Kazakhstan has moved significantly nearer its ambition to gain closer and more effective relations with the NATO Alliance. Astana has decided to abandon its long-term reliance upon dated Soviet munitions and Russian replacements. Instead, it will now prioritize the manufacture of NATO-standard ammunition for its armed forces, as well as seeking to modernize other aspects of its military infrastructure, bringing nearer the prospect of a deeper, more productive relationship with the Alliance.
Army General Mukhtar Altynbayev, Kazakhstan’s minister of defense, confirmed on April 25 that the Ministry has decided to scrap outdated, dangerous, and deteriorating Soviet-manufactured ammunition. Altynbayev estimated that about half of Kazakhstan’s current munitions have only scrap value. Hence, some kind of drastic counter-measure was long overdue, but the expected renegotiation of preferential supplies of Russian-made replacements was put aside in favor of tasking Kazakhstan’s defense industries with producing NATO-standard ammunition for its military. While admitting the sensitive political nature of such an avowedly pro-Western move, risking worsening relations with the Russian Ministry of Defense, it will ensure that Kazakhstan’s defense industries are able to enter the international market, as well as facilitate the stated aim of achieving NATO interoperability in key Kazakhstani formations, such as peace-support units. These will one day play a more active role alongside NATO units in international peace-support operations. In this sense, NATO-standard ammunition is an essential stepping-stone towards playing a more active role in Kazakhstan’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) activities.
Although the announcement signals Kazakhstan’s political intentions, reorients the country towards the West in keeping with Astana’s desire to expand economic ties, and hopefully creates a more stable security environment that will attract greater levels of foreign investment, Altynbayev’s overall assessment of Kazakhstan’s military reform plays a crucial guiding role in such decision making. “We have bought four Mi-17V-5 multi-role helicopters in the past two years, to ensure higher mobility of our land forces and fire support over the battlefield, as well as for some other missions in support of land forces in local conflicts. The helicopters are also intended for patrolling economic zones, search and rescue operations, and transportation.” Such equipment modernization necessitates the procurement and manufacture of other supplies. By tasking the Kazakhstani defense complex with the production of NATO-standard ammunition, Altynbayev has set the course of future military reform within an international context, rather than powered solely by domestic and regional concerns.
Kazakhstan’s growing relationship with NATO, triggered by the events of 9/11 and the search for more durable foreign security assistance to support its military reform program, has reached new levels since the high-profile deployment of elements of its peace keeping battalion (KAZBAT) to Iraq, and their successful cooperation there as part of the post-conflict security arrangements. KAZBAT has proven steadfast during its committed stay in Iraq, which has supplied an important backdrop to Astana’s efforts to promote improved relations with NATO. Indeed, the struggle against international terrorism draws senior officials in both Kazakhstan and the Alliance together in different ways, not least in the “Security Through Science Program,” which is helping to engender closer cooperation with the Alliance in their joint efforts against biological terrorism. Twenty-two Kazakhstani projects received grants within the Security Through Science program, including the further development of computer networks and the Internet zone, conducting radiological research at Koshkar-Ata radioactive waste storage facility, and detailed examination of the former Soviet Semipalatinsk nuclear-testing ground.
Kazakhstan is evidently making greater efforts to establish itself as a credible future security partner for the West. In addition to signaling its plans to address some of the existing deficiencies in its munitions, negating participation in international peace support operations without significant Western technical and materiel support, Altynbayev has also pointed to the opening of a new pilot simulator center in Shymkent. The sophisticated test center is intended to reduce the cost of maintaining longer flight hours for pilots in the Kazakhstani air forces, while enhancing their combat capabilities. Training simulators are also planned for two more cities in Kazakhstan, and infantry troops will have 15 similar simulators for their own training requirements.
Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Defense desperately needs to cut costs in order meet some of the challenges presented by an ambitious reform program. By developing the pilot simulators in Shymkent and earmarking the actual introduction of NATO standards in elements of its armed forces, it appears that Kazakhstani defense and security officials are taking seriously the onerous responsibility of enacting serious military reform. Until now, Kazakhstan has conformed to the image of many post-Soviet transition states, seeking to maximize foreign security assistance in order to achieve tangible progress on the cheap. Altynbayev has now taken steps towards demonstrating that Kazakhstan’s leadership may be willing to invest their country’s money in the long and arduous task of military reform. In so doing, he is intent on proving that his country will transform itself into a reliable Western security partner in the region.
(Khabar TV, April 14, 18, 22; Interfax, April 25)