The transfer of the first batch of Russian Su-30SM fighters to Belarus is a good reason to recall how it all began and wonder why it turned out the way it did.
Belarus inherited more than two dozen Su-27 fighters from the USSR. The usage of them was stopped in the second half of 2012. There was no formal information on the fate of these aircraft. On the one hand, a farewell ceremony of aviation pilots with the Su-27 was held at the air base in Baranavičy. On the other hand, at the official level, it was stated that:
— the aircraft are not withdrawn from service, but decommissioned;
— the reason was the high cost of operating the Su-27.
Unofficially, the reason for this step was the fact that the manufacturer refused to confirm the resource of the airframes and issue a certificate of suitability for use. The formal reason was that the resource was originally assigned not in flight hours (like for the MiG-29) but in calendar years. Formally for 2012, the assigned calendar usage resource expired. But the actual state of the airframes, as far as we know, has not been studied by Russian specialists. Representatives of the Russian military-industrial complex directly proposed to the Belarusian Ministry of Defence: “Buy new planes from us”.
There was an option to save aircraft in the Air Force on the basis of departmental orders. But among the Belarusian military officials there was no one ready to take responsibility for the continued operation of aircraft with a resource exhausted by formal criteria: the generals preferred decommissioning the equipment to risk of being responsible for possible flight accidents.
The fact that part of the Belarusian Su-27 is quite suitable for operation can be judged by the proposal of the State Military Industrial Committee (SMIC) on January 31, 2014 to carry out repairs and deep modernization of fighters and return them to service. Prior to that, in November 2013 Aliaksandr Lukashenka suggested considering the possibility of maintaining the Su-27 as part of the national air force as a kind of reserve.
For a certain period of time there was an idea to get 18 former Indian Su-30K fighters. Which were built for delivery to India in 1997-1999, but, by agreement, they were returned in exchange for the supply of 16 new Su-30MKI fighters. In July 2011, the Russian company Rosoboronexport sent the former Indian Su-30Ks to the 558th Aircraft Repair Plant in Baranavičy, where they had to wait for a subsequent resale.
Belarus expected to receive these aircraft from Russia free of charge. At the same time, Minsk considered the issue resolved, even a new organizational and staff structure of the 61st air base was prepared, taking into account the arrival of 18 Su-30K there.
But Moscow refused to give airplanes and set a price tag of USD 15 million per each of them. Minsk did not like such conditions. Most likely, due to poor technical condition and low residual life of the machines. As a result, after repair and modernization, all 18 Su-30Ks were sold to Angola with Russian credit support.
Nevertheless, the issue of updating the national air force is a real problem that needs to be addressed. According to the Agreement between the Government of the Republic of Belarus and the Government of the Russian Federation “On the Implementation of the Program of Military-Technical Cooperation between the Republic of Belarus and the Russian Federation until 2020” of December 2013, it was planned to update the Belarusian military aviation in two stages. At the first one, it was planned to develop an option to modernize the existing aircraft under the technical requirements of the Belarusian army with the technical support of Russia. Then, in the period 2016-2020, it was planned to supply new MiG-29M/M2 fighters to Belarus.
But something went wrong. On October 20, 2015 Air Force and Air Defence Commander Aleh Dvihalyou said that Belarus is considering the acquisition of Su-30SM fighters. Which will replace the MiG-29 after 2020. Further, in November 2016, he states that until 2020 Belarus plans to acquire at least (!) a Su-30SM squadron. On March 23, 2017 Minister of Defence of Belarus Andrei Raukou said that the issue of purchasing Su-30SM aircraft is being considered.
In June 2017, Russian sources reported about the conclusion of a contract for the supply of 12 Su-30SM for the Belarusian Air Force at a price of USD 50 million per unit. The Belarusian side reluctantly acknowledged the existence of the contract, specifying that its implementation will begin after funding is opened. But the precise date was unknown.
