Belarusian defence industries: doubling exports and launching ballistic missile production
On 20-22 May, Milex-2017, an exhibition of defence equipment, took place in Minsk. It featured the first Belarusian ballistic missile. This recent success was one of many for the Belarusian defence industry.
On 18 May, the Chairman of the State Military Industrial Committee of Belarus, Siarhei Hurulyou, announced that from 2011 to 2016 the defence enterprises supervised by his committee had almost doubled their export volume, earning about $1bn last year.
These two stories illustrate two different paths the Belarusian arms industry is taking. On one hand, they still earn a considerable portion of their money by cooperating with Russia. On the other, they are diversifying and developing products by working with China, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and many other countries – even going so far as to annoy the Kremlin.
Russia both nervous and glad about the successes of Belarusian defence industries
In an article published in the May issue of the Russian Natsionalnaya Oborona defence review, Hurulyou admitted that 'export remains the main point of interest for balanced economic development of the [firms subordinated to the] State Military Industrial Committee.'
Speaking at Milex-2017 on 20 May, Hurulyou stressed that Russia remains Belarus's principal partner, 'which nevertheless is somewhat nervous and, well, maybe also glad about our successes.' He also mentioned China and South East Asian nations as other important partners.
Belarus could hardly have earned a $1bn last year without Russia's involvement. This is obvious given known deals, as well as those reported in the media in recent months. The largest deals which did not involve Russia are novelties for the industry: including deals on air defence equipment and related services with Vietnam, Myanmar, and Azerbaijan. For instance, an improved version of the Vostok-E radar, which once helped Iran intercept a US drone, has been developed together with Vietnam. Furthermore, Belarus sold the armoured vehicle Bars and the Belarusian-Ukrainian anti-tank missile Karakal to Turkmenistan. Minsk also made other minor deals such as selling Poland munition for $7.7m in 2015. Nevertheless, these deals alone cannot explain the dramatic growth in Belarusian defence export.
Deals on military aircraft and their servicing bring in much more money: the 558th Aircraft Repair Works in the city of Baranavichy conducts overhaul and modernisation of helicopters and aircraft. Last year, it signed a contract to overhaul twelve Su-25 aircraft for Kazakhstan. Concurrently, it is also completing the overhaul and modernisation of the second-hand Su-30K jets which Russia promised to Angola. The latter contract generates at least as much income as the deal with Kazakhstan.
Belarusian defence industries make the most money not by producing complete systems, but by making components for the systems manufactured by others, especially Russia. The most notable of these include chassis from the Minsk-based factory MZKT. The Russian tactical ballistic missile system Iskander, some S-400 surface-to-air missile systems' parts, and the mobile coastal defence missile systems Bastion, Bal-E, and Bereg all operate on MZKT-7930 chassis.
Belarusian sight devices are installed on various Russian anti-tank systems, including the T-90, T-72, and T-80 tanks and infantry fighting vehicles. Russian defence industries also use Belarusian fire control systems on various armoured vehicles. Likewise, Belarusian firms supply electronic warfare and some avionics; these are installed not only on modernised Su-27 but also on the most advanced Russian fighter aircraft Sukhoi PAK FA (T-50).
No wonder the Belarusian defence industries have succeeded in earning more money thanks to the massive modernisation of the Russian army in recent years, which also necessitated replacing certain Ukrainian components in Russian-manufactured equipment.
Missiles and armoured vehicles: How Belarusian are they?
Minsk, however, realises that these tailwinds can change, and is struggling to diversify. The most remarkable new products presented in the Milex-2017 included a new missile for Palanez and an armoured vehicle called Kaiman. Both of them were results of attempts to develop technological branches that had been either non-existent – like missiles systems – or underdeveloped, like armoured vehicles.
A mock-up of a tactical ballistic missile has attracted arguably the most media attention at the exhibition. It will make recently deployed Palanez Belarus-Chinese multiple-launch rocket system (MLRS) capable of delivering a conventional 560 kg payload as far as 300 km. Now, the Palanez shoots only at 200 km with much smaller rockets.
The Belarusian State Military Industrial Committee admits that the missile was designed under the framework of 'existing cooperation'. This formulation seemingly indicates collaboration with China. Experts at the Moscow-based Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies dismiss it as a version of the Chinese missile M20. However, experts have suspected for years that Ukrainian firms may also be involved.
