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.
New arms for Belarus and Russia’s military plans in the region
On 20 June, Belarus signed a contract with the Russian Irkut corporation to purchase 12 Su-30SM fighter jets for $600m. This would be the largest ever arms deal between Minsk and Moscow. Earlier in June, Minsk also received its first batch of T-72 tanks, which were modernised in Russia.
At first glance, Russia seems to be arming Minsk. This fits with conjectures that the Kremlin is becoming increasingly hawkish and Minsk and Moscow are colluding to put their regional and Western opponents under pressure.
However, a more scrupulous analysis of such arms deals, as well as the armaments the Belarusian army possesses, paints a different picture. Moscow refuses to bolster the steadily declining Belarusian military's capacity to conduct offensive operations, including joint large-scale operations with Russia.
Does the Kremlin really want to arm Belarus?
On 21 May, the head of Russia's Federal Service for Military Technical Cooperation, Dmitry Shugaev commented that 'Russia is interested in ensuring that the Belarusian army has modern equipment.'
Meanwhile, even Belvpo.com, a media outlet with probable (close) links to the Belarusian army, has repeatedly criticised Russia's policy regarding weapons for Minsk over the past several months.
One of the publication's authors, Valery Berazhnoi, recently lashed out at the Kremlin for refusing to supply Minsk with S-400 surface-to-air (SAM) systems and Iskander tactical ballistic missile systems. He noted that Russia had already given S-400s to China and Iskanders to Armenia.
For almost ten years, Belarusians were given promises [of receiving Iskanders]. Thus, in cooperation with the Chinese, the Belarusian defence industry created a fundamentally new type of weapon – the Palanez rocket system [because they could not get Iskanders].
These are harsh words coming from a publication which is neither oppositional nor nationalist, but produced by retired Belarusian army officers.
Their stance corresponds with that of the Belarusian government. On 7 October 2016, president Alexander Lukashenka criticised Russia's lack of willingness to supply weapons to Belarus during an assembly of the national parliament. In particular, he referred to the Iskander missile system: 'So it turns out that in order to protect you [Russia], I must … buy a gun from you? Is that normal?'
The facts also point to Moscow's reluctance to provide Minsk with arms. Lukashenka's and Putin's failure to boost Belarus's offensive military capacities becomes obvious after a brief analysis of which weapons the Belarusian army has received and decommissioned over the past several years.
Aircraft: Minsk pays
On 20 June, the Moscow-based business daily Vedomosti explained that Russian loans would be used to finance the forthcoming deliveries of Su-30. In order to make it easier for the Belarusian budget, the Russian manufacturer would deliver about four aircraft a year.
However, money still remains an issue. When asked about the deliveries, Belarusian defence minister Andrei Raukou simply told Tut.by that 'The contract specifies this with one line: as soon as funding starts.'
Tut.by also reports that the contract had been concluded directly, i.e., without the mediation of the Russian government. In other words, the Kremlin is in no haste to arm Minsk; Belarus must purchase arms like any other country.
This seems to be a pattern. Last October, Lukashenka revealed the conditions on which Minsk had bought the S-300 SAM systems to the Belarusian parliament: 'To my knowledge, we paid $170m, took the S-300s, repaired them, modernised them, and deployed them.' In other words, Minsk paid Russia even for second-hand S-300PS – despite the fact that the Kremlin could hardly have sold them at a decent price anywhere.
Helicopters and fighter jets for sale
The Belarusian army will not enlarge its air force by adding the new Su-30SMs to it. According to then deputy defence minister Ihar Latsyankou in February 2016, it will use the new jets to replace currently active MiG-29s, which Belarus inherited from Soviet times.
Minsk is already looking to sell its MiGs. On 29 June, the Russian military analysis blog BMPD, citing an anonymous Serbian source, reported that although Serbia has currently stopped negotiating the purchase of eight MiG-29s from Belarus, it could conclude the deal in 2018 or later.
A similar situation exists regarding combat helicopters. On 25 June, Russian military aviation blogger kloch4 published an abusive but noteworthy analysis of Minsk's plans to decommission its Mi-24 attack helicopters and sell them abroad.
After analysing numerous photographs of Belarusian army helicopters, he concluded that although Belarus had inherited more than seven dozen helicopters from the Soviet army:
…we can confirm a sharp weakening of the Mi-24 fleet in Belarus – there are only a dozen flying vehicles, some of them – the Mi-24 of non-attack modifications which cannot employ guided anti-tank weapons. The choppers of the latter kind have recently been returned to service, which indicates a certain armaments crisis … There were no attempts noticed to modernise the equipment in order to increase its combat capacities, including for night missions.
Its no wonder that on 10 June, the French daily Le Figaro quoted a UN Security Council document saying that the Mi-24 attack helicopters recently seen at airfields controlled by Libya's Tobruk-based government had been purchased from Belarus. The UAE had bought them for its Libyan allies. The Emirati government has been buying military equipment for its Libyan friends for some years: in 2014, it purchased four Mi-24V attack helicopter from Belarus for Libya. Le Figaro's report might indicate that there were further such deals.
The Belarusian army's attack helicopters are in even more dire straights than its fighter jets. Unlike fighter jets, which are partly being replaced by newer airplanes, Minsk has no such policy for its attack helicopters. It did not buy any new combat helicopters from Russia – only 18 Mi-17V5 transport helicopters. This is an odd choice for a country preparing for a clash with NATO.
Modernising Soviet armour once again
What's more, there are no new tanks coming from Russia to strengthen Minsk's military might either. On 2 June, the Belarusian army received its first batch of T-72B3 tanks from the Russian plant Uralvagonzavod. The T-72B3 model is the latest Russian modification (as of 2016) of the Soviet mass-produced T-72 tank.
As great as this might sound, this makes little difference for Belarus's offensive capacities. First, Minsk received only four tanks, even though the Belarusian defence ministry subsequently signed a contract with the Russian firm on modernising another batch of T-72s.
Secondly, the Russians are modernising Belarus's own T-72s. They are not providing new machines, not even T-90s, which have been deployed by the Russian army for many years already.
The same can also be said about other types of armoured vehicles. Thus, contrary to claims by some Russian military analysts, Minsk has abandoned its plans to buy new Russian BTR-82As, an armoured personnel carrier. What's more, for several years Belarus has been receiving lighter armoured vehicles of the Humvee-type not from Russia, but from China – and for free.
In sum, an analysis of Belarusian military hardware purchases and sales does not seem to indicate any preparation for large-scale operations involving Belarusian participation, such as a Russian invasion of the Suwalki gap to reach the Kaliningrad Province or indeed anything larger than counterinsurgency missions. Moreover, Belarus still retains its brigade-based army structure – which it adopted for smaller operations – while since 2014 Russian has been reestablishing larger units – divisions and even armies – suitable for fighting large-scale wars.
Is Minsk just out of money? Perhaps, but Russia is not demonstrating any willingness to boost the combat capacities of its Belarusian ally for such deployments by supplying it with appropriate weapons.
The only new equipment Belarus received from Moscow over the last five years was trainer jets and transport helicopters, with Tor-M2 SAM systems being the largest Russian contribution to Belarusian defence. And Minsk paid for them.
Thus, it is clear that if Russia has any plans for larger offensive operations, the Belarusian armed forces have no place in them.