Zapad AA drill a budget battle

Õhutõrjelahing Venemaa ja Valgevene ühisõppusel Zapad 2017.

PHOTO: Sander Ilvest

The Belarusian defense ministry allowed accredited journalists to monitor an anti-air drill at the Domanovo training grounds on Tuesday.

The training battle held in the Brest region of Western Belarus under the eyes of journalists and spectators yesterday turned out to be a budget event considering the scale of the Zapad exercises. Official information from the Belarusian army suggests the demo battle only had 145 participants.

Despite the modest number of participating troops, the battle simulation offered its fair share of striking moments. The Estonian Defense Forces usually stages AA trainings by the sea where there is sufficient room to use long-range weapons. The 16-by-24-kilometer Domanovo training polygon offer sufficient space to conduct such exercises in a closed setting.

Journalists are taken to the test site by a 24-seater Maz bus that moves no faster than 80 kilometers an hour on the highway. It takes the bus three hours to complete the less than 200-kilometer journey from Minsk to Domanovo. The driver is forced to stop the bus and jump out to adjust something on the side of the bus using a wrench twice during our trip.

Latvian Radio journalist Ugis shows us a news story of a Russian attack helicopter having fired missiles at spectators during a drill near St Petersburg on his mobile phone. Two journalists were hurt. The mock battle ahead somehow seems less enticing now.

A briefing takes place in the staff building next to the training grounds before the exercise can begin. It turns out the scenario prescribes an attack by enemy helicopters against joint Belarusian and Russian forces met by anti-air units and four Su-24 fighter jets.

The battle is set to join at 2 p.m., and at five minutes to two, a soldier wearing a Belarusian uniform shows the journalists to the roof terrace. “This way, comrades!” he ushers the press to the roof.

It is also when observers arrive. Belarus invited two observers each from Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Poland, Norway, and Sweden. All countries are represented. The observers are accompanied by a troop of local soldiers.

The battle begins in clear weather: sunshine and a light breeze. Considering Belarus has been wracked by a storm and rains over the past two days, journalists can count themselves lucky. Boots meant for trudging through puddles and mud prove useless.

The clear weather also has a downside – the sun shines directly in the faces of spectators. I cannot help but to wonder why couldn’t the exercise have taken place a few hours earlier or later in the day.

The training battle begins at 2 p.m. sharp. Two Mi-8 helicopters fly over the spectators’ heads, playing the role of hostile aircraft. Having made a few circles of the polygon, the helicopters fly away to land somewhere nearby.

The choppers are followed by four Su-24 attackers on the Russian and Belarusian side. The planes make a few sweeps of the training grounds in battle formation and launch signal flares to imitate the firing of missiles.

The course of the exercise is narrated by a local military officer in Russian who explains which side different aircraft represent as well as what they are doing.

Anti-aircraft vehicles hidden by a swath of forest have taken a virtual hit from enemy helicopters. Smoke grenades are deployed beyond the trees.

The AA unit launches its counterattack when the spectators spot a few trucks, anti-aircraft guns, missile systems Osa AKM, S-300, and S-400, and a mobile radar complex. A flare is shot up into the sky to take a few bursts from the AA guns. The Osa AKM system launches a missile that whistles and booms toward the flare and explodes.

“The enemy helicopter has been destroyed,” the announcer says into the squawk box after every missile launch.

The flight of an AA missile is a striking display. In just a few seconds, the missile climbs to a height of a few kilometers, leaving a round cloud in the sky after exploding. Because the missile climbs at such a rate, its whistling can still be heard on the ground after it has exploded. The low bang caused by the explosion reaches the ground some five seconds after the explosion itself.

The vehicles move behind a group of trees and out of sight of spectators after “destroying” the first helicopter. New signal flares are launched at regular intervals to be taken out by the complex from behind the forest.

The course of the battle is difficult to observe due to frequent five-minute breaks during which nothing happens. The announcer makes no comments during these breaks. The battle always continues unexpectedly when a new missile flies out from the forest. In the end, the anti-aircraft complexes pass by the spectators once more to disappear into the forest on the other side of the polygon.

The announcer then says the battle is over and has been won by the coalition forces of Russia and Belarus. Disappointment shows on the faces of more than one journalist – that was it? The AA drill did not treat us to a massive battle involving thousands of troops.

Observer of the Zapad 2017 exercise in the Belarusian defense ministry’s program, Estonian Defense Attaché Lt. Col. Kaupo Kiis said that observers have so far been allowed to monitor three trainings at different grounds.

The program, taking place on September 16-20, will show participants three polygons. On Sunday, observers saw an air drill at the Ruzhansky range; on Monday, an army battle was demonstrated at the Osipovichi polygon; while anti-aircraft capacity was on display at Domanovo yesterday.

“We have a program we follow. The ranges are quite far from one another, and we spend a lot of time on the bus. However, what we are shown and the briefings we get seem to reflect what is happening,” Kiis said.

One of the main questions concerning the exercise is whether Zapad really only has 12,700 participants as claimed by Russian and Belarusian official sources, or whether troop numbers are actually much greater – up to 100,000 men, as suspected by NATO sources.

Lt. Col. Kiis said that observers have been told some 10,000 troops are deployed in Belarus.

“We have not seen great masses of people. The army drill had 2,300 participants yesterday. Today, we were told there are 145 soldiers out there. This does not amount to 10,000. Perhaps they are somewhere else, these soldiers, but we haven’t been there,” Kiis said.

The lieutenant colonel added that it is difficult to assess the number of participants.