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Belarusian defense industry is looking for an alternative to supplies to Russia

In the military-industrial complex of Belarus, noticeable changes have taken place in recent years. The military enterprises of the republic, in cooperation with foreign partners, have begun producing several types of new products for themselves, including multiple launch rocket systems, unmanned aerial vehicles, and light armored vehicles. The production of cruise missiles is underway. But when promoting these products to foreign markets, Belarus will have to face tough competition.

During the years of independence, the country not only preserved the legacy of the Soviet military-industrial complex, but also managed to turn it into a fairly modern industry. Due to the limited demand for military products on the part of its own armed forces, the defense industry complex of Belarus is mainly export-oriented. In addition to the traditional sales market - Russia, the republic is actively promoting military equipment to the countries of the CIS, Asia and Africa. And although the demand of the state has been growing in recent years, the importance of export for Belarusian military enterprises remains decisive. Moreover, in the context of the economic crisis, the defense industry is one of the few segments of the economy capable of bringing foreign exchange earnings to the budget.

Over the past three years, the state, which controls almost the entire industry, has made significant adjustments to its development. As in Kazakhstan ("Seekers of competence"), the impetus was the Ukrainian crisis, which clearly demonstrated the importance of UAVs, MLRS and light armored vehicles. Belarus has never been engaged in their production, so it had to be mastered from scratch.

At the end of September 2014, Alexander Lukashenko, at a meeting on the creation of advanced defense systems, set the task of equipping the army with modern weapons. “The equipment should provide security, high mobility, controllability, the ability to conduct reconnaissance and deliver accurate fire strikes over long distances to the units of the armed forces … No one will sell you anything if you do not create it yourself …” Western sources linked Lukashenka's statement to the events in Ukraine. According to them, the Belarusian leader intends to close the production of military products within the country to the maximum, so that in an emergency situation he will be able to defend himself without looking back at Russia.

The tasks of developing new types of weapons were formulated in the form of “integrated system projects” (programs) in four areas: weapons of destruction, mobile platforms for weapons, UAVs, and combat geographic information systems. We managed to achieve certain successes, albeit different in importance and level of localization. Where there were no own production facilities, and the Belarusian specialists did not have experience and competencies, they had to cooperate with foreign partners.

"Polonaise" and "Aist"

An illustrative example is the production of the new heavy MLRS "Polonez", carried out jointly with China. Until recently, Belarus had no experience in making missiles.

Grated tractor
Grated tractor

On May 9 last year, the MLRS were shown to the public. In the parade column along Pobediteley Avenue in Minsk, two launch vehicles and two transport-loading vehicles passed. During their passage, the commentator said that the Polonaise is effective at a distance of up to 200 kilometers, which is superior to the long-range Soviet MLRS Smerch, and can also hit up to eight targets simultaneously. The system is mounted on a Belarusian-made MZKT-7930 chassis, which is widely used in the Russian army.

According to experts, the Belarusian MLRS used the Chinese A-200 missile, which has similar characteristics (caliber - 301 mm, range - from 50 to 200 km). On April 17 this year, speaking to the staff of the Minsk Mission Control Center, Alexander Lukashenko admitted that Polonez was created in cooperation with Chinese colleagues. In the PRC, according to him, “some components” were purchased, on the basis of which Belarusian specialists have created a missile with a range of 200-300 kilometers. The complex is manufactured by the Precision Electromechanics Plant located in Dzerzhinsk near Minsk.

When developing its own cruise missiles, called "Aist", Minsk was guided by the experience of Ukraine, whose defense industry complex, after breaking ties with the Russian Federation, is in a dying state. In April 2014, when he visited the 558th aircraft repair plant in Baranovichi, Lukashenko suggested using the crisis in Ukraine to borrow military technologies and entice personnel. In September of the same year, the Belarusian delegation visited defense enterprises in Kiev, Lvov, Dnepropetrovsk, Chernigov and Zaporozhye, taking an interest in anti-aircraft and operational-tactical missiles and their components. An agreement was reached at the Zaporozhye Motor Sich JSC on the creation at the Orsha Aircraft Repair Plant for the production of small gas turbine engines for cruise missiles.

Along with this, the Ukrainians may well transfer the technologies for the production of the Kh-55 cruise missile, which was produced at the Kharkov Aviation Plant in the 1980s, to the Belarusians. Attempts to establish production and export supplies of air, land and ship-based missiles of similar characteristics were made by the Ukrainian defense industry back in 2005, after the first Orange Revolution. According to experts, the appearance of "Aist" can be expected this year.

"Berkut", "Grif" and "Cayman"

Belarus began to develop UAVs in the early 2010s. The production of unmanned aerial vehicles is organized by OJSC "AGAT-control systems" together with the 558th aircraft repair plant. On the basis of the developments of the Russian corporation "Irkut", the Belarusians launched the production of light reconnaissance UAVs "Berkut-1" and "Berkut-2". The first has a mass of 15 kilograms and can fly 15 kilometers at an altitude of 1000 meters. Berkut-2 has more serious characteristics. With a mass of 50 kilograms, it is able to climb 3000 meters and operate at a distance of up to 35 kilometers. The own Belarusian model - "Grif-100" belongs to a higher class. This UAV weighing 165 kilograms carries 20 kilograms of payload and spends up to five hours in the air. Last April, it was announced plans to release an export version of the "Griffins" intended for countries in Asia and Africa.

A new direction for Belarus was the development of light wheeled armored vehicles. At the 140th repair plant in Borisov, Minsk region, a lightly armored vehicle "Cayman" was designed. In the tight timeframe allotted by the country's leadership for the production of the product, the components of Soviet wheeled armored vehicles were used to the maximum. As a result, it took only four months to create a prototype.

