Mongolia is in discussions to buy American-made military transport airplanes, and is getting U.S. help in learning how to operate the aircraft. That ambitious purchase appears to signal that Mongolia has mining money to spend, and it's using some of it to upgrade its armed forces.
Mongolia is looking at buying three C-130J transport airplanes, manufactured by Lockheed Martin. The planes would likely be used to transport the country's armed forces on its increasingly ambitious international peacekeeping missions. From a press release by the Alaska National Guard, whose airmen recently traveled to Mongolia to conduct training on C-130 maintenance:
In a country as vast and open as Alaska, the Mongolian Air and Air Defense Force is tasked with transporting Mongolian Armed Forces, but with only Soviet-era helicopters that include the MI-24B, MI-8T and MI-171E, they lack the capacity to transport large numbers of personnel, making it impossible to meet all their mission requirements.
“This is a great professional exchange for us,” said 1st Lt. Bayasgalan Baljinnyam, platoon commander, Unit 337 Nalaikh Air Base, Mongolian Air and Air Defense Force. “Our national Air Force needs a C-130 because we need to participate in every mission and right now we have to call on civilian aircraft to transport our troops. We need to have our own C-130 so we can manage ourselves and transport our own troops to other countries.”
With a current request to obtain three C-130J aircraft, the aircraft maintenance exchange has provided an engaging opportunity for Mongolian enlisted personnel and officers to pick the brain of two Alaska Air National Guard crew chiefs on the ins and outs of C-130 maintenance and performance.
(If you're wondering why the Alaska National Guard did this, it is part of the National Guard State Partnership program, which pairs U.S. states with countries with whom the U.S. cooperates. Often those national guard units conduct the military training programs that the U.S. conducts around the world, including in the former USSR.)
Asked for more details on the proposed purchase, Lockheed Martin spokesman Peter Simmons said only: "We are in detailed discussions with the Mongolians." The Mongolian embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.
In a 2009 interview for Jane's Defence Weekly (not online) then-defense minister Luvsanvandan Bold said that the country's defense budget wasn't enough to consider new procurements. He said that circumstance was only likely to change after 2015, when incomes from the country's booming mining economy started to come in.
“Right now it [defence spending] is very low, about 1.4 percent of GDP [gross domestic product]. We want to bring it up to two percent, to really maintain a professional, capable army that meets all our needs,” Bold said.
When that happens, engineering vehicles, equipment for peacekeeping battalions, increasing the living conditions of soldiers, air defence and possibly aircraft procurement will be the priorities, he said. “We want to acquire new aircraft, but we will see. The major issue is costs, how to keep maintenance costs down,” he said. The government is now working on its procurement plans for the post-2015 period, Bold said. “Then we will have a real income.”
But it looks like that is changing a little ahead of schedule. Mongolia announced a couple of years ago that it was going to buy Russian MiG-29 fighters, but nothing seems to have come of that, and this analysis suggests that there may have been nothing behind the announcement, anyway. Either way, the thinking then would still apply now:
This follows the pattern that the U.S. has established in other post-Soviet countries, most notably Kazakhstan: understanding that the military ties with Russia are too great to supplant entirely, the U.S. will instead focus on training and equipping small, niche forces to take part in U.N. peacekeeping and U.S.-led military operations like Iraq and Afghanistan.