Belarusian army has been suffering from chronic underfunding for 20 years. Small size of the military budget has negative impact primarily on equipping the troops with modern military hardware. The purchases are made in small quantity and extremely rarely. Moreover, they are not made in sufficient quantity for modernization of existing weapons.
And on this negative background, the information about the intention (yet only hypothetical) of Belarusian military department to acquire the operational-tactical missile systems (OTMS) of the «Iskander» series has been actively pursued for the last couple of years. They are planned to replace the OTMS «Tochka-U», which Belarusian troops are armed with at the moment. Acquisition of «Iskander» will extend the ability to strike deep into enemy’s territory, which can be one of retaliatory deterrents for a potential aggressor.
The idea itself seems quite good, but the situation is not so simple as it appears on the face of it.
First and foremost, arises the following question: “What modification of the OTMS «Iskander» Russia is ready to provide to our army?” At the moment this missile system is manufactured in the following modifications:
Iskander-M — 2 rockets on the launcher, range up to 500 km;
Iskander-K — option to use cruise missiles, the range of 500 km, the mass of the warhead 480 kg;
Iskander-E — export version, range 280 km, warhead weight of 480 kg, satisfies the conditions of the MTCR (Missile Technology Control Regime).
Because of the control regime, we can suppose that Belarus will be offered this latest modification of OTMS «Iskander-E», which won’t play big role.
The fact is, that the current military-political leadership of the country considers the North, Northwest and West (Lithuania, Latvia and Poland) to be mostly possible sides to expect the aggression from. The main goal of OTMS is hitting targets deep in the territory of potential enemy. Just look at the map to understand that the «Iskander-E», even if it is placed at the state border, is too «short-armed» to reach Lodz or Poznan and even Warsaw. But in case of military conflict, the OTMS should be placed deep in the territory of the country in order to be protected from air attacks.
Belarusian doctrine of deterrence is based on the enemy’s understanding of the fact, that the cost of aggression against our country will outweigh any possible effect of the victory. That’s why we need to have missile systems, that are able to strike objects and troop concentrations near the front and at the same time large industrial and administrative centers, transportation centers, critical infrastructure (power plants, water intakes, research centers, places of toxic and radioactive materials storage, etc.).
Due to that it is desirable to put into service a solid-propellant rocket with a range of 600-700 km and with the ability to be equipped with a cluster warhead. But here there is a problem which is the guilt of the first head of the country since independence S. Shushkevich. His managed to join the US-Soviet Treaty «On the Elimination of Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles,» according to which our country can’t be armed with missiles with the range over 500 km. Estonia, Malta and even Monaco can be armed with such missiles, but Belarus – can not. According to the Treaty 584, Belarusian missiles had been destroyed in Russia since 1992. Here we speak not about the treason, but rather about political and strategic short-sightedness. Perhaps earlier the Treaty was relevant, but at the moment its provisions are discriminatory. However, no international agreement is a dogma. In connection with its implementation, Belarus can consider the Treaty to be terminated.
But that’s not all. «Iskander» system is quite expensive, even taking into account possible discounts from the Russian partners. But with there is a problem with the quality of Russian defense industry in recent years: there were claims on purchased weapons from Algeria, India and China. This is just what has got into the media. There is no guarantee that spending hundreds million dollars, Belarus will get high-quality products. Thus, the OTMS «Iskander» is not the most optimal choice first of all because of lack of range. In general, it is not clear why our generals are so persistently lobbying the acquisition of OTMS. At the moment the cruise missiles and multiple rocket launchers (MRL) of increased power are able as well, which seems quite more efficient in our situation.
The greatest interest in European developments is the Swedish-German cruise missile «TAURUS», which has a damaging range of over 500 km. Missiles «TAURUS» are produced in modifications providing the possibility to launch them from both aircraft (including transport planes) and ground-based platforms. However, at the moment our generals can only dream about «TAURUS». And not only because of the political or financial aspects («TAURUS» costs about EUR 1 million, which is quite available). Under the terms of the missile technology control regime the export of missile weapons systems with a range over 300 km is not permitted. But the joint development is not prohibited. So, the situation in which Belarus in cooperation with other European states produces missile systems is theoretically possible. However, this is just a quite far prospect.
