On the morning of February 12, a MiG-29 fighter jet from the Kazakh Air Force crashed while landing at a military airfield in Almaty region. Just seconds before the plane hit the ground, crew members ejected from the cockpit, but because of the low altitude, their parachutes did not have enough time to deploy.
The plane broke into pieces six kilometers (3.7 miles) short of the airfield, near densely populated Zhetygen. Alexander Kovyazin, an experienced pilot familiar with various types of Russian-made military aircraft, died on impact. Vitaly Dilmukhamedov, who miraculously survived the crash, was hospitalized with multiple injuries.
Kazakh Air Force officers, who arrived at the scene immediately after the crash, conducted a meticulous inspection and concluded that the accident could not have been caused by human error, as Dilmukhamedov, like Kovyazin, was a well-trained pilot who had logged 890 flying hours. Experts from MiG Corporation, one of Russia’s largest aircraft manufacturers, admitted that the crash was due to the failure of the on-board electrical power supply unit. MiG Corp. executives hastened to assure Kazakh military authorities that they would address the technical flaws of the jets delivered to Kazakhstan and make the necessary modifications to the aircraft power supply system (Komsomolskaya pravda Kazakhstan, March 1).
Kazakh military authorities began to question the technical reliability of the obsolete Russian military aircraft after a similar crash of a MiG-31 interceptor jet in Qaraghandy region, Central Kazakhstan, during a training flight just four days after the Almaty crash. Two pilots died in that incident. But the Kazakh military elite, largely dependent on Russian arms to modernize its armed forces, hushed up the crash.
Russian MiG-31 interceptor jets, which constitute the bulk of the Kazakh Air Force, are 25 years old. The jet is designed to carry air-to-air long-range missiles and intercept and destroy low-altitude winged missiles undetectable for enemy radars, and it was a formidable weapon in the Cold War. But dilapidated MiGs have lost most of their luster for Kazakh military leaders, who find the technical maintenance of these machines to be an endless, unrewarding task.
Russian arms manufacturers seem to be in an awkward position. On the one hand they see Central Asia as an enormous market in which to dump their obsolete weapons, while simultaneously limiting their neighbors’ access to cutting edge military hardware. On the other hand, Russian arms manufacturers are desperately short of qualified workers to modernize the outdated military aircraft currently in service in Commonwealth of Independent States countries. At least two years ago 2006 Russian aircraft manufacturing plants told a military delegation from Kazakhstan that they lacked a qualified workforce to update and repair more than four SU-27 and two MiG-31 jets for the Kazakh Air Force (Delovaya gazeta, December 12, 2006).
Despite all these drawbacks, Kazakhstan remains one of the largest buyers of Russian arms. Last year the Kazakh Air Force had 40 MiG-31 fighter jets and 14 SU-27 aircraft. In order to get military supremacy over its neighbors, Kazakhstan has to constantly increase its military spending. This year roughly 60% of its military budget is earmarked for the purchase of sophisticated equipment. But Kazakhstan’s military ambition cannot be satisfied in the foreseeable future. Experts estimate that it would cost $200 million to modernize all fighter jets now in service with Kazakhstan’s air force.
Accidents involving Russian-made aircraft have become so frequent over the last two years that even the most pro-Moscow media have begun to raise doubts about their safety. The latest tragedy occurred on February 27 in Kyzylorda region, South Kazakhstan, when an Mi8 helicopter carrying the governor of the region, Mukhtar Kul Mukhamet, top officials from the Emergency Ministry, and journalists suddenly fell from the sky. Three people were instantly killed and 15 others were rushed to the hospital with severe injuries. Vladimir Bozhko, the newly appointed Kazakh minister of emergencies, summoned his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, to Astana to air his grievances. Shoigu only reluctantly admitted that the crash was due a malfunctioning fuel-injection unit (Express K, March 1).
For Russia, Central Asia is more than just an arms purchaser. Moscow would like to see relatively well-equipped military forces in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to serve as deterrents to potential threats from militant Islamists. Russia has effectively monopolized the arms trade in the region, forestalling Western arms manufacturers who have little, if any, interest in militarizing the already explosive region. At the same time, Russia’s reluctance to update its planes operated by the Kazakh Air Force is forcing Kazakhstan to look for partners with no political agenda attached. Last November the defense ministries of Belarus and Kazakhstan signed a contract to modernize 10 Russian-made SU-27 planes manufactured in the late 1970s. Observers warn that if Russia continues to insist that political loyalty is part of its dealings with Kazakhstan, Moscow may lose that market. Never before these pessimistic notes sounded truer.