Armed Forces: Degradation of the defense potential

Andrei Porotnikov


Last year will be remembered as a year of degradation of Belarus’ defense potential, which has become critical and can soon be irreversible. The gravity of the situation is not only and not so much in the increasing moral and physical deterioration of arms, but also in the outflow of professionals who can hardly be replaced with highly qualified personnel.

The country leadership still cherishes the illusion that a reliable national security system can be cheap. The low cost and efficiency can be supposedly ensured by the territorial defense, the military-industrial complex, and membership in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO).

Actualization of priorities

In early 2012, the Belarusian military leadership pointed out three basic priorities for the year:

Only the first one has resulted in success. Development of the UAV Grif-1 with a 100 km action radius was completed and first units will be supplied to the armed forces this year already. The UAVs are provided with all the necessary operational load of domestic manufacture forreconnaissance, search and surveillance, radio electronic warfare, etc. Results of the Grif program will matter for creation of robotized complexes for various applications like information, reconnaissance, and combat operations. Great emphasis is attached to the UAVs. The lack of Belarus-made engines has been a problem so far. 2

The territorial defense was also prioritized, but it would be an exaggeration to say that something really working has been created in this area. As a matter of fact, the territorial forces, which it is based on, only exist on paper. In peacetime their command should constitute 1.5% to 5% of the wartime size (i.e. 1,800 to 6,000 people) that envisages a corresponding enlargement of the Defense Ministry. However, its functions were simply distributed among the already existing bodies of military and civil administration as extra employment duties.

Territorial defense specifics require fulfillment of a huge scope of tasks and comprehensive professional training. This training is however limited to short-term exercises for a company of reservists and civil office holders for 1 to 3 days. As a result, there are neither well-trained commanders, nor qualified personnel for the territorial armies. Quite dangerous is that the government strongly believes that the territorial defense forces are a cheap substitution for a regular army, while they are just an auxiliary minor component, the low cost of which is very doubtful 3.

The Defense Ministry’s interest to ideology is caused by the problem of human resources. The government admitted the staffing crisis for the first time in February 2012. The personnel shortage in a number of military units reaches 20%. 4 Alarming is that young officers capable of performing tasks independently tend to quit the service once the first five-year contracts expire. With regard to some areas of expertise, there are 25% 5 and sometimes even 60% of such dropouts.

The problem is not just in the number, but also the quality of personnel. Military service has become less prestigious and the educational level of applicants to the Military Academy has dropped considerably. In fact, the Defense Ministry faces the threat of degeneration: the army can soon be staffed with people unable to compete in the civil labor market.

The military pay was increasing last year and, by the end of 2012, reached 85% of the pre-crisis level of 2010. There was nothing but to hope for public spirit and patriotism. However, given that the country only has a bunch of scrappy appeals and slogans not in any way connected with the real life instead of ideology, the failure was predetermined from the outset.

Defense potential: Lower and lower

The chronic underfunding of the military has led to a rapid degradation of the defense potential of the country. In 2012, Belarus actually lost one third of its warplanes (Su-24 bombers and Su-27 heavy fighters). Procurement of new ones is highly unlikely. The contract on supplies of Yak-130 primary trainers signed in December 2012 onlyspecifies four such planes (Belarus currently has ten obsolete training airplanes). It looks like the Belarusian authorities have no hope to preserve even the present, dangerously low capacity of the national air force. The frustrated supply of eighteenSu-30 heavy fighters previously used by India was the disappointment of the year.

In this situation, the delivery of eight S-300PMU1 surface-to-air missile systems from Russiaand continued supply with Tor-M2E systems was especially important. Considering that the agreement on provision with the systems of both types was achieved during the financial recession of 2011 and there is no information that Belarus paid for them, the probability is high that money will not be involved.

There was a fly in the ointment, though: S-300PMU1 and Tor-M2E are only intended for export. Russia does not provide them to its armed forces, which means that Belarus receives not fully functional systems without the newest algorithms of counteraction to precision weapons.

Since the funding is limited, efforts were made to upgrade the already available weapons. Prototypes of reconnaissance-firing systems and UAVs were worked on throughout the year. Patchy upgrades could enhance precision, but could not increase the action range, which is only possible if new equipment or ammunition is imported.

Military imports are complicated and capacity of the local military industrial sector has to be used as much as possible. It was announced in 2012 that 35 new prototypes would be supplied to the army. 6 The low-level intruder detection system Rosa-RB stands out as it is capable of creating an integral shield from an assault within its altitude range.

Emphasis has usually been put on development of automated management means, telecommunication, data transmission, data security, electronic warfare support, protection from precision-guided weapons and UAVs. Research and development works on some components of individual information-combat systems were completed by the end of the year. Belarusian engineers made prototypes of sleeve-mounted and pocket computers and tablets; communication and indication equipment; targeting, reconnaissance and surveillance devices. They are however supplied in small amounts or single items. Last March, the ministry had to call military chiefs together to update them on the recent developments and inform them of the very existence of new prototypes.