In the current foreign political situation around the country the cooperation with Asian countries, which, on the one hand, have the appropriate technology, and, on the other hand, are interested in promoting their products to international markets, seems more real. And here the most promising cooperation can be done with China and Pakistan. So, the Chinese army is armed with a cruise missile «Donghai-10» with the range of 1500 km. Other performance characteristics are unknown.
The situation with Pakistan is more clear. Since the late 90s of last century this country has made a successful development of a national cruise missile based on the American «Tomahawk.» Here we are talking about «Hatf-7». The missile is theoretically capable of passing the distance of 750 km. and has a great potential for modernization. Pakistani designers claim that the range Hatf-7 can be increased to more than 1,000 km. It meets all the criteria for modern cruise missile and is able to follow the terrain at a speed of 800 km / h. Taking into consideration, that Belarusian authorities talk about strategic partnership with China, and Pakistan, being a strategic partner of China, has a number of U.S. military technologies, Belarusian-Pakistani cooperation in this field would be quite natural and useful.
Taking into consideration special nature of Belarusian-Chinese cooperation it is necessary to draw the attention to China’s MLRS series of WS-2, that have been coming into service of Chinese army since 2004. The modification of MLRS WS-2D with a range of 400 km is the most interesting for Belarus. For example, the most powerful MLRS, being currently in service of the national army are: «Smerch», which has a range of 90 km. and OTMS «Tochka-U» — 120 km. WS-2D fills a niche of short-range missiles. MRLS WS-2D is equipped with a guided missile and can be equipped with warheads of various types, including a new-type cluster warhead, that carries three self-guided shells.
Another important thing is that China is actively promoting its military goods in the world, offering not only preferential terms of supply, including leasing and credit, but also technology transfer. And the last thing may have a strategic interest for Belarus: having purchased an initial batch of weapons, the country can get the documentation and accessories that will allow to establish an independent production of the systems.
Indian solid-propellant rocket «Agni-1» and the Iranian «Shahab-2» are also theoretically interesting for Belarus. And if the cruise missiles are like a “scalpel”, «Agni» and «Shahab» are a sledgehammer. The warhead of these missiles weighs more than 1 ton. But they are not really very accurate. Although, we don’t need extreme accuracy for attacking large-scale targets, in this case we need a cluster warhead. Opening at the height of 2,000 m above the target, the missile covers very large area by hundreds of shells. The targets for such missiles can be large industrial zones and cities. The very existence of such systems is a retaliatory deterrent for any aggressor.
Thus, there are alternatives to «Iskander». And each of these alternatives has its own advantages.
Generally speaking, the agenda includes the issue of overcoming the complete depending on Russia in military-technical sphere. Yes, the Russian weapons are quite competitive and, as a rule, purchase of them is the most preferred option for Belarus. However, «generally» and «always» are not the same definitions. Speaking about “long arm” systems «Iskander» is a bad choice. Although Russia has much to offer besides it. For example, cruise missiles X-55. But for some reason Russians don’t propose us to purchase them or to make joint developments. Instead of that they are trying to foist on us OTMS «Iskander». Which, by the way, isn’t successful in the global arms market despite massive advertising. In contrast with Chinese MLRS, which have been purchased, even by Turkey, that is a member of NATO. This fact indicates a very decent level of quality of Chinese weapons.
It is also necessary to admit that the military-technical cooperation is the litmus test of international relations. The better they are, the more willing are the countries to exchange military technology and to supply weapons. If Russia tries to sell Belarus «castrated», «Iskander-E», it will mean that talks about alliance relations are no more than talks.
Short «long arms» of Belarusian army are equal to preservation of our country’s total dependence on Russia in the sphere of security and geopolitics. In fact, in the event of a serious aggravation of the international situation around our country, Belarusian military and political leadership without having the systems of deterrence will be not a subject, but an object of relations. For us will decide the others. So, we will have the unenviable choice: to obey or to hope that Moscow would not betray us. But the history has shown in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Iran, Libya that the Kremlin is the owner of its word. And this word is not really worthy. Just like «Iskander-E», that is completely useless for us.