For what reason did Belarusian generals change their minds and prefer “Su” to “MiG” aircraft? After all, MiG-29M/M2 were purchased by Egypt on account of a Russian loan at a price of about 40 million per unit with weapons (!). It turns out that the Su-30SM is almost one and a half times more expensive than the “MiG”. For Belarus and for the Belarusian army, which is poor as a church mouse, such amount of money is really substantial.
The explanation may be simple. On December 18, 2012, in Minsk OJSC “Irkut Corporation” and the Ministry of Defence of Belarus signed a contract for the supply of the first 4 Yak-130 combat and training aircraft in 2015. “Irkut” is also the manufacturer of Su-30SM. Given the traditional competition between “Su” and “MiG” manufacturers, it is likely that as a result of lobbying by “Irkut”, “RSK MiG” was pushed out of the Belarusian market.
On January 30, 2019, during a visit of Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu to the Irkutsk Aviation Plant, it was announced that this year, 4 Su-30SM fighters are being prepared for transfer to the Belarusian army.
On June 26, 2019 Belarusian Defence Minister Andrei Raukou confirmed the continued interest in the purchase of Su-30SM. But the final decision must be made by Aliaksandr Lukashenka. After that, the military department would have been able to get money to pay for the equipment. Those, at the end of June, the issue of funding was still under consideration by the state ruler.
On November 14, 2019, commenting on the fact of supplies of the Su-30SM to Belarus, Security Council Secretary of State Stanislau Zas made two interesting statements:
— the contract would not have been possible without Lukashenka’s personal participation;
— financing is carried out without Russian support at the expense of funds that have been reserved for a long time on the accounts of the Ministry of Defence.
The latter is doubtful. Even for the purchase of 4 aircraft, it would be necessary to reserve about 10-12% of the budget of the Ministry of Defence during 2017-2019, which is problematic due to the scarcity of defence funding. At the same time, in Andrei Raukou’s statement in June, one can’t see that the military department is busy accumulating financial resources. The minister spoke specifically about budget financing for the purchase of aircraft.
Further, in July 2019, the leadership of the Russian defence industry announced that the export of defence products from Russia to Belarus in 2019 would amount to about USD 60 million. In general, the order portfolio of the Belarus is USD 373 million. Neither USD 200 million for the first batch in 2019, nor USD 600 million for the Su-30SM squadron in whole can be seen in these figures.
Conclusions. It is highly likely that the conclusion of the contract in 2017 was the result of lobbying by the Russian manufacturer and competition within the companies of the Russian military aircraft industry. In addition to the commercial component, Russia’s interest in supplying Belarus with the Su-30SM could be caused by the need to maintain the production of these aircraft and the competencies of the manufacturer in the situation of a reduction in the supply of these aircraft for the needs of the Russian aerospace forces. In 2016, when the Belarusian generals suddenly changed their plans in favour of the Su-30SM, the supply of these aircraft for the needs of the Russian army decreased by almost one and a half times in comparison with 2015.
The issue of sources of financing for Su-30SM procurement remains open. So far, Russia has not reported financial support for supplies. The available military budget data do not allow finding money there to finance the purchase of 4 Su-30SM. It is likely that funding was provided from Belarusian sources that are not included in the state budget.
The reason for such generosity against the background of indistinct economic prospects is the need to obtain additional arguments in the bargaining with Russia. Immediately after the arrival of the first pair of Su-30SM, the Belarusian authorities switched to active attacks on Russian “partners”. Like “a joint security system with Moscow costs Minsk a lot of money, which are not compensated by Russia”. It has already been voiced at the highest level that Belarus is investing significant resources to maintain military capabilities, which are not very necessary for Minsk: all just for the sake of fidelity to the allied duty to Russia, while Moscow does not behave like a partner.
The fact that official Minsk made a peculiar and expensive purchase of arguments for negotiations with the Kremlin indicates that Aliaksandr Lukashenka no longer has leverages to influence the Russian authorities. Soon we’ll see whether this absence is absolute or just temporary.