Azerbaijani army procures Belarus-made Polonez & Israeli-made Lora missile complexes

Farid Hajili Analysis 12 June 2018
Azerbaijani army procures Belarus-made Polonez & Israeli-made Lora missile complexes

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces Ilham Aliyev inaugurated a military unit of the Missile Troops of the Ministry of Defense. The president was shown Azerbaijan’s newly-procured operational and tactical missile complex Polonez and tactical ballistic missile complex Lora.

Belarus completed the delivery of new multiple rocket launch systems Polonez to Azerbaijan and the latter’s armed forces already commissioned the Polonez batteries. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev stressed the importance of the procurement of Polonez inspecting the missile system at a military unit.

The Russian newspaper Kommersant broke the news of Baku’s purchase of Polonez from Belarus in April following several military delegations visited military enterprises of Belarus. Military experts suggest the deal could be regarded as a delayed response by Azerbaijan to Russia's delivery of its Iskander systems to Armenia. On 16 May, Armenia's new Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan raised the issue of Polonez for Azerbaijan at a meeting in Sochi with Belarus leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka without divulging details. Polonez rockets manufactured by Belarus with assistance from China have a range of 200 km, and even up to 300 km after modernization.

On June 12, missile units of the Azerbaijani army kicked off practical firing exercises using modern anti-tank guided missiles. The firing was performed at day and night time in conditions as close as possible to combat. These weapons are capable of destroying modern and promising tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and other types of armored vehicles, engineering constructions, permanent fire positions, low-flying air targets, and the troops of the enemy in hiding and unconcealed positions. This weapon can be used at any time throughout a day and in conditions of use of active and passive obstacles. The command staff highly appreciated the combat readiness of the military personnel participating in the exercises.

Azerbaijan’s Defense Minister Zakir Hasanov visited Belarus on October 9–10, and toured local defense-industry enterprises to review modern military equipment that could help boost the capabilities of the Azerbaijani army. The Ministry of Defense released photos of Hasanov standing in front of the new Polonez multiple-launch rocket system (MLRS), the T38-Stiletto short-range air-defense system, radars and a communications jamming (electronic warfare) station - a clear indication of what Azerbaijan is interested in purchasing from Belarus.

Azerbaijani officials had previously reviewed Belarus’s advanced military technology, such as radars, scout surveillance devices and radio-communication jamming stations, during last year’s defense-industry exhibition in Baku. Therefore, Hasanov’s latest visit to Belarus may have been the final stage of the bilateral dialogue - i.e., aimed at signing the necessary documents. Apparently, Minsk is willing to offer Baku access to its military equipment designs and modernized facilities; whereas Belarus’s defense industry might obtain investment support from Azerbaijan for joint development of new weapons.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), in 2016 Azerbaijan bought weapons from Belarus for $170 million, which might include an advance payment for the Polonez. Azerbaijan earlier also bought tanks, artillery, armored vehicles, aircraft, radio-technical reconnaissance as well as anti-aircraft/tank missile systems from Belarus. Belarusian companies, meanwhile, have modernized Azerbaijan’s Soviet-made surface-to-air and anti-aircraft missile systems.

After Russia’s refusal to sell the Iskander theater ballistic missile system to Belarus, Minsk developed an indigenous alternative - the Polonez MLRS - which reportedly outstrips Russia’s Uragan-1M and Smerch, Turkey’s Kasirga and Israel’s Lynx system in range and fire characteristics.

Although it is rocket artillery and not a ballistic missile launcher, the Polonez is sometimes compared to the Iskander system due its unique tactical-technical characteristics: an inertial guidance and correction system based on global navigation satellites, an unprecedented accuracy level for long-range target engagement (50–200/300 kilometers), missile warhead flexibility, remote-controlled commands, quick deployment, the ability to overcome missile/air-defense systems, tactical maneuverability in difficult geography, and superior target destruction.