Despite appreciable successes of the military-industrial complex, no significant progress was made in development and manufacture of new hi-tech products. For this reason, the schemes of financing were reconsidered and the number of programs was reduced. The decision was made to only fund the most promising areas where the payback would be quick. 7

In July 2012, the Defense Ministry was slapped in the face when the notorious teddy bear airdrop took place and everyone was talking about a collapse of the national air defense system, which was not true actually. Although the available equipment is out of date, Belarus still has perhaps the strongest multilayered air defense in Europe. Any European capital could be bombed with teddy bears just as well. Maintaining of the permanently functioning low-altitude air defense system is a very complicated and money consuming task. This should have been explained to the people. Instead, the Belarusian authorities denied the incident over and over again and then had to admit it and started a noisy blame game that finally undermined credibility of everything the government said about the airdrop stunt.

Military integration within the CIS

Reanimation of the Collective Security Treaty Organization by Russia was one of the most significant trends of the past year. The member states used to delegate high-ranking military officials of the preretirement age, which means the CSTO was not really functioning and had little respect. The year 2012 however saw a number of exercises, which suggested preparation for combating extremists in the southern regions of the CIS and operations aimed at stabilization and peace enforcement.

Rearmament of the CSTO Collective Rapid Response Forces by 2015 was announced. The weapons used by the Russian Interior Ministry task forces engaged in anti-rebel actions in the Northern Caucasus were taken as a model. It shows that the CSTO was going to counteract nonconventional (i.e. non-state) enemies who do not possess heavy firepower equipment. The same conclusion can be made when taking a look at the Rapid Response Forces characteristics: they are highly mobile and carry light weapons.

The heightened attention to the information in the member states, especially monitoring of social networks, also pursues the objective of staving off threats to domestic stability, rather than external aggression. It is thus openly said that it is caused by the Arab Spring events. The CSTO activities are accompanied by regular suggestions to cooperate in dealing with problems in Afghanistan and other security issues in Central Asia addressed to NATO.

At the end of the year, the Kremlin went further and offered a reform of the armed forces of the CSTO members, which, in fact, would turn them into Russian army subsidiaries. Success of this endeavor is doubtful. It is enough to recall the story of creation of the joint regional air defense system of Belarus and Russia. On February 13, 2012, President Lukashenko issued decree No.65, which ratified the joint air defense agreement. During the joint panel session of the Belarusian and Russian Defense Ministries held on April 18, 2012, the sides determined the architecture of the joint group of armies and worked out a management and decision-making mechanism for its application. Minsk blocked the resolution on the major point, the command, which Moscow was greatly interested in. As a result, as former Belarusian air force and air defense chief Major General Dzmitry Pakhmelkin said, the joint regional air defense system was just a formal concept.

Besides, the plan of large-scale CSTO reforming was not underpinned with proper financing, which slims down the chance of success of Moscow’s plan even more.

While the Kremlin is in haste trying to integrate the military capacities of its allies, the Belarusian government wisely leaves as many open doors for itself as possible. Belarus actively participates in partnership and cooperation programs of NATO. The crisis in political relations with the West obviously has not affected the intensity of Belarus–NATO contacts. The anti-NATO rhetoric of the Belarusian leadership is out of tune with its actions.

Chinese factor

Stepped up military and technical cooperation with the People’s Republic of China was observed throughout 2012. Beijing rendered aid for the first time: Belarus’ special operations forces received 22 light armored vehicles Dongfeng Meng Shi. The two countries declared the intention to launch a joint telecommunication satellite. Minsk thus emphasized that Russia had nothing to do with this project. 8

Both sides proclaimed more than once that their military cooperation was strategic using words like “eternal brotherly friendship” between China and Belarus and their armies. 9 Before, only the Russians were “brothers forever” to the Belarusians.

In November, China hosted the second joint exercise titled “Swift Eagle.” Belarusian troopers used Chinese small arms that can be well taken as advertising. In this context, Lukashenko’s statement about inadvisability of buying used arms, which he made during a meeting with Defense Minister Zhadobin on November 13, 2012, suggests a new interpretation. Given the modest defense budget of Belarus, China can be regarded as a good potential source of new weapons. In the past few years, China has made a big leap in manufacturing quality arms thus maintaining competitive prices.

Both countries state the intention to develop military cooperation. On December 6, 2012, President Lukashenko approved the draft agreement On the status of military units of the People’s Republic of China temporarily staying in the territory of the Republic of Belarus and military units of the Republic of Belarus temporarily staying in the territory of the People’s Republic of China for joint exercises (trainings).

The ideological affinity of the two political regimes helps greatly in this respect. It is however more probable that Beijing wants to influence the CSTO through Belarus, get access to Belarusian military technologies (and Russian technologies through Belarus) and promote products of the Chinese military industrial sector in new markets.


Viewing the results of 2012 it is fair to say that the Collective Security Treaty Organization is transforming from a defense association into a force performing gendarme functions first of all securing internal stability of the member states, which also means that the threat of a military confrontation between Russia and the West is reducing. This explains Moscow’s inactivity in completing the construction of the joint Belarus–Russia air defense system. Belarus’ participation in the CSTO is only driven by an opportunity to obtain material preferences from the Kremlin, rather than any external threats to its security.

The Defense Ministry of Belarus is the last in line for a piece of the budget pie. The political leadership disregards the importance of keeping defense at a proper level because there is no real military threat, and hypothetical threats like a conflict with NATO can be repelled owing to the alliance with Russia. For this reason, it is highly unlikely that the marked decline in the national defense potential will be halted in the foreseeable future.

The Belarusian authorities are actively developing military and technical cooperation with China and they will do it demonstratively seeking bargaining chips for negotiations with Russia. At the same time, supplies of Chinese arms can contribute substantially to reinforcement of Belarus’ defense.