Does Belarus have its own missile programme?

Belarusian defence minister Raukou at negotiations in Baku. Image:

On 26 September Belarusian defence minister Andrei Raukou met with Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev. Given the current security concerns of Baku, it's possible that Belarus may have rushed to offer it some means to help neutralise the Iskander missiles recently acquired by Azerbaijan's nemesis, Armenia.

Can Azerbaijan get systems from Belarus similar to those acquired from Russia by Armenia? Most recently, in August, the Russian media reiterated previously voiced suspicions of Belarus' collaboration with Ukrainian firms to produce its own tactical ballistic missile system, a counterpart to Iskander.

Minsk has little money to advance such a missile project alone. So it's plausible that Minsk rushed to not only help Baku but also to gain assistance from Baku in funding the new weapons. As of now, Belarus has succeeded in establishing several partnerships with various countries to design and produce sophisticated equipment which increase its autonomy in military terms.

Too many coincidences

Facing problems with procuring equipment from Russia, Minsk has already been struggling for some years to find other options. Minsk has succeeded in expanding the array of military equipment it produces by having partnered with other countries: initially Ukraine and China.

Thus, this autumn the Ukrainian Pavlohrad Chemical Plant is planning to test its new product, Hrim-2, a tactical ballistic missile system. An undisclosed foreign customer financed its development. Russian experts, such as Alexander Khramchikhin and chief editor of the Eksport vooruzhenii review Andrei Frolov, name Belarus alongside countries such as Saudi Arabia or Pakistan as possible sources of funding. They emphasise, however, that Minsk is not the prime candidate for this role.

Yet they neglect some facts in their analysis. First of all, the timing of the development of the Hrim system and the actions and statements of Belarusian officials. Ukrainian designers revealed that the funding for Hrim came from abroad just over two years ago, around the second half of 2014.

Prior to that, in April 2014 Belarusian president Lukashenka announced that Belarus would cooperate with Ukraine to design new weapons. Other official statements followed in the same vein: by September 2014 the task had been defined as designing and manufacturing firepower means, never previously produced by Belarus. Minsk sent delegations to centres of the Ukrainian defence industry, as well as to the Dnipropetrovs'k region, the location of the enterprises designing Hrim.

Ukraine inherited the Soviet rocket and missile development and production centre. So, the Belarusian leadership apparently hoped for quick results from their cooperation with Ukraine.

In February 2015 Chairman of the Belarusian State Military Industrial Committee, Siarhei Hurulyou, announced that a new system would be demonstrated at the 9 May military parade which would provide the Belarusian army with additional firepower. Many media outlets, such as Russian Svobodnaya Pressa, had few doubts that Minsk would demonstrate an analogue of the Russian Iskander, a tactical ballistic missile.

The analysts referred to more or less explicit statements made by Lukashenka – beginning with his 2008 interview for the Wall Street Journal, in which he announced his intent to design and produce his “own Iskanders.” But then they had to review their analyses due to the 2015 Victory Day Parade in Minsk in which the nation revealed a new system – although of a less ambitious kind – Palanez, a multiple-launch rocket system (MLRS).

Interestingly, the Ukrainian firms designing Hrim complained that the Ukrainian national space agency interfered with their design and did not allow it to be completed more rapidly. In any case, this was another coincidence between the problems of Ukrainian designers and the failure of Minsk to unveil the system it had hinted at.

At the time analysts accepted the Palanez as the weapons promised by the Belarusian leadership and stopped discussing Minsk's plans of developing a ballistic missile. This was the case until this summer, when the theme of possible Belarusian cooperation with Ukraine on developing a tactical ballistic missile resurfaced after an anonymous foreign customer supported the Ukrainian project.

Belarus can afford it

The analysts who doubt that Belarus could be involved in the Hrim project emphasise that Minsk barely has enough money to put forward for such a project. The Belarusian government has always spent little on military hardware. Now its already meagre military budget has even less money remaining after Minsk financed the Palanez MLRS, purchased aircraft and helicopters and modernised older equipment in its air force and air defence.

However, Minsk could have contributed something other than money to the Ukrainian Hrim project. First of all the chassis of the Minsk Wheeled Tractors Plant (MZKT) on which many Soviet- and Russian-produced missile systems were installed. Military expert Andrei Frolov in his commentaries for Russian media also pointed out that pictures of Hrim seem to show MZKT chassis.

The future Hrim could be not only driven on Belarusian chassis but it could also get its guidance system from Belarus. Belarusian firms are known to produce significant components of guidance systems for the Russian Iskander tactical ballistic missile systems.

Last but not least, if Belarus did indeed finance the Ukrainian project, it could have done so in partnership. Minsk frequently proposes undertaking joint projects with other governments in third countries. Belarusian officials reiterated such proposals to Saudi Arabia in recent years, yet Minsk had already tried to obtain Saudi financing for Belarusian projects in Sudan as early as the beginning of the 2000s.

Belarus also launched intensive cooperation of a mostly undisclosed nature with Pakistan in 2014. Moreover, since the very beginning of this cooperation Minsk has been working with Pakistani defence officials, including the minister in charge of defence industry, Rana Tanveer Hossein. Interestingly, on 26 September, after meeting with the Belarusian defence minister, Azerbaijani leader Aliyev received Hossein as well. This detail sets the Baku news in an even more striking context.

Belarus-Ukrainian cooperating along proven lines?

While some experts, such as the Russian defence blog BMPD, have insisted that Saudi Arabia is financing Hrim, details known about the deal cast doubt on this. First of all, according to the conditions of the August deal with an unrevealed foreign customer, the Ukrainians will retain the intellectual property rights for the system. That is not Saudi-style business. In a similar deal with the Ukrainian aircraft design and manufacturing firm Antonov, Saudi Arabia financed the designing of the An-132 aircraft on the condition that all intellectual rights for the plane remained with Saudi Arabia.

The August deal more closely resembles the conditions on which Minsk has previously dealt with Kyiv. When cooperating with Ukraine on anti-tank weapons for example, Belarusian firms shared the intellectual property rights for the systems.

Moreover, Belarus has in recent years negotiated with the Ukrainian Motor Sich corporation to launch the production of the Ukrainian R95-300 turbofan engine at a Motor Sich-owned factory in the Belarusian city of Orsha. This engine is used in cruise missiles. Minsk reportedly wishes to design its own cruise missile named Aist. This seems strange because Belarus has no platforms to launch this type of missile.

Everything becomes clear however if it is assumed that the development of Aist is linked to the Hrim project. Ukrainian designers have stated that the Hrim system would be capable of launching both tactical ballistic missiles and cruise missiles. That would be a feature which puts the Ukrainian-designed Hrim on a par with Russian Iskander.

In sum, there are multiple indications that Minsk is working on strengthening its tactical missile capacities. The Belarusian government is pursuing the aim of achieving at least relative autonomy in this field. However, a country as small as Belarus can do this only by teaming up with other nations.

Siarhei Bohdan is an associate analyst at the Ostrogorski Centre.


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