Kazakhstan’s military has been plagued by financial mismanagement, corruption and bribery, a lack of professionalism, and poor housing conditions for military officers. The recent Kazakh air force fighter jet crash in Central Kazakhstan — which killed two military pilots — is the result of these multiple reform failures.
On February 16 a Russian-made MiG-31B interceptor fighter jet crashed under unknown circumstances six kilometers short of the Saryarka airfield, near Qaraghandy, Central Kazakhstan. The accident occurred as the crew was returning from a training flight and preparing to land. Captain Denis Fedotov and co-pilot Andrei Leontiev were killed before they could even send a distress signal. Locals who witnessed the crash said the jet was too low on approach, flying level with rooftops. But Vladimir Shatskov, chief of staff of the Central Military District, and other military experts ruled out human error or non-compliance with instructions, insisting that the pilots had enough training to avoid any fatal mistake. Defense Minister Daniyal Akhmetov said the pilots were heroes who had refused to eject and prevented the plane from crashing into a residential area (Megapolis, February 20).
The military immediately cordoned off the crash site, and journalists were denied interviews with experts. Investigators found the cockpit flight recorder, but did not release any comprehensive account of the accident.
Technical failures are not unknown in Kazakhstan’s civil and military aviation, but this crash has raised concerns among military and press circles that call into question the much-touted modernization of Kazakhstan’s air force.
The MiG-31B has been manufactured in Russia since 1979, and the Defense Ministry of Kazakhstan, one of the largest Russian arms clients in the Commonwealth of Independent States, favored the reliable and relatively low-priced MiGs. Put into combat service in 1998, most of these planes are now obsolete and spare parts are not available in Kazakhstan. According to military experts, the Kazakh Ministry of Defense cannot adequately maintain the MiG fighters and even lacks properly equipped hangars to repair and store the planes. Russian MiG jets are one of the most fuel-intensive aircraft at the Qaraghandy air base. To train one pilot in a MiG-31B requires more than 400 tons of aviation fuel. Yet Kopen Akhmadiev, commander of the Kazakh air forces air defense unit, assures that the anti-aircraft units and interceptor fighters stationed in Central Kazakhstan can reliably protect the country’s air space (Karavan, February 23).
But few share Akhmadiev’s optimism. Most of the MiG-31B pilots are trained in Russia and enter the Kazakh air force on a contract basis. Most of them carry Russian passports and do not wish to receive Kazakh citizenship. Contract-based military service was introduced in Kazakhstan under former defense minister Mukhtar Altynbayev as part of military reform. Military statistics indicate that 65% of current military officers in the Kazakh army consist of contract servicemen. Some experts believe that the introduction of contract military service, instead of mandatory service, is the same as recruiting volunteers to serve in the army and therefore raises the defense capability and moral of military forces. But Kazakhstan today can barely field an army of 76,000 troops, making it considerably outnumbered by the military force of any of its neighbors. Thus contract service is a dire necessity, not a progressive reform.
Even with its steadily growing GDP and oil revenues, Kazakhstan cannot afford to feed a large but highly unreliable army. Military officers get on average 120,000 tenge ($1200) per month, which is the highest military pay in Central Asia. Even so, military reform in Kazakhstan is inching forward very slowly. Despite an impressive military budget, the army is chronically short of funding. Officers from air squadrons deployed in Central Kazakhstan complain that pilots are inadequately trained due to shortages of aviation fuel. Most of them cannot log the flying hours necessary to maintain their qualifications and skills. Akhmetov appears well aware of these shortcomings. Shortly after the crash, he said the air force should get enough money to double flying hours and to buy new equipment (Vremya, February 24).
Unfortunately, the problem of modernizing the Kazakh air force and air defense system is tied to the Russian defense industry. Last December a military delegation headed by Kazakh Colonel Serik Ismailov paid a visit to Almaz, a Russian arms manufacturer, to bargain for the new Favorit anti-aircraft missile launcher. The Russian company hoped to sell some of its newer weapons to Kazakhstan, but the sides could not reach an agreement over the price. The Kazakh military also asked Almaz for assistance in modifying the obsolete anti-aircraft installations inherited by Kazakhstan from the old Soviet stock, but it could not get a positive response. The controversial nature of military cooperation between Astana and Moscow stems from a lack of confidence and mutual suspicion. The Russian military needs a strong Kazakh anti-aircraft system to protect its airspace in the south, and the stated common goals of defense within the Collective Security Treaty Organization obligates Russia to render technical assistance to its military partner. At the same time, Russia is uncertain about future developments in the Caspian region and the role Kazakhstan will have to play in case of a conflict over energy resources. On the Kazakh side, the Kremlin’s great-power rhetoric and constant muscle flexing are likewise unpredictable. But Kazakhstan, with no military industry of its own, needs Russian weapons, and poor partners, even “strategic” ones, cannot afford to be choosy.