Kazakhstan has established a small new air base in the western port city of Aktau, part of the country's push to strengthen its maritime defenses on the Caspian -- Aktau is also the base of the country's nascent navy. But it's also apparently engendering some suspicion among residents, who have been embroiled in recent oil- and gas-industry strikes and who see the presence of fighter jets as a means of domestic intimidation.
The 612th air base in Aktau will include two Su-27 fighter jets, seven Su-27 pilots and 12 helicopter gunship pilots, according to a report in Interfax-Kazakhstan (not online, via BBC Monitoring). The report doesn't say what kind of helicopters, or how many, but they're presumably Mi-24s.
The curious part of the story is how the locals reacted. Interfax cites a press release from the military:
[T]he fighter jets conducted training flights between 31 May and 22 June.
"By mere chance, the second training flight (...) coincided with the opening of a kindergarten and a district hospital in the Shetpe village. (...) The country's several publications suggested then that military fighters are aimed at intimidating the population. It was also suggested that the aircraft belonged to the head of the regional security service," the report said.
"The emergence of such rumours is related only to the fact that people in Mangistau are not accustomed to the sound of supersonic manoeuvrable aircraft," the report quoted the commander of the air base, Col Yerlan Kozgulov, as saying.
"During flights, the fighter jets produce a characteristic sound. Therefore, as it turned out, people in the region, who are not accustomed to such a roar, have began to invent various stories on this topic," he added.
India may have been thwarted in its attempt to set up an air base in Tajikistan, but now it's building military ties with Kyrgyzstan, agreeing to train UN peacekeeping troops and establishing a joint high-altitude military research center in Bishkek.
India's defense minister, AK Antony, has been visiting Bishkek the last two days and announced those two initiatives. The altitude research center will host about 20 Indian soldiers at a time, and be based in Bishkek with a field station in the mountains outside the city, reports The Economic Times:
The centre has a field station at Tuya Ashu, located at a height of 3,200 metre. Akpay Sarybaev, a leading cardiologist and expert in mountain medicine, has been nominated as the centre's director.
The proposal for joint collaboration in the area of mountain medicine and to establish the centre was mooted during talks between then Kyrghyz President A. Akaev and then Indian president A.P.J Abdul Kalam in November 2003.
"The realisation of that shared vision has finally culminated in the establishment of this centre. The joint endeavour of our scientists will provide a platform to utilise the expertise of both the institutes in a holistic manner to evaluate, as well as improve the performance and enhance the process of acclimatisation at high altitudes using psychological, biochemical and molecular research tools," Antony said at the event.
A new railroad in Uzbekistan, used extensively as part of the U.S.'s transportation network shipping military cargo to Afghanistan was built using low-quality steel and goes through such mountainous terrain that when the train gets to the bottom of the mountain crossing, the wheels are glowing red from the friction of so much braking. That's according to a new U.S. diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks and the Washington Post.
The Post published a story today on this transportation system, the Northern Distribution Network, and while readers of this blog won't find much new in it, the Post did publish a few Wikileaked cables in conjunction, and they shed a bit more light on the NDN.
All the cables are from 2009, the early days of the NDN. The juiciest is the one that described the new rail line. The Soviet-era line that ran from Karshi to Termez, on the Afghanistan border, dipped into Turkmenistan. So Uzbekistan built a new line that stays entirely within its territory -- but there was a reason the Soviets routed theirs through Turkmenistan. The alternative is apparently through terrain that is borderline dangerous, according to the U.S. embassy's source, whose identity was redacted, but was someone "heavily involved" in the new rail line's construction
Azerbaijan may have canceled joint military exercises with the U.S. two years in a row, but security cooperation between the two countries is still on track, says U.S. ambassador to Baku Matthew Bryza. A senior Pentagon official visited Baku last week and among the agreements made was to take part in two new sets of military exercises later this year, Bryza said in an interview with Trend:
Last Friday's bilateral security dialog was very positive and achieved several concrete results, said Bryza.
"One is that we are going to accelerate our cooperation to help Azerbaijan protect its critical energy infrastructure. Two - move ahead with some military exercises and cooperative programs including one that will take place in Romania in August, one other one will be in Germany involving a hundred and more Azerbaijani solders with the NATO partners," said the ambassador.
Bryza acknowledged that U.S.-Azerbaijani relations haven't been the best for the last couple of years, the period in which Baku twice, without much explanation, canceled the bilateral military exercises that were supposed to take place in Azerbaijan.
"We did go through a difficult period for several months but I strongly feel that we not only have come out of the negative trend but we've built on an already existing strong foundation and we are moving forward," he said.
There aren't too many details about the new exercises planned for Romania and Germany. I asked Adil Baguirov, managing director of the U.S. Azeris Network, for his take. He says exercises held outside the country are less susceptible to Russian or Iranian pressure:
Russia saw last week's visit of a U.S. warship to Georgia as a provocation, because the ship was equipped with Aegis missile defense radar, and Moscow opposes the deployment of a U.S. missile defense system on its borders. As Russian naval expert Dmitry Gorerburg pointed out then, the U.S. knows this is provocative to Russia, but claims the principle of sending its ships wherever it wants "without regard for the sensitivities of countries such as Russia."
But the U.S. Navy does take the sensitivities of some countries into account, notes Robert Farley, an international relations professor at the University of Kentucky who also studies Russia and naval issues. For example, it avoids sending nuclear-powered ships to Japan, he points out:
I wonder whether the Russians fully understood the implications of the shift towards sea-based missile defense, especially given the proclivity of the USN to send its ships anywhere. As more US warships become BMD capable, this may become a growing point of irritation. On the other hand, the USN has certainly made accomodations for other countries with specific sensitivities (nuclear carriers in Japan, for example), so there would be some precedent for avoiding provoking Russia. US doesn't have the same kind of relationship with Russia as Japan, though, so I don't really know that we could expect that.
