and it prepares for such emergencies. Top Belarusian officials regularly refer to Ukrainian problems. For example, Defence minister Andrei Raukou recently explained the reshuffling of the country’s national massive mobilisation system by citing ‘Ukraine’s experience’ of problems in mobilising the population for war in Eastern Ukraine.
The only two things which interest Minsk
All of Belarus’s military needs yield to two priorities: air defence and preparation for counterinsurgency operations. Thus, Minsk has invested serious money in designing the Palanez multiple-launch rocket system: it is a cheap way of providing fire support for counterinsurgency operations.
In sum, the Belarusian army itself has few resources for modern large-scale offensive operations, such as those conducted by the Russian army in 2008 in Georgia. It can hardly engage in such offensives even in tandem with the Russian army. Belarus keeps its military autonomy at a high level: it hosts neither Russian combat units, nor Russian forwards supply depots.
That is, even if Russia wants merely to send its own forces through Belarusian territory and fight relying only on its own troops, it has so far prepared nothing for that. Even more difficult for the Kremlin would be to integrate the Belarusian army, even as an auxiliary force to conduct a joint offensive operation.
Does Belarus really need Russian Su-30SM fighters?
On 20 June, during the 2017 Le Bourget international air show which took place near Paris, France, Belarus signed a contract for a batch of 12 Su-30SM fighters from Russia. The contract supposedly amounts to around $600m.
The Su-30SM is a modernised version of the Su-30MKI model of fighter aircraft, which was specially designed for the Russian Air Force and is the most modern in the Su-30 series. Russia also sold six Su-30SMs to the Kazakh Air Force.
The fighter is able to use modern high-precision air-to-air and air-to-surface weapons. The Su-30SM can not only hit air and surface targets with its own missile weapons, but also direct fighters and bombers with a smaller target detection range.
The first official combat use of the Su-30SM occurred during the Russian operation in Syria. The Russian media reported that Su-30SMs were used as multipurpose vehicles for conducting air patrols, covering attack aircraft and striking ground targets.
It’s all about money
According to Dmitry Shugaev, head of the Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation of the Russian Federation, the jets will be delivered gradually, in accordance with the terms prescribed in the contract. However, what these terms are precisely remains unclear. The Belarusian Minister of Defence, Andrej Raŭkoŭ, confirmed that the fighters had been purchased but stated only that 'this contract will come into force as soon as there is funding'.
Such uncertainty can mean two things: either the contact does not specify the precise terms for the delivery of the aircraft, or its fulfilment depends completely on Russia loans. Moreover, these conditions are not mutually exclusive, making implementation of the contract extremely dependent on the political relations between Belarus and Russia.
Thus, on 7 April 2017, Lukashenka characterised his talks with Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg thus: 'I want Russia to help us with the rearmament of the Belarusian army.
Moreover, this rearmament must either be at their expense or at a low price. We will not be able to pay for modern arms ourselves: we have neither oil nor gas, and these are the main sources of rearmament'. This statement also points to the political character of the deal and the fact that its fulfilment is not guaranteed.
At the same time, some experts assume that Russia will provide preferential terms for Belarus. However, it does not seem that these discounts will be substantial. Firstly, Russia is experiencing economic problems of its own and can’t afford to exchange expensive modern aircraft for Belarus's repeated claims of loyalty. Secondly, providing this kind of 'present' for one ally will almost certainly cause all other CSTO members to make similar claims.
No discounts for close allies
The Russian media have cited sources close to the leadership of Rosoboronexport (A Russian company for defence industry export), who report that the Belarusian Defence Ministry made the deal directly with Irkut Corporation, without the Russian state's mediation.
According to them, the 12 Su-30SM fighters will cost Belarus about $600m. This will be the largest single contract for the purchase of Russian arms by Belarus in history. Previously, according to two contracts in 2012 and 2015, Belarus also received eight Yak-130s, a training and battle aircraft, which were also produced by Irkut.
If the data provided by the Russian media are accurate, then there was clearly no 'Russian discout'. One aircraft cost about $50m, the normal price for Su-30SMs for third countries, not for close military allies. For example, the Russian Defence Ministry purchased the fighters for $35m – more than 30% cheaper. Kazakhstan bought the aircraft at almost the same price, even cheaper because of the fluctuation of the Russian rouble.
That said, neither the full cost nor the details of the contract have been officially announced. This means that even taking the possible sum of $600m for 12 fighters, it is impossible to tell what exactly the contract provides for. Is the price for the aircraft alone or does it include service, support, spare parts, and pilot training?
An unaffordable Russian luxury
Concerning service, Belarusian officials and experts have noted that repair and maintenance for the Su-30s would be possible at the 558th aircraft repair plant in Baranavičy. Nevertheless, taking into account the fact that the electronics in Su-30SMs are largely Western-made, maintenance could be difficult and expensive for the Belarusian military: this could mean that it would need to be carried out in Russia. All these factors only increase the dependence of Belarus on Russia.
At the same time, the purchase of only 12 Su-30SMs for Belarus's ageing air fleet does not solve the issue of Russia’s intention to establish an air base in Belarus. Belarus operates a fleet of 24 MiG-29s and 12 Su-25s, which the new aircraft are to replace.
Even if the Air Force is fully re-equipped with modern aircraft, this will not be the end of the Russian air base issue, as it is a political problem rather than a military one.
Another issue is the high operational cost of the Su-30SMs. The approximate flight hour cost for Su-30SMs is estimated at a minimum of $35,000. A pilot needs at least 100 hours a year to be ready for military operations. If Belarus prepares only 24 pilots for 12 double aircraft (a possible minimum), we are talking about $42m a year just to keep the aircraft ready. This would be around 10% of the 2016 budget for national security and defence.
Given the fact that Belarusian pilots do not get enough flight time even with Mig-29s (with flight hour costs at around $20,000), it is dubious whether Belarus can really afford these Su-30SMs at all. The full re-equipment of the Belarusian Air Force with Su-30SMs (which would entail 36 fighters) is impossible for financial reasons. This begs the question of whether the Belarusian Air Force needs to operate two-engine fighters like Su-30SM at all: Belarus is not comparable to Russia or Kazakhstan, which have much larger territories.
Thus, the purchase of Su-30SMs does not solve the current problems the Belarusian Air Force is facing; instead, it is creating more problems. In political, military, and financial terms, this contract only increases the dependence of Belarus on Russia. Such frivolous spending is also offensive for the Belarusian population, which is struggling with a worsening financial situation.