The Belarusian State Military Industrial Committee announced its plans to conduct initial shooting tests of the Belarusian ballistic missiles this autumn. The committee head boasted of 'having established a complete scientific, experimental, and manufacturing complex – from scratch – which enables Belarus to design […] and produce its own modern rocket and missile systems.'
Besides missiles, the Belarusian government has been striving to produce mechanised armoured vehicles in the country. The new combat reconnaissance/patrol vehicle Kayman became one of the most celebrated products at the Milex.
It was designed by the 140th Tank Repair Works based in the city of Barysau. The first models of Kayman were produced based on the Soviet BRDM-2, an armoured patrol car. However, the Works' head designer Volha Pyatrova insist that the final version of Kayman is an original product manufactured mostly from Belarusian components.
President Lukashenka ordered the design of such a vehicle three years ago. This month, Kayman was officially deployed in the Belarusian armed forces.
Does Minsk supply dysfunctional equipment?
Belarusian defence industries have so far succeeded in maintaining a certain degree of quality in their international cooperation. But on 17 May, the radical opposition web-site Belorusskii Partizan published material about allegedly dysfunctional military equipment supplied by Belarus to Azerbaijan in the early 2010s. Some Ukrainian components in the supplied systems reportedly were broken; furthermore, Belarusian firms perhaps paid Ukraine too much.
Numerous foreign media sources, such as the major Azerbaijani media outlet Haqqin, quoted the article. However, there is little evidence of the problems described by Belorusskii Partizan, which was the only source of information on the case. It claims to possess copies of documents proving the story but it has refused to publish them so far.
This is not the only unsubstantiated story about the Belarusian arms industries to circulate recently. On 26 April, the French bulletin Intelligence Online published an article accusing Lukashenka's government of continuing arms trade with the Syrian government. The bulletin based its story on a meeting between Belarusian Industry Minister Vitali Vouk and Syrian prime minister Imad Khamis. Official reports, however, do not indicate that they discussed military matters. Belarus has avoided supplying sensitive items to Damascus for years, and the 76-word story failed to provide any evidence that the opposite is now true.
Defence industries constitute an important branch of the Belarusian economy. They are dynamic, willing to introduce new products, and diversify markets and partners. Belarusian defence firms remain closely linked to Russia, but that does not mean they are dependent on it.
They are looking for autonomous ways to export their defence products. This certainly angers the Kremlin. Unsubstantiated stories which work to undermine cooperation with Ukraine and Azerbaijan are just more proof of this.
Pakistan: Belarus’s ‘new best friend’ in South Asia
On 14 May, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif met at the One Belt, One Road Forum in Beijing.
This became the two leaders’ fourth encounter since May 2015. Indeed, as Sharif said at the meeting, relations between Pakistan and Belarus have been strengthening ‘with every passing day’ over the past two years.
‘The Minsk-Beijing-Islamabad triangle could become a promising formula for cooperation’, Lukashenka stated hopefully in 2015. After many years spent on developing relations with New Delhi, Belarus seems to be placing its bets on India’s geopolitical rivals, China and Pakistan. But will this bet pay off economically, as the Belarusian leader anticipates?
A dynamic re-launch of bilateral relations
Belarus established its diplomatic relations with Pakistan on 3 February 1994. During the first twenty years, the two countries’ contacts remained limited to a handful of encounters at the ministerial level – mostly during the late 1990s.
Within the same timeframe, Alexander Lukashenka visited India twice, in 1997 and 2007. Heads of the Belarusian government visited New Delhi in 1993, 2002, and 2012. There were regular meetings between Belarusian and Indian ministers of foreign affairs and defence, heads of other agencies and parliamentary delegations.
Minsk signalled its intention to balance its relations with South Asian nations in November 2014, when it opened its embassy in Islamabad (Belarus’s embassy in New Delhi has been up and running since 1998). Over the next two years, Pakistan unmistakably became Belarus’s preferred partner in South Asia. During a recent meeting in Beijing, Lukashenka called Pakistan Belarus’s ‘best friend’.
Experts believe that certain conservative Arab regimes (Pakistan’s long-time sponsors) and China, a traditional Pakistani ally, might be behind the suddenly flourishing Belarus-Pakistan ties.
The Belarusian leader paid his first visit to Islamabad in May 2015. Only three months later, in August 2015, he welcomed Sharif in Minsk for a return visit. In November of the same year, Belarusian Prime Minister Andrei Kobyakov visited Pakistan.