The basis for the "Cayman" was the Soviet BRDM-2, from which the armored corps was borrowed. Some of the units were taken from the BTR-60. Its appearance "Cayman" is very similar to the BRDM, from which the turret was removed and the hull structure was slightly modified. Unlike the Russian "Tiger" and other armored vehicles of this class, the "Cayman" has only two doors, which greatly slows down the embarkation and disembarkation. The new Belarusian armored car does not have loopholes for shooting from the inside. Traditionally, the weak point of the BRDM was the booking, which, most likely, also inherited the Cayman. Therefore, it is unlikely to compete with modern models of light armored vehicles.

The Belarusian version of the Russian "Tiger", called "Lis-SP" and produced under license at the Minsk Wheel Tractor Plant, looks more promising. Its anti-tank version is equipped with its own Shershen missile system. In addition, a few years ago, the media reported about a light armored car "Bars" developed in Belarus, but it apparently did not go into production.

Russian bearing

Russia, of course, remains the key partner of Belarus in the military-technical sphere. Despite the negative processes of the first post-Soviet decade, the defense-industrial complexes of the two countries have retained close ties. Military-technical cooperation between Moscow and Minsk is governed by the agreement of 2009, which determines the procedure for mutual deliveries of military equipment, their terms, rights and obligations of the parties. Today the share of Belarus in the military order of Russia is about 15 percent. About a hundred Belarusian enterprises produce about 2000 items for 255 Russian defense companies. In our country, 940 enterprises supply about 4000 products and components for 70 Belarusian defense plants. Active cooperation has been established in the field of service maintenance, modernization and repair of Soviet-made military equipment.

The most significant for Russia are the products of the Minsk Volat Wheeled Tractor Plant, created in 1954 on the basis of MAZ and spun off into a separate production in the early 90s. At the MZKT, in particular, wheeled platforms are made for the Iskander OTRK, the Smerch and Tornado MLRS, the S-300 and S-400 air defense systems, wheeled versions of the Tor and Buk air defense systems, launchers and transport-loading vehicles of the anti-ship complexes "Bastion", "Bal-E", "Club-M", as well as all mobile strategic missile systems: "Topol", "Topol-M", "Yars" and "Rubezh". Today, the share of Russia in the revenue of MZKT is about 80 percent, and the volume of orders allows it to be loaded until 2018.

Due to the strategic importance of MZKT, Moscow, even before the start of the Ukrainian crisis, actively offered Minsk to sell the plant. In March 2013, the parties reached an agreement in principle on the creation of a joint holding, which was to include MZKT, but for three years they could not implement the plan. In August 2015, the President of Belarus announced that the republic's public was ready to give up the plant for at least three billion dollars, which was considered excessive in Moscow. As a result, on April 2, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev proposed to transfer the production of wheeled platforms to KamAZ, which in June last year demonstrated its own heavy tractor of the Platform-O project. The situation for Minsk is aggravated by the fact that the manufacturer of the S-300, S-400 and S-500 air defense systems, the Almaz-Antey concern, has acquired the Bryansk Automobile Plant and plans to transfer the production of wheeled platforms for its complexes to it.

In response, the Belarusian side launched a PR campaign, regarding these plans of Russia as an attempt at pressure. Information materials inspired by Minsk portrayed Moscow's intentions as unrealistic in the face of falling oil prices, the economic crisis and budget deficits. Nevertheless, in recent years, MZKT has been actively developing civil topics, and also strives to master the Asian and African markets, promoting heavy wheeled tractors for transporting armored vehicles.

An important area of bilateral military-technical cooperation is military optics and sighting systems. In particular, Peleng OJSC supplies to Russia sights for the modernization of T-72 tanks, and is developing a fire control system for the Chrysanthemum-S anti-missile system. The subject of supplies of the Belarusian Optical and Mechanical Association are sighting systems for grenade launchers. BelOMO is also developing a sight for the Russian AK-12 assault rifle. The Minsk Design Bureau "Display" supplies monitors to the Russian Federation for aircraft, adapted to a variety of operating conditions.

Losing is easy

Against the background of the general decline in industry, which amounted to 4.3 percent in the first quarter of this year, the defense industry of Belarus demonstrates good performance. According to the State Committee for the Military Industry, in January-May 2016, enterprises in the industry increased output by 8.4 percent over the same period last year. At the same time, the profitability of sales amounted to 34.4 percent, the export of goods and services increased by 31 percent. As a result, the net profit of the military sector of the economy was 1.6 times higher than last year's figures.

So the reluctance of Minsk to sell defense and other industrial enterprises to Moscow is understandable. The new owner can set other tasks for them, completely reorienting them to meet their needs. The same MZKT, for example, is needed by Russia to provide its own Armed Forces with heavy wheeled platforms, and not the Afro-Asian armies. Export contracts that bring foreign exchange earnings to the treasury may be under threat. The possibilities of Minsk for maneuvers in the foreign policy arena will also decrease, where military-technical cooperation is traditionally an effective tool for solving any problems.

But there are also problems in striving to maintain independence from Russia. Many large enterprises, such as MZKT or Peleng, work almost exclusively for Russian customers, and if relations between Minsk and Moscow deteriorate, this market is easy to lose. As for the same MZKT, such a prospect is already seen quite definitely. The export potential of the Belarusian defense industry in Asia and Africa has rather limited prospects.

Over time, this situation will increasingly affect the combat capability of the Belarusian armed forces. The resource of Soviet technology is being exhausted, and equipping the army with new weapons and military equipment will require large expenditures. Due to its limited economic potential, the republic is not able to master the production of most types of complex military equipment, such as aviation, tanks, air defense systems, and today it is impossible to ensure defense without them. Therefore, the question of the purchase by Belarus abroad or the joint production of new defense systems will soon become relevant again.