In a clear signal of the growing importance that Kazakhstan attaches to military cooperation with the West, an historic agreement has been reached with Britain’s BAE Systems to upgrade Kazakhstan’s air defense systems. According to Russian media reports, Astana negotiated a tough deal, which stimulated competition for the contract among suppliers, including Lockheed Martin (US), Thales (France), EADS (Germany) and BAE Systems (UK). Despite active lobbying by some US military officials in Almaty on behalf of Lockheed Martin, the Kazakh government awarded the contract to the UK, reportedly for US$1 billion, with the first payment already made to clinch the deal (Kommersant, Moscow, June 15).
Moscow has long opposed Kazakhstan’s plans to upgrade its air defense systems by relying on western, rather than Russian, assistance and expertise. During his January 2004 visit to Kazakhstan, Russian President Vladimir Putin indirectly conveyed his disgruntlement to President Nursultan Nazarbayev, that by depending upon western military technology, Kazakhstan’s commitments under the 1995 agreement on the formation of the CIS joint air defense system could be compromised. Moscow alleges that the involvement of western companies in Kazakhstan’s air defense system allows NATO to gain access to elements of the CIS air defense system, compelling Russia to allocate additional expenditures on necessary countermeasures. In April, during Nazarbayev’s visit to Moscow, he seemed to placate his Russian allies by indicating that Kazakhstan was in no hurry to decide on whether to involve western companies in so sensitive a sector. Nonetheless, he preceded the trip by meeting Thomas Enders in Germany. Enders is a director of the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company (EADS), Europe’s leading aerospace company. At the meeting, Enders and Nazarbayev explored the possibility of EADS’ supplying Kazakhstan with modern radar equipment to upgrade its air defense system. Moscow regarded this meeting with disdain and consequently scaled down Nazarbayev’s visit to just a few hours.
BAE Systems designs and manufactures military aircraft, submarines, space and electronic systems, and radar. Its annual revenues stand at around US$22 billion. Within Kazakhstan, EADS has a substantial stake in Air Astana, which competes with Air Kazakhstan in the domestic market.
The post 9/11 security environment necessitates considering potential aerial threats from terrorists, particularly against large population centers, key energy infrastructure and other economic assets. Kazakhstan currently possesses approximately 150 surface-to-air (SAM) missile launchers (SA-2/3/4/5/6s and S-300s). These supply a credible defense from aerial attack for potential targets within the country, providing to some extent the security of cities and potential key industrial installations. The S-300 PMU, designed by Russian defense research and production company TsKB Alamz, is superior in some ways to the US Patriot in coping with low-flying targets; the S-300 has a reported target range of 200 kilometers. Two S-300 systems are deployed to protect Astana and Karaganda, providing adequate air defense for these major cities.
Kazakhstan’s Ministry of Defense (MOD) recognizes the need to reform its air defenses, as a long-term project that will entail great costs and meticulous planning. That project clearly has Nazarbayev’s support. Man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) will be required, entailing modernization of current stocks. Kazakhstan’s tactical forces will be the focus of modernization, given the threat/security environment and the emphasis placed on small, mobile formations within its military reform agenda. The current inventory includes a mix of older missiles and guns. Within these formations there is a lack of sufficient technical support and training necessary to promote future NATO interoperability. Moreover, there is also a chronic shortage of spare parts, and the systems are difficult and expensive to maintain.
Kazakhstan’s current strategic assets are sufficient for dealing with potential aerial threats to major cities such as Astana or Almaty. In the long term the SA-2 systems will need to be replaced, but only as a low priority. A key factor in successful reform will be procurement of modern queuing radars, followed by establishing an improved remote early warning network.
Nazarbayev’s proclaimed “multivectoral approach” in Kazakh foreign policy, has evidently taken on a potentially explosive pro-western approach, at least in the Kremlin’s estimation. By moving closer to the West, in modernizing air defenses, Astana is sending a signal that it takes seriously its unique security requirements, as well as the longer-term objective of achieving NATO interoperability. Although sources in Kazakhstan’s MOD have sought to deny it, the country’s future air defense priorities likely will be met by western companies (Interfax, June 16). Kazakhstan will seek to maintain a balance in its relations with the West and Russia, alongside China. The balance will be made very precarious by the ongoing domination of Russian security thinking, involving a “zero-sum” mentality. Nazarbayev has taken the risk: it behooves the West to rise to the challenge and promote genuine security cooperation, without alienating Russia.