Really, I think that the Russians are just trying to make the US think about it whenever we deploy Aegis ships to the Black Sea. Doubt it will work, unless we really need something from Russia in the short term.
Last week's joint military exercises between Russia and Kazakhstan posited an intriguing threat scenario -- a cruise missile attack, which a top Kazakh military officer called "topical" because it reflected "the latest events happening in the world." The reference to the U.S./NATO war in Libya was unmistakeable. But Roger McDermott, writing in Jamestown's Eurasia Daily Monitor, takes that analysis a step further:
An analysis of “recent events” influencing the splicing of this aspect into the planned scenario fits the intervention against Gaddafi’s forces in Libya by France, the UK and US forces, but is NATO intervention in eastern Kazakhstan even remotely plausible? The range factor is perplexing: at the upper limit of long-range cruise missile systems. Indeed, the location of this rehearsal suggests that the “hypothetical opponent” most likely has a much closer proximity.
McDermott doesn't spell it out here, but could they have instead be envisaging a Chinese attack, and masking it by making a veiled NATO reference? As distrustful as Russia is of the U.S., it definitely recognizes that China is more of a threat in its eastern flank. And Kazakhstan, too, is likely more worried about China's intentions than those of NATO. But politically, it's easier to make references to a NATO threat than a China one, especially as the SCO summit just concluded in Astana. It would be interesting to know how this exercise is being seen in Beijing...
1st Lt. Kathleen Ferrero, U.S. Air Mobility Command Public Affairs
A U.S. tanker flies over the Arctic Ocean en route from the U.S. to the Manas air base in Kyrgyzstan
The U.S. air force has made its first trip over the Arctic Ocean in support of its troops in Afghanistan, the fruit of negotiations over the last two years with Russia and Kazakhstan to steadily expand the Northern Distribution Network. From a U.S. military press release:
A KC-135 Stratotanker flew north until it started flying south, June 21 to 22 -- cutting a new pathway over the Arctic Circle and the North Pole between Fairchild Air Force Base, Wash., and the Transit Center at Manas, Kyrgyzstan. It was the first time an Air Force air refueling tanker has ever flown this route.
The mission followed another historic flight that took place June 5 to 6 when a C-5M Super Galaxy traversed the Arctic Circle to fly the first direct delivery airlift mission from Dover Air Force Base, Del., to Bagram Air Field, Afghanistan.
A 2009 U.S.-Russia transit agreement helped make the new arctic routes possible, according to U.S. Transportation Command. The KC-135 flight over the North Pole alone saved the Air Force approximately 4.5 hours and $54,000.
Azerbaijan celebrated its Armed Forces Day on Sunday with a big military parade in Baku and the first display of the country's new, Russian-supplied S-300 air defense system, the existence of which had been the source of some skepticism.
The parade featured 6,000 soldiers and a variety of hardware (you can see a video below). Azerbaijan's president, Ilham Aliyev, also gave a speech in which he boasted about Azerbaijan's military prowess and vowed to retake the disputed province of Nagorno Karabakh, now controlled by Armenians.
Over 3,000 soldiers from Kazakhstan and Russia are taking part in joint military exercises in eastern Kazakhstan. The exercises, called "Shygys-2011" ("East" in Kazakh), started June 20 and last until the end of the month. The focus seems to be on air force cooperation, in particular in repelling an air invasion. There is an intriguing explanation of the scenario by the chairman of the joint chief of staff of Kazakhstan, Saken Zhassuzakov:
For the first time, we have been working on repelling cruise missiles. We did not have such missions before. It is topical because the analysis made for the latest events happening in the world shows that the first strikes are the ones with cruise missiles, which can be fired from the range of one and a half, two and three thousand miles, and almost without the use of an aircraft.
So, what latest events in the world involving cruise missiles could he be talking about? It's pretty hard to imagine how anything in Kazakhstan or Russia would end up in a U.S./NATO/Libya-type scenario, but perhaps I don't have the strategic vision that these guys do.
(The link above also has some video of the exercises.)
Another intriguing development: the Russian Caspian Flotilla is going to take part in joint exercises with the Kazakhstan armed forces (presumably its nascent navy), called Center-2011 (in Russian), some time this summer.
Russia has strongly objected to the visit of a U.S. naval cruiser to Batumi, Georgia, arguing that it is a provocation because the U.S. ship is part of the missile defense system to which Russia is strongly opposed.
On the surface, the visit of the ship, the USS Monterey, has nothing to do with the missile defense controversy. It is in the Black Sea for joint U.S.-Ukraine exercises including "counter-piracy operations; non-combatant evacuation operations, as well as board, search and seizure trainings." Other countries taking part are Azerbaijan, Algeria, Belgium, Denmark, Georgia, Germany, Macedonia, Moldova, Sweden, Turkey and the UK. The U.S. Embassy says the visit is a normal training mission:
The USS MONTEREY is operating in the Black Sea to conduct joint maritime training with several countries adjoining the Black Sea. U.S. ships have regularly deployed in the Black Sea region for many years and represent the continuing U.S. commitment to Black Sea regional stability and maritime security.
But that hides a more insidious intent, Russia argues. The Monterey is equipped with the Aegis radar system, and as such would be part of the European missile defense shield that the U.S. wants to build around Russia. And so the visit, Russia says, is a wolf in sheep's clothing. Via RIA Novosti:
"The Russian Foreign Ministry earlier expressed concern that along with negotiations on cooperation in the global air defense system, [the U.S.] is conducting simultaneous 'reconnaissance' operations near the borders of our country," the ministry said.