Belarusian arms exports grow with new rockets and missiles planned
On 31 January, Belarus’s state military-industrial committee reported that the export of Belarusian arms in 2017 exceeded the previous year by 15%, reaching more than $1bn sales. Growth occurred despite problems in accessing Russian military orders, an unclear situation about cooperation with Ukraine and the reported disruption of a deal with Azerbaijan. Meanwhile, Belarusian officials announced plans to produce new missiles and combat drones.
Last year’s performance of the national defence industry proves that Belarus evolves economically. It also demonstrates the contradictory balance between Minsk’s efforts to maintain neutrality and its efforts to manoeuvre between Moscow and Kyiv, Baku and Yerevan, and other centres.
No stagnation in the defence industry
On 31 January, a session of the managing officials of Belarus’s state military-industrial committee summarised the results of the committee’s work in 2017. According to official information, production grew by a quarter. Total exports of Belarusian arms exceeded the previous year’s level by 15% and made up more than $1bn in sales. While the government steadily struggles with problems in the civilian segments of its machine-building branch, the defence industries perform much better. They continue to earn impressive sums year after year, such that Belarus retains its position among top-20 world arms sellers.
Belarusian arms manufacturers have also diversified their client base. In 2017 they sold products to 69 countries, compared to just 60 countries in 2016. For instance, Minsk-based KB Radar could export its electronic warfare systems Groza-S and Optima-B, while the Barysau-based 140th Tank Repair Plant delivered its light-armoured vehicles, Kaiman and V-1, not only to the Belarusian army but also to an undisclosed African nation.
Precarious situation with the arms industry’s main markets
On state TV, Belarusian businessmen and defence firm managers, including from Minotor-Servis and Integral, have openly criticised Russia’s policy that aims to substitute Belarusian components in its military equipment. Furthermore, the chairman of the state military industrial committee, Aleh Dvihalyou, admitted on 31 January that Belarusian firms still face restrictions on receiving Russian state defence orders.
He also revealed something remarkable about the Belarusian arms industry’s international ties. Despite historical ties and the critical importance of Russian markets and partners for Belarus, only 54% of the ‘international interaction’ volume for Belarusian defence industries involves Russian firms. He did not specify what he meant under ‘interaction.’
In any case, 46% of interactions involve non-Russian firms and, apparently, the committee did not calculate interaction with Ukraine here. After all, on 1 February, an unnamed representative of the committee talking to Nasha Niva weekly announced that military-technical cooperation with Ukraine had been halted as early as in 2014.
Minsk allegedly stopped selling Kyiv military equipment immediately after it started military operations in eastern Ukraine. This statement likely shows the wish to downplay respective contacts with Ukraine which undoubtedly continue, although Minsk most probably reclassified them in order not to irritate Russian chauvinists.
Did Armenia disrupt Minsk-Baku deals?
In addition to difficulties with Russia and Ukraine, Belarus recently needed to resolve controversies in its collaboration with Azerbaijan. On 1 February, Belarusian journalist Alyaksandr Alesin told the daily Komsomolskaya pravda v Belorussii that Minsk had renounced the deal it negotiated with Baku for the sale of Palanez multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS). He insisted that the Belarusian government renounced these plans because of Armenia’s intervention. Armenia, clashing with Azerbaijan over Karabagh, formally partners Minsk in the Collective Security Treaty Organisation. Alesin announced that Minsk would soon sell arms to Armenia instead.
The Russian propaganda outlet Eurasia Daily followed the story on 6 February. It quoted Russian and Armenian military experts as saying that there was probably never such a deal in the first place.
These allegations clash with some well-known realities. First, Yerevan has hardly any leverage over Minsk. For more than a decade, Baku and Minsk have cooperated in effectively every sphere and the Belarusian government has no interest in disrupting such relations because of Armenia. Yerevan, by far the poorer of the Caucasus states, cannot replace Baku, especially in the defence sphere.
