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.
Minsk silently builds a new army
On 1 December, Minsk made public an agreement with Russia to supply a joint regional group of Belarusian and Russian troops. In return, Russia’s Defence Ministry has committed to providing Belarus with necessary equipment and arms in times of “increasing military threat to the Union state [of Belarus and Russia] and in times of war.”
Meanwhile, the weapons and training Minsk gives its army show little in common with how Moscow develops its military. The Belarusian government is making its army ever smaller and getting rid of most of its expensive, heavy weapons necessary for all out offensive operations.
Minsk usually buys major arms systems from Russia. This year, Belarusian defence ministry official media reported that Belarus had received six Mi-8MTV-5 helicopters and a division of Tor-M2 surface-to-air missile systems from Russia. Less costly—yet still important—purchases from Russia include the 2017-produced RPO-A Shmel, an infantry flamethrower that the Belarusian army already uses, and its modernised version, the Shmel–M, bought for the first time. Minsk has also signed contracts on purchasing 12 Su-30SM aircraft and some Protivnik–GE radars from Russia.
National arms industries are supplying the Belarusian army more and more equipment, too. A key new piece of equipment is the Palanez, Belarusian multiple-launch rocket system. At the end of October, an improved version, the Palanez–M, was successfully tested at a distance of more than 300km for the first time.
The Belarusian military is also planning to continue purchases of communication, navigation, and surveillance means, armoured vehicles, small firearms and body armour. Some of this equipment will be from Belarus’s defence industries (see Table one below). Minsk also plans to buy over 50 drones, which are mostly Belarus–manufactured, and to continue modernisation of T-72B tanks.
The picture of modernisation looks, however, contradictory. Speaking to reporters on 28 November, Deputy Defence Minister for Armaments Siarhei Simanenka said as many as four T–72B, 30 GAZ-66 military trucks, and some other old Soviet era equipment had been successfully modernised. However, the refitting of military truck models from the 1960s, which had already proved highly vulnerable during the Soviet war in Afghanistan, raises questions about the rationality of such modernisation.
The situation concerning Belarus’s heavy weapons is another story. Minsk is clearly not replacing most of its heavier, Soviet-inherited weapons. It decommisions them for further sales, like Su-27 heavy fighter jets or Su-24 bombers, or it simply does nothing about them as they grow older, like T-72 tanks. It is highly likely that the government is going to build a new army, which will not deploy these older heavy weapons. Indeed, in an article published on 3 November in Belarus Segodnya, the main Belarusian government daily, hinted at exactly such vision by declaring, “The main aim for the period until 2020 is to construct a compact, mobile, well-trained and well-equipped army.” In plain words, an army with only a minimum of heavy weapons.
Special forces model for Belarusian army of the future
Belarusian Special Operations Forces (SOF) Commander Vadzim Dzyanisenka spoke with Belorusskaya voennaya gazeta, a military industry newspaper, on 21 November and presented the Belarusian military leadership’s vision of contemporary armed conflicts. Dzyanisenka emphasised that the role of SOF was growing rapidly. He said that without these forces “it is not possible to solve the tasks related to ensuring national security.” Dzyanisenka described these forces as “mobile, agile and not burdened with heavy weapons.”
That is the direction in which Minsk is developing its military. The SOF seem to be serving as the model for the future national army. The special operations forces were established in the early 2000s and, according to Dzyanisenka, their composition and the scope of their responsibilities remain unchanged.
SOF units have became a priority for the government and, therefore, they receive more new equipment than many other parts of the army. This year, the SOF received a trove of new equipment: Kaiman and Volat V-1 armoured vehicles designed and manufactured in Belarus, Chinese-made CS/VN3 Dragon armoured vehicles, the Belarusian-modernised BTR-70MB1 armoured personnel carrier, Russian-made P–7 parachute platforms for cargo, and Russian-made NONA M-1 120mm mortar.
On the one hand, this list of new equipment for the SOF is larger than for any other part of the Belarusian armed forces, excluding air defence. In short, Minsk sees the SOF as its highest priority. On the other hand, it lends credence to the idea that Minsk wishes to build a smaller, yet more efficient fighting force, which can deal with Donbas- or Kosovo-like conflicts, but harbours no ambition of fighting a major war, say, with NATO.
The President‘s new arms?
Minsk has little money and it has always tried to get funding for its military from Russia. Speculation about secret deals between Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka and the Kremlin abound. And for good reason, too, as the case of a recently published agreement with Russia shows. The agreement concerns supplying a joint regional group of Belarusian and Russian troops. Minsk and Moscow signed the agreement on 2 November 2016 and it entered force on 14 November. Belarusian citizens learned about the document only post factum, last Friday.
However, the terrible secret of that agreement turns out to be banal. The Kremlin essentially made clear that Minsk would only get free arms from Moscow in the case of full out war. Therefore, the Belarusian government’s attempts to arm itself without bearing too much of financial burden seem to have failed. Indeed, the appearance of such an agreement should be no surprise, because the Kremlin for some years has already stopped supplying its post-Soviet allies through CSTO mechanisms.
Inhibited by the Kremlin’s staunch refusals to provide Belarus with heavy weapons, the Belarusian government adapted its policies. Minsk is now silently building a new army better suited to its limited needs and financial constraints. It is letting its Soviet-era, heavier arms be silently discarded without replacement—a huge fleet of T–72 tanks that have been neither modernised nor replaced provides an illustration. Simplification of existing army structures automatically follows, which also means a reduction of offensive capacities.