Kazakhstan plans to cooperate more closely with Russia’s defense industries in order to modernize its own armed forces by 2015. The timing of this announcement enabled Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Defense to counter negative publicity surrounding the crash of a MiG-31 on February 16, which resulted in the deaths of two air force pilots. An analysis of the flight recorders suggested that the tragedy occurred as a result of a failure in-flight and faulty navigation equipment. Despite an official press release to this effect on February 19, on the following day Defense Minister Daniyal Akhmetov cut short his visit to the United Arab Emirates, where he was attending the IDEX international defense exhibition, in order to personally take charge of the investigation into the crash (Interfax-Kazakhstan, February 19, 20). The public relations exercise that followed did much to underscore earlier findings, exonerating the pilots and pointing to technical causes of the crash.
Akhmetov, visiting the Saryarka air base in Karaganda, reinforced this message: there was no question of human error, he emphasized. Akhmetov described the pilots as “heroes” and visited their relatives. Nonetheless, Akhmetov took the opportunity to state his case for reforming the air force, “We must pay more attention to the quality [of pilot training]. The amount of flights will be at least doubled” (Interfax-Kazakhstan, February 22). So his message was that although there was no human error involved in this particular instance, the Kazakh air force in general needs reform. Most units in Kazakhstan’s air force are simply not combat ready; training, flight time, and morale are all low.
In fact, during Akhmetov’s visit to Karaganda, the issue of military reform was clearly on the new defense minister’s mind. Akhmetov made no reference to the legacy of his predecessor, Army-General Mukhtar Altynbayev, yet appeared to question the success of reform to date. Akhmetov intends to seriously transform the country’s armed forces by 2015. “The armed forces need to be transformed. This is about changing its structure and military culture. The Defense Ministry is dealing with this. The transformation [of the army] is a huge process that is vitally needed for our country,” he said. Despite the structural military reforms carried out by Altynbayev, Kazakhstan’s first civilian defense minister believes that further changes are required in this area: he has not yet specified the nature of these structural reforms. His task of reforming the military culture will be far more challenging, and it will ultimately fail unless it receives unambiguous and consistent presidential support.
Akhmetov considers modernizing existing equipment to be a vital first stage in this process. “Kazakh air defense now has good and functional equipment, so the task here is to bring this equipment to a normal state, into line with new military technologies existing in the world,” he affirmed. Achieving a “normal state” regarding Kazakhstan’s military equipment and weapon systems will involve Russia. Akhmetov recently held meetings with Sergei Chemezov, the head of Russia’s Rosoboroneksport state enterprise, agreeing to work out a joint cooperation program. He added: “We will soon prepare a joint program that will consider the main parameters of Kazakh troops’ reorganization. This will happen in a month’s time” (Interfax-Kazakhstan, February 22).
Moreover, Kazakhstan’s Security Council has also disclosed that a new National Security Strategy is imminent. Security Council Secretary Berik Imashev described its key elements: “The strategy encourages state bodies to work more actively to establish a constructive and secure environment, both external and internal, and to use the existing and potential opportunities of state bodies for advancing Kazakhstan immediately in the Central Asian region and the whole world as well. On the basis of the strategy, the president will soon sign decrees on a military doctrine, on armaments modernization system, and on the coordination of all Kazakh special services,” he said. The strategy prioritizes Kazakhstan’s national interests and attempts to anticipate and identify potential threats. It aims at integrating Kazakhstan into global and regional security systems (Interfax, Almaty, February 21).
Kazakhstan’s defense cooperation with Russia will include arms supplies, information technology, and creating an integrated system managing and controlling Kazakhstan’s air space as well as an automated system for planning military operations involving air defense forces and ground forces. On February 15, Akhmetov met with Anatoliy Perminov, head of the Russian Roskosmos Federal Space Agency, “The meeting discussed the Kazakh side’s participation in the utilization of Russia’s GLONASS global satellite navigation system. The sides also discussed, among other issues, the possibility of Russia’s building a land remote sensing satellite for Kazakhstan,” the Ministry of Defense press service confirmed (Kazakhstan Today, February 17).
Akhmetov’s military reform rhetoric is impressive, setting an ambitious program, but then so did his predecessor. The close reliance upon Russia, with an emphasis on receiving equipment, which Kazakhstan is able to procure at preferential prices, suggests that Akhmetov realizes that the money is not forthcoming to realistically seek expensive Western replacements. Changing mindsets within Kazakhstan’s military culture will be problematic, particularly given the high levels of Russian influence within the armed forces.