Much circumstantial evidence indicates that Minsk and Baku at least considered the Palanez deal. First, top defence and defence industry officials from both countries held numerous talks in recent years. Official announcements acknowledged that last year’s negotiations between the Belarusian and Azerbaijani presidents covered defence cooperation. Almost certainly these negotiations included Palanez – it cannot be otherwise, given the importance Lukashenka attaches to his Palanez project. Azerbaijan also has an interest in such weapons to neutralise the Iskander ballistic missiles Armenia received last year. Last but not least, a prominent Azerbaijani expert, general Yaşar Aydəmirov, spoke to several Azerbaijani media about the probability of such a deal between Belarus and Azerbaijan.
Cautious advancement of missile programme
Minsk tries to develop new products to counter problems in traditional markets. Talking to the BelTA news agency on 31 January, the state secretary of security council, Stanislau Zas’, revealed plans to produce new sophisticated arms. In particular, this year, defence industries are planning to complete the development of combat drones.
Above all, however, Minsk develops its defence industrial capacities in the area of rockets and missiles. Minsk started its missile programme from zero, perhaps only in the early 2010s. In the quoted interview, Zas’ said that in the first half of 2018 Belarus would test a new, completely Belarusian-made rocket for the Palanez MLRS. Until now, Belarusians relied on rockets including some Chinese parts for this system.
In addition to replacing the remaining foreign components in the Palanez rockets, Zas’ announced that designers were developing a new, Belarusian missile for the Soviet-designed Buk surface-to-air missile (SAM) system. Minsk believes that with the introduction of a new missile it can make the SAM system fit-for-purpose again.
According to circumstantial evidence published in Belarusian media, it could be retro-fitted Soviet-designed air-to-air missile types R-60 and R-73 that Belarusian designers intend to use in a new version of the Buk SAM system. First, Belarusian company Belspetsvneshtechnika has modernised these missiles to extend their lifetime and efficiency. Moreoever, it has designed new modifications, R-60BM and R-73BM, to be launched also from land-based SAM systems.
To summarise, the Belarusian defence industry faces multiple challenges which, if not addressed, could weaken the industry in the long term. First, instability in cooperation with Russia and Ukraine, especially with both at the same time, looks potentially damaging. Secondly, the national arms manufacturers need to design new defence products, sometimes never before produced in Belarus, as older Soviet types become outdated.
However, if the national defence industry copes with both tasks by diversifying its partnerships and developing new products, that not only will ensure its survival but also strengthen the country’s independence.
The Belarusian army: scaled down but better trained and autonomous
On 15 December, the Belarusian army’s media outlet, VaenTV, reported of tank units training to shoot at an unusually long distance—six kilometres. Few post-Soviet armies use this ‘high angle fire’ method, said VaenTV.
The news illustrates one of the ways the Belarusian military attempts to compensate for its lack of funds for new equipment. It is intensifying training to make better use of available arms. This approach can be seen at all Belarusian army training levels. Minsk is also reforming its armed forces to address its domestic and regional concerns. New drill scenarios resemble urban conflicts in Syria and Ukraine. To meet all its needs, Minsk has developed its own system of military education autonomous from Russia.
Important drills go unnoticed
The intensity of the present training regime can be seen in the recent activity of the Belarusian Special Operation Forces (SOF). Belarusian army considers the SOF as a key segment of the army. From January to November, the relatively small SOF (three brigades with some minor units numbering five to seven thousand personnel) conducted eight independent battalion-level tactical exercises. Five of these exercises employed live ammunition. In addition, there were five joint battalion-level tactical exercises with Russian troops.
In January to November, the SOF also held a brigade-level exercise with Russian troops in Belarus’s northeastern Vitsebsk province, as well as some international drills with Russians and Serbs in the southwest province of Brest together with other CSTO countries, including Armenia, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. It is not clear how the intensity of training has changed in recent years, but SOF Commander Vadzim Dzyanisenka says night-time drills made up 70 per cent of all his troops’ exercises this year. Last year, the figure was just 30 per cent.
Thus, while observers have been discussing the West 2017 exercises as invasion preparations of neighbouring NATO states, Minsk has been more actively training its troops in other drills for rather different purposes. The latter’s programme demonstrates the Belarusian army has other priorities from the West 2017 exercises. At an ideology seminar for Belarusian army officers in November, the Head of Ideology Department Alyaksandr Hura elaborated on these priorities by emphasising the necessity to train troops to fight in urban areas. “The experience of conflicts in Africa and the Middle East shows that after conquering two or three big cities, an aggressor gained full control over the entire country,” said Hura.
