Second-Hand Arms from Russia, Massive Belarusian Army Exercises - Belarus Security Digest

Loading the Tochka-U, tactical ballistic missile system at the recent exercises. Image: vsr.mil.by

While Belarus is receiving very old modifications of the S-300 from Russia, its officials have announced that the national air force will soon receive the newer S-30 aircraft. But it is too early to celebrate.

Minsk for almost a decade has in vain tried to obtain planes from Russia to guard the sky, including that over Moscow. In addition, Belarusian generals have recently made a series of overoptimistic statements to conceal the rather disappointing reality.

In these conditions, the Belarusian army has conducted a massive number of drills throughout the country to respond to the challenges known to be destabilising neighbouring Ukraine and more remote countries. Minsk is trying to combine various units and arms and to train them in countering infiltration of armed groups from abroad.

Was the Kremlin being generous in granting the S-300 to Belarus?

In the last two months Belarus has received from Russia three S-300PT batteries. One more will arrive by the end of March. Minsk receives the S-300PT surface-to-air-missile (SAM) systems, which have been decommissioned from the Russian army, for free after they have been overhauled in Russia.

But the image of the Kremlin being generous in supplying Belarus with arms doesn't stand up against the backdrop of details of this transfer. Firstly, Moscow gave Minsk the oldest modification of this hardware (and not a single Belarusian media outlet mentioned it). Secondly, it is not known who is paying for the S-300s to be overhauled.

Commander of the Belarusian Air Force and Air Defence Aleh Dvihalyou announced that these are the final transfers of these arms. Belarus allegedly now has enough S-300s to fulfil its responsibilities with regard to the Single System of Air Defence with Russia.

New aircraft, finally?

Deputy Defence Minister on Armaments Ihar Latsyankou on 4 February told daily Belarus Segodnya that Belarus would replace its MiG-29 fighter aircraft with heavier Su-30SM fighters by the end of 2020.

Latsyankou claimed that Belarus had reached with Russia's Irkut Corporation a preliminary agreement on the Su-30. Despite the small number of aircraft being bought in order to replace a larger number of older planes, the capacities of the Belarusian airforce will remain the same, emphasised the Belarusian official, thanks to the bigger operational range of the Su-30.

Minsk expected to receive Su-30s in the early 2010s. The Russian firm even brought some aircraft of this type to Belarusian Baranavichy for overhaul. But then it opted to sell them to any other country willing to pay real money. As a result, the Belarusian government should be cautious with its statements that by 2020 it will definitely have newer airplanes.

The same situation exists with regards to some other types of advanced Russian weapons. Deputy Defence Minister Latsyankou reported that Belarus and Russia were going to consider the possible delivery to Belarus of the S-400 SAM system and Iskander tactical ballistic missile system only after 2020.

Words which conceal reality

Belarusian military commanders understand the inadequacy of these deliveries for maintaining the combat capacities of the national army. But they prefer to manipulate the definitions instead of admitting sad reality.

So, Belarusian officials and the media emphasise that the Yak-130 which Minsk is now buying from Russia is also a “light close air support aircraft” and hence it can presumably replace the soon-to-be-decommissioned Su-25. The plane, however, is primarily a trainer and it can never equal the capacities of the Su-25, in any regard. The Belarusian army is about to lose the remainder of its capacities to provide the ground forces with air support while its generals pretend that the new Yak-130 will fix the problem.

Commenting on the arrival of the old S-300s from Russia, Dvihalyou said something which sounds like unintended irony: “We have personally ascertained that the hardware made in the USSR has a high level of reliability. And we possess a lot of opportunities to modernise it at our entreprises.”

The same concerns the missile forces. Minsk for years tried to obtain Iskander tactical ballistic missile systems from Russia and the prospect of it doing so still seemed bleak. Hence the official talk that the Palanez, a multiple launch rocket system newly developed with Chinese assistance, is on par with “missile systems” referring apparently to Iskanders. Which is, certainly, a very moot point.

Air defence units train to counter “extremist forces”

Between 11 January and 5 February, the “comprehensive control examination” of the Belarusian army took place. While the special operations units are undergoing control examinations and exercises almost monthly, other units are usually less active. After all, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka himself admitted in 2014 that “Special operation forces, and not any aircraft or helicopters, are for us the most important units.”

In January-February, however, not only special forces but also motorised rifle units, mechanised armour, artillery and even air defence and missile units throughout the country were mobilised and dispatched to training grounds – up to 300 km away - to conduct tactical drills. At the same time the authorities have drafted hundreds of reservists.

Involvement of all these troops does not indicate a change in the priority of recent years. The Arab spring and especially the crisis in Ukraine saw a shift to training the Belarusian army in border control and counterinsurgency. It is worth noting that Belarusians are not being trained to combat NATO in “Suwałki Gap” as somebody speculated in recent months.

Effectively, the entire army is being drilled to combat possible infiltration of and insurgency by armed groups from abroad. In addition, it is being trained to assist border guards in defending the border.

The 740th Air Defence Brigade, for example, is being trained to use the Osa, a low-altitude, short-range SAM system, in order to stop light airplanes and motorised deltaplanes from flying over the state border to supply “destructive forces” with munition and arms. The 1562th Air Defence Technical Missile Base is being trained in how to protect itself in situations of “emergencies, extremist and terrorist activities.” No doubt, the developments in Ukraine inspired these exercises.

The artillery conducted launches from the most powerful systems it deploys, among them Smerch, Uragan and BelGrad multiple launch rocket systems, Msta-B 152 mm howitzer (for a distance of over 20 km) and the Tochka-U tactical ballistic missile system. That was no ordinary drill, as the last time the Belarusian army launched a Tochka-U was in 2012.

The missile and artillery units, however, seem to be being trained for the same tasks. Head of the General Staff Aleh Belakoneu commented, “For the first time we tested a combination of intelligence gathering and firepower deployment, i.e., we combined deploying drones, helicopter correcting fire and activities of special forces with a missile strike.”

All in all, the Belarusian government seems to be making all possible military preparations for the worst case scenario with the equipment it has. Despite ongoing economic difficulties, Minsk is investing in military training having realised the risks which are developing in a region which recently experienced subversive activities and outright military aggression, destabilisation and rapid growth in military spending.

Siarhei Bohdan is an associate analyst at the Ostrogorski Centre.

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