KAZAKHSTAN ENHANCES STRATEGIC AIRLIFT CAPABILITIES
The high profile military exhibition KADEX 2012, held in Astana on May 3-6 underlines a number of security issues intensifying Kazakhstan’s search for foreign defense industry partners. The trend to buy abroad to fill gaps in the modern weapons and equipment inventory is coupled with a desire among the political-military leadership to fundamentally transform the ability of the domestic defense industry to manufacture the hardware and systems needed to conduct future military operations. This will gradually reduce reliance upon foreign, including Russian built, military hardware and is in response to a significant shift in the country’s threat perception contained in the new Military Doctrine signed by President Nursultan Nazarbayev in October 2011.
BACKGROUND: KADEX 2012 was a much larger military exhibition than its first foray into the international arms market in 2010, growing to include 250 companies from more than twenty countries worldwide. It showcased the work of snipers, assault squads and displayed aerobatics using L-39, MiG-29 and Su-27 aircraft. Tumer Beren, a Kazakhstani defense company partnered by a U.S.-based company, was among the defense firms seeking new markets, having manufactured body armor and armored equipment for over 15 years for sale in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, North Africa and Pakistan. Astana also secured a US$ 150 million deal with Kyiv to jointly produce Ukrainian BTR-4 armored personnel carriers.
Visitors to KADEX 2012 were particularly interested in seeing the C-295 Airbus, which can carry nine tons of cargo and take off from unprepared runways with high performance characteristics in both hot and cold climates. The C-295 transport aircraft was chosen by Kazakhstan’s government to enhance strategic airlift capabilities in the aftermath of the crisis in Zhanaozen in December 2011. Astana has contracted to purchase two C-295 by 2013 and six more by 2018 for use by defense ministry forces; such assets will permit the rapid movement of troops during a crisis situation over great distances within the country. Procurement of C-295 Airbus is also much less controversial than earlier plans to acquire US C-130 transport aircraft, which resulted in pressure from Moscow to suspend such deals.
KADEX 2012 was also marked by Astana further expanding its joint venture with Eurocopter, by placing an order for an additional eight EC145s bringing the overall total to 45 helicopters. As part of the latest order, six EC145s will be used by the Ministry of Emergency and two will be used by the Ministry of Defense for search and rescue operations. Astana also signed a letter of intent to purchase a further 20 EC725s, and these will be exclusively used by defense ministry forces across the full range of missions. The EC725 platform is a member of Eurocopter’s 11-metric-ton Cougar military helicopter family, with sales to militaries ranging from France, Brazil and Mexico to Indonesia. It is designed for conducting operations from land and ships, equipped with a de-icing system and operates well in cold weather conditions, while its avionics includes a four-axis autopilot and the helicopter’s large cabin is enhanced by the ability to carry a wide range of armaments and sensors. By procuring the multirole EC725, Kazakhstan will acquire a high-technology platform capable of conducting tactical transport, search and rescue, special operations and naval operations.
IMPLICATIONS: In addition to these military-technical developments, representatives of the defense ministries of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) met on the sidelines of KADEX 2012, agreeing to deepen such technical cooperation and integration within the CSTO. Visitors to the event reported the presence of military equipment specifically designed for use by the CSTO. Belarusian defense companies were also keen to highlight Kazakhstan’s close defense ties with Minsk for the repair of military aircraft and stress the importance of such cooperation in the Customs Union (Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia).
Equally, the Russian defense industry has signed a range of deals with Astana to repair and modernize military hardware, and also to open several maintenance centers in Kazakhstan. These agreements will facilitate upgrading and maintaining multiple Russian manufactured assets in Kazakhstan’s military inventory. Astana and Moscow have closely cooperated to modernize and adapt Mi-26 helicopters, and the second of two of these platforms entered service earlier this year. Both countries are interested in fostering joint ventures to increase their focus on innovative technologies, including automated command and control (C2) systems and modern communications equipment.
Kazakhstan’s defense ministry is actively introducing modern and advanced military technology into the table of organization and equipment (TOE). While part of that process involves seeking to develop joint ventures with both Russian and western defense companies, it is also placing greater emphasis upon strengthening its domestic manufacturing capacity in order to lay the foundations for being less reliant on foreign arms purchase, modernization or maintenance in the future. The 2011 Military Doctrine outlines the priority areas for military procurement as: manufacture and repair of aircraft, motor vehicles, missile and artillery systems, automated C2 as well as communications and other specialist military equipment.
Astana is hurriedly addressing weaknesses in the existing TOE, and among the key areas is to enhance strategic airlift capabilities to enable rapid reaction in response to a broader range of crises. Some analysts link such developments directly to the Zhanaozen crisis, which served to expose the weakness of moving interior troops rapidly, and had to depend on secondment of a civilian airline in order to reinforce the deployed forces. However, in terms of the 2011 Military Doctrine, it is important to recall that it was written and signed prior to the culmination of that particular crisis. Moreover, some suggest that the doctrine stresses a shift in threat perception towards domestic rather than external threats to the state, and so Astana is acting to quickly remedy gaps in the TOE as well as placing more emphasis on training and raising standards among military and security personnel.
Nevertheless, such assertions miss the mark. The fundamental message of the new Military Doctrine is first to link the nexus of external to domestic threats, and stress how these may cross-fertilize to produce a sudden crisis; it is added that modern conflict is changing in its means and methods. Significantly, the main external threat to security is not listed as international terrorism (fifth place) but socio-political instability among Kazakhstan’s neighbors. It may draw upon the experience of the crisis in southern Kyrgyzstan in June 2010, including the failure of the CSTO states to predict the crisis, and keep a watchful eye of the implications for regional security stemming from post-2014 Afghanistan.
CONCLUSIONS: Astana’s interest in fostering deeper defense ties with foreign and domestic defense industry companies aims to introduce high-technology systems and hardware into the TOE, correct existing weaknesses and in particular the fresh effort to increase strategic airlift capabilities, albeit on a limited scale, points to a shift in Kazakhstan’s threat perception.
This is no grounds for panic nor does it imply that Astana expects a serious test of its security anytime soon. But, according to the 2011 Military Doctrine, the country may need to act in future elsewhere in Central Asia as part of a CSTO rapid reaction force, or domestically in response to a crisis that erupts unexpectedly and connects any of the external or domestic threats specified in the 2011 doctrine. The speed of action in procurement and international joint ventures may also indicate an aspiration to be less reliant upon other actors in dealing with such crises.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Roger N. McDermott is an Affiliated Senior Analyst, Danish Institute for International Studies, Copenhagen and an Advisory Scholar: Military Affairs, Center for Research on Canadian-Russian Relations (CRCR) Georgian College Ontario, Canada.