When Armenia acquired Iskanders from Russia last year, this did not radically alter the overall military balance in the South Caucasus, but it has accelerated the arms race with Azerbaijan. The Azerbaijani media excitedly trumpeted Hasanov’s Belarus visit; while Armenian news sourced reacted with predictable panic that the Polonez would greatly enhance Azerbaijan’s combat potential in the light of the fluctuating regional military balance.

Although Moscow supposedly assured Baku that the Armenian Iskanders would not be used against Azerbaijan nor deployed in the Karabakh region, Azerbaijan intends to use the Polonez as a symmetrical response to Armenia.

Armenia undoubtedly understands that unlike its Iskander - the ultimate control of which remains uncertain command of the Polonez will unquestionably rest in the hands of Azerbaijani officers. Minister Hasanov earlier commented that Azerbaijan possesses stronger missile-attack countermeasures. He also questioned the type of Iskanders sold to Armenia (i.e., whether they were the shorter-range export version “E,” rather than “M”), their technical condition, ownership and possibility of application.

Before the Polonez, Azerbaijan reportedly considered acquiring tactical/ballistic/anti-aircraft missiles from Pakistan (Hatf-4/Shaheen-1, Hatf-IX/NASR), Turkey (Khan), China (long-range missiles), France (ASTER 30-SAMP/T) or Russia (Bal-E). Notably, Baku was also looking into the Israeli Iron Dome air-defense system and the Ukrainian-made Grom-2 tactical missile, which resembles the Iskander-M.

The Azerbaijani military already owns diverse air-defense/tracking systems, such as the S-125, S-200 and S-300PMU-2, as well as Barak 8, Osa, Pechora and Tor-M2 surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems. These air-defense weapons are further integrated with Azerbaijan’s Israeli-made Orbiter 2M, Hermes 450, Heron-1 and Harop drones.

That said, most of these installations are designed to counter aerial threats at short–medium altitudes. Azerbaijan still lacks an advanced air-defense system that could provide reliable protection of the country’s strategic infrastructure in a large-scale war - like the potential threat posed by Armenian Iskanders. The Polonez is not a solution to this vulnerability.

The Russian S-400 air-defense system could be a good option for Azerbaijan, particularly as a counter to Armenia’s Iskander missiles; however, Baku has avoided it in order to avoid becoming more dependent on Russian arms. When Russia sells or offers new destructive weapons to Armenia, Moscow simultaneously aims to motivate Azerbaijan to buy Russian counter-measure weapons against Armenian weaponry. Thus, Russia can compensate its loses from donating or selling subsidized weapons to Armenia by selling other armaments to Azerbaijan at market prices.

At the same time, the United States’ Patriot air-defense system or the Israeli David’s Sling are out of reach to Azerbaijan due to their political, technical and financial aspects. Moreover, acquiring any foreign-made missile system with a range of more than 300 km would fall afoul of the Missile Technology Control Regime.

The most optimal scenario for Azerbaijan, therefore, would be to begin joint production domestically with a foreign partner of short-range missiles using imported technology. The Belarusian-designed MAZ/MZKT military vehicles, currently being assembled at a facility in Ganca, Azerbaijan, could serve as mobile platforms for such a missile system. However, setting up domestic production lines will take longer than simply buying off-the-shelf weapons from abroad.

Azerbaijan’s talks with Belarus on new arms sales come in the wake of Russia’s new military loan to Armenia to buy advanced weapons, the Russia-Armenia unified air-defense system, and Yerevan’s decision to increase its 2018 defense budget. Undoubtedly, the deliveries of formidable Belarusian weapons (like the Polonez) to Azerbaijan will cause an outcry in both Yerevan and Moscow.

After all, Belarus is formally Armenia’s ally within the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), while Russia remains Azerbaijan’s largest military-technical supplier, despite Moscow’s role as a mediator on the Karabakh conflict. Nevertheless, Azerbaijan will in all likelihood move ahead with the purchase from Belarus in order to diversify its arm imports and find cheaper solutions for its unmet military needs.