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Asia Times
June 10, 2003
Russia strengthens its military shield
By Sergei Blagov

MOSCOW - Former Soviet defense ministers have tentatively agreed on new measures to limit the proliferation of Soviet-made portable air defense missiles. However, they face a formidable task due to the huge number of missile launchers already manufactured, and the reluctance of some countries to ink an agreement.

Defense ministers of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) met in Schuchinsk, Kazakhstan, on Monday, and most of them backed measures to control the export and import of portable missiles such as the Strela (Arrow) and the Igla (Needle). From now on, CIS states will be obliged to inform one another about any export and import deals involving these missiles, which can be used by terrorists to shoot down civilian planes.

No other details of new control measures have been revealed. Moreover, defense ministers of Georgia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, and Ukraine declined to sign the deal, while the Turkmen representative failed to show up at the meeting. This left Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia and Tajikistan as signatories. Clearly then, loopholes in terms of portable missile proliferation remain.

Strela has been in production for some time. The SA-7 GRAIL (Strela-2) was the first generation of the Soviet man-portable, shoulder-fired, low-altitude surface-to-air (SAM) system, with a high-explosive warhead and passive infra-red homing guidance. Development of Strela-2 started in 1959 and its basic version was introduced after 1966. The SA-7a (9K32 Strela-2) was introduced for service in 1968, but was soon replaced by the SA-7b (9K32M Strela-2M), which became the most common production model.

The SA-7a had a slant range of 3.6 kilometers and a kill zone of between 15 and 1,500 meters in altitude. The SA-7b has a slant range of about 4.2km and a ceiling of about 2,300m. To date, Strela-2 has been considered a reasonably efficient weapon to destroy air targets because of its simplicity of construction and easy deployment.

The SA-14 GREMLIN (Strela-3) man-portable SAM is the successor to the SA-7/SA-7b. The SA-14 has a maximum range of 4.5km and a maximum altitude of three kilometers.

The SA-16 GIMLET (Igla-1) man-portable SAM system, a further development from the SA-7 and SA-14 series, is an improved version of the SA-18 GROUSE, which was introduced in 1983, three years before the SA-16. The SA-16 has a maximum range of 5,000m and a maximum altitude of 3.5km.

The Strela has been in service with many armies throughout the world. For instance, the Indian army procured hundreds of 100 Igla missiles from Russia and in 2002 there were reports that the Indonesian armed forces planned to procure Igla missiles. The total number of Igla missiles manufactured worldwide is estimated at some 50,000 pieces.

Some of these portable missiles have ended up in the wrong hands. For instance, the Russian military has alleged that after the Soviet collapse in 1991, some 150 Igla launchers remained in Georgia. Russian experts have claimed that serial numbers on missiles that Russian troops captured in Chechnya showed that the weapons came from Georgian stockpiles.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov is in Kazakhstan on a four-day visit that ends on Wednesday not just to take care of portable missiles. He warned of the threat of drugs coming out of Afghanistan, yet he ruled out even a "theoretical" possibility of Russia sending troops to Afghanistan.

Separately, Ivanov and his Kazkah counterpart Mukhtar Altynbayev clinched a deal on joint military planning. Ivanov also announced that some 800 Kazakh officers were currently studying at military academies and colleges in Russia.

On Monday, Ivanov announced that an alliance of former Soviet republics, known as the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), was due to hold anti-terrorist war games in Central Asia, tentatively called "Commonwealth Southern Shield".

Ivanov also stated that from next January 1 CSTO states will be able to procure Russian-made weapons at Russia's domestic price, a significant discount. He did not mention whether this policy would also involve missile technology.

In April, Russia and five other CIS countries formalized a security alliance that potentially could help boost Moscow's strategic presence in Central Asia. At an April 28 summit, Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan formally created CSTO, which will attempt to provide a more efficient response to strategic problems confronting member states, specifically terrorism and narcotics trafficking.

The CSTO is an outgrowth of the 1992 Collective Security Treaty, which sought to promote greater strategic cooperation among the signatories. The bulk of the organization's attention and resources will be concentrated in Central Asia, with a rapid deployment force to be stationed at a Russian military facility at Kant, Kyrgyzstan.

Since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the United States has established a strategic presence in the region, with bases in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. Some Russian policymakers believe that CSTO has the potential to help Moscow reestablish its high strategic profile in what traditionally has been its sphere of influence.

In April, Russian President Vladimir Putin played down the notion that Russia seeks to utilize CSTO to reduce US influence in the region, saying that the organization will strive to contain the flow of drugs coming out of Afghanistan, and counter the threat posed by radical Islamic organizations in Central Asia.

Moreover, Russia is now confronting Islamic radicals from Central Asia inside its capital. On Monday law-enforcement agencies in Moscow announced that they had detained 121 alleged Muslim militants, including 55 members of the Hizb-ut-Tahrir radical group. The suspects were reportedly headed by Kyrgyz citizen Alisher Musayev and Tajik citizen Akram Jalolov. In February, the Hizb-ut-Tahrir group, which mainly operates in Central Asia, was officially banned in Russia.

Meanwhile, Moscow has confirmed it is determined to launch a major air base in mountainous Central Asia, not far from the Chinese and Afghan borders. Ivanov told journalists in Schuchinsk that the Kant air base in Kyrgyzstan would be fully operational by the end of this year.

Last December, Russia and Kyrgyzstan signed the Bishkek Declaration, pledging closer security and economic ties. The military airfield in Kant, about 20km east of Bishkek, is supposed to host a force that will ultimately include more than 20 Russian aircraft and more than 700 troops, eventually to become the most significant outside Russia's borders since the Soviet collapse in 1991.

In all, Russia plans to deploy five Su-25 attack jets, five Su-27 fighters, two An-26 transports, two Il-76 transports, five L-39 training jets and two Mi-8 helicopters at Kant. The Russian aircraft will form the core of the air unit based at Kant at a rumored cost of up to US$300 million a year.

In December, Putin traveled to Bishkek and announced that Russian air force deployment was very important. Kyrgyz President Askar Akayev has urged Russia to become a "main strategic cornerstone of Central Asia".

The Russian task force is to provide the air power for a contingent of ground forces. Known as a rapid-reaction force, this group could total more than 5,000 troops from Russia, as well as from Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, members of CSTO.

In the meantime, Russian experts warn of potential conflicts among Central Asian nations themselves. The military and political situation in Central Asia could deteriorate for a variety of reasons, notably disputes over water resources, warns Andrei Kokoshin, head of the CIS committee of the state Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament. CSTO should keep an eye on this problem, Kokoshin was quoted by the Russian Information Agency (RIA) as saying.

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