Talking to Spetsnaz, a Belarusian military journal, SOF First Deputy Commander Viktar Hulevich on 30 October also said that the defence minister had ordered the SOF to focus on preparing for urban warfare. He referred to Syrian war, yet he could as well recall the nearby conflict in Eastern Ukraine.
Recently, a mock-up of a town was constructed at a military training camp near Baranavichy. Not only special forces, but also ordinary units have begun to train for urban warfare there.
Contradictory results of reforms
Meanwhile, in 2015, warrant officer (above the rank of sergeant but below the rank of lieutenant) training programmes were shortened from five to three months. Arguably, this hardly helps to improve the skills of these service men and women.
Even more uncertain is the situation in the Belarusian system of military education, although, there are some positive developments. On the one hand, Minsk seems to work on supplying its army with properly-trained personnel. This year, about 800 officers graduated from the Belarusian military academy and military faculties at universities. On the other hand, it remains unclear how many officers stay in the army after completing their obligatory contracts.
Still, Belarus had unquestionable achievements in developing military education in recent years. It has become the sole post-Soviet country to succeed in establishing a national system of military pilot training. Belarus inherited no military pilot schools from the Soviet Union. It bought proper training aircraft only in the mid-2000s. Until 2006, Belarusian military academy pilots went to Russia even for flying practice.
Now Belarus trains its own military pilots. Training has also improved over the years. In 2016, the average pilot graduate completed 220 hours of flight practice. This is almost triple the 80 hours of training pilots on average completed in 2008.
Today, Belarusian army pilots in active service also train more often than even a decade ago. In 2016, Defence Minister Andrej Raŭkoŭ announced that average annual flying time of a Belarusian army pilot is 70–75 hours. At first glance, this number seems high. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Belarusian army pilots seldom flew. Even in the mid- to late 2000s, pilots flew about 30 hours per annum on average. By 2011-2013, the annual average flying time reached 60 to 80 hours per pilot. But then the situation stalled and no further growth in flying time occurred in recent years. Indeed, in Soviet times, a military pilot flew more—as much as 120 hours a year. The Russian air force has more or less returned to this in-air-time intensity.
Have all top Belarus army commanders studied in Moscow?
Another achievement in the field of providing the national army with qualified specialists involves education for military professionals of all levels. The small number of Belarusian officers who are currently studying at Russia’s General Staff Academy—six in total—illustrates how autonomous has Minsk become in the field of military education.
Belarus’s Military Academy established its own General Staff Faculty in 2006. The low number of Belarusian officers studying in Moscow’s Academy—in fact, three officers for each year of studies—means that Minsk is training officers on its own ground. In comparison, the other seven CIS states send in total 25 officers to be educated in Moscow.
Minsk prefers its own academy to train officers. There are obvious benefits to this policy. The Belarusian army needs officers with other knowledge and skills from their Russian counterparts, because the Belarusian military deals with a different set of challenges. In 2009, Belarusian Military Academy General Staff Faculty Head Vyachaslau Shumilin explained Minsk’s reasoning plainly:
“When creating the Faculty, we did not try to copy the work of our Russian colleagues… we created a system for the training of officers at the operational-strategic level, corresponding to our country[‘s needs], taking into account our own national interests and legal framework.”
Even a brief look at Belarus’s military establishment proves the situation is far from conspiracy theories, which claim that Belarusian generals are indoctrinated through studies in Russia. Defence Minister Andrej Raŭkoŭ, indeed, did graduated from Moscow’s General Staff Academy. However, he did so before its analogue was established in Minsk. General Staff Head Aleh Belakoneu, on the other hand, did graduate from the Belarusian Academy’s General Staff Faculty.
In the past decade, the Belarusian government has paid considerably more attention to training its armed forces. While its policies may contain some contradictions, the army is now more prepared to fulfill combat tasks compared to even a decade ago. Minsk has also succeeded in establishing its own system of military education, which address the particular needs of its domestic context. Moreover, the graduates of this education system already occupy certain key positions in the army.