In April 2016, Lukashenka met with Mamnoon Hussain, Pakistan’s ceremonial President, on the sidelines of the summit of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation in Istanbul. In October 2016, the Belarusian president returned to Islamabad for talks with the Pakistani Prime Minister.
On top of the encounter in Beijing between Lukashenka and Sharif, the two countries had already exchanged visits of parliamentary delegations in 2017.
Against the backdrop of dynamic rapprochement between Belarus and Pakistan, Minsk’s relations with New Delhi have clearly stagnated. In fact, India’s ceremonial President Pranab Mukherjee visited Belarus in June 2015. However, this meeting was agreed upon before the start of Minsk’s energetic engagement with Islamabad. Since then, no high-level intergovernmental contacts between Belarus and India have been recorded.
Unrealistic trade goals
In 2015-2016, Belarus and Pakistan managed to sign over fifty bilateral documents. Most of them are interagency agreements and memorandums of understanding of various importance regulating cooperation in trade, defence, culture, education, information, scientific cooperation, information technology, forestry, and agriculture. They have also adopted a programme document called ‘Roadmap for fast-track and middle-track economic cooperation between Pakistan and Belarus’.
Belarus would like Pakistan to become one of its major trading partners among the Distant Arc countries (Belarusian authorities’ term for all nations outside the EU and the CIS). It is no wonder that the talks between the Belarusian and Pakistani leaders have focused mostly on ways to increase the bilateral trade turnover.
On his visit to Pakistan in November 2015, Belarusian Prime Minister Andrei Kobyakov called the existing level of trade turnover (below $60m in 2014) a ‘statistical margin of error’. The two governments agreed on the ambitious goal of $1bn in 2020.
Historically, the turnover has surpassed the symbolic threshold of $100m only once, in 2009, well before the much-touted governmental intervention. Since the two countries’ dynamic rapprochement began in 2015, it shows no signs of leaving this ‘statistical margin of error’. Given economic realities, the goal of $1bn turnover looks like a pipe dream.
Belarus exports tractors and tractor parts, tyres, synthetic filament tow, potash fertilisers, food products, and other machinery and chemical products to Pakistan. Imports include rice, fruit and vegetables, leather goods, and textiles.
Tractors constitute the lion’s share of Belarusian exports to Pakistan: 64% of total export revenue. In 2016, the sales of Belarusian tractors to Pakistan reversed the steady downward trend which had started in 2012, amounting to $32.1m (3,406 units). In 2015, Belarus Tractor Works also opened a knockdown assembly factory in Karachi and manufactured its first few hundred tractors in Pakistan.
It seemed that a lingering campaign of mutual accusations of fraud and corruption among dealers of Belarusian tractors in Pakistan have failed to damage sales. Since 2013, Pakistan has been the largest buyer of Belarusian tractors outside the CIS. It is now the third largest buyer worldwide after Russia and Ukraine.
Undisclosed military cooperation
Belarus has been working intensively with Pakistani defence officials since July 2014, when Pakistan’s Minister for Defence Production Rana Tanveer Hussain visited Minsk. The two countries signed an intergovernmental agreement on military technical cooperation in Islamabad in 2015.
On 21-22 May, Minister Hussain was again in Minsk for the Eighth International Arms and Military Equipment Machinery Exhibition. He met with his counterpart, Chairman of the State Military Industrial Committee Siarhiej Huruliou and Minister of Defence Andrej Raukou.
Few details on these meetings or how this area is developing are available. Official Belarusian media sources have mostly avoided mentioning the military and security component in their coverage of high-level contacts between Belarus and Pakistan. They may be factoring in India’s attitude towards this kind of cooperation.
Meanwhile, the Pakistani press have repeatedly reported on the discussion of cooperation in defence and defence production, counter-terrorism and narcotics control.
Pakistan is interested in electronic warfare technology and optical and optical-electronic devices. According to Siarhei Bohdan, an associate analyst at the Ostrogorski Centre, Islamabad has also been trying to secure the necessary parts and expertise for comprehensive modernisation of the post-Soviet mechanised armour in Pakistan.
Later this year, Prime Minister Sharif will again visit Minsk. New agreements will be signed; brilliant prospects for two countries’ cooperation will be announced. However, the growth rate in bilateral trade will continue to lag very much behind the dynamics of meetings, as the current state of Belarusian products and services on offer is unable to ensure the twenty-fold hike in turnover which Belarus and Pakistan agreed on.