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CSTO Getting Serious About Joint Air Defense System

CSTO military officials watch a demonstration of a Russian military surveillance system at a meeting in Yekaterinburg. (photo: CSTO)

Russia is planning to create a unified air defense system with all of its allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organization, senior Russian officials said during a meeting of the organization this week in Yekaterinburg.

Russia has talked about creating a joint system for years; the Commonwealth of Independent States formally agreed to work on it in 1995. Progress has been slow since then, but a joint system is in place between Russia and Belarus, there are bilateral efforts underway to work on joint systems with Armenia and Kazakhstan, while discussions with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have for the most part been just that.

But now Russia is getting serious, said retired Lieutenant General Alexander Gorkov, former head of Russia's air defense forces, in an interview with Svobodnaya Pressa. "We see that reports periodically appear in the media about the creation of air defense systems on a bilateral basis, in particular with Armenia and Kazakhstan, but clearly these are only announcements and intentions, they're only now starting to talk about practical steps."

It's not clear what those practical steps might be, though; at the Yekaterinburg meeting it seemed to be more announcements and intentions. "We will work out a 'road map' according to which we'll create a united air defense system in the Central Asian region," said Valeriy Gerasimov, chief of general staff of the Russian armed forces. "In the future this should unite all the member-countries of the CSTO, and a similar united system will be created on the territory of the CSTO for missile defense."

Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan will be particularly difficult to integrate, General Gorkov added. "Of course, Kyrgyzstan has quite outdated air defense systems... So you can't say that they can make a real contribution to joint air defense. Still, we need to attract and involve that country into the united system, because it's located to the south of Kazakhstan. And if in the near future Kyrgyzstan's system is re-equipped with ground facilities, reconnaissance systems, that would be a powerful deterrent. The same thing applies to Tajikistan."

Another issue is political: who controls the system and can give the order to shoot down an incoming aircraft? It's a question given special immediacy given the debacle of the Malaysian airliner shot down over Ukraine, which by most estimates seem to have been shot down by Russian Buk air defense systems operating in eastern Ukraine. (That comparison, naturally, wasn't mentioned in any of the news stories covering the CSTO meeting.) "In implementing a united CSTO air/missile defense system, everything rests on the question of leadership -- in a united command, which can take responsibility for taking one or another decision. For example, to shoot down an airplane or cruise missile or to not it shoot down," said military expert Alexander Khramchikhin.

And why do Russia and its allies need this system? "The fundamental threat which this united air defense system needs to repel is, of course, the American conception of Prompt Global Strike," said General-Colonel Leonid Ivashov, also in an interview with Svobodnaya Pressa. "We have few modern means which can intercept cruise missiles of ultrasonic speed and nap-of-the-earth, and the other CSTO countries have none. In addition, we see today a new direction of the development of American armed forces -- drones, which also can arrive here from any direction."

The CSTO has certainly gained momentum in recent months, so does this mean that this system is finally getting off the ground?

CSTO Getting Serious About Joint Air Defense System

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