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Smart Bombs: Military, Defense and National Security

The Air Force of Belarus: A Threat to Ukraine?

Su-25. Image Credit: Creative Commons.
Su-25. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

“Birds of a feather flock together,” as the saying goes. And given the buddy-buddy nature of the relationship between Alexander Lukashenko — Belarus’s only president in its entire history as an independent nation – and Vladimir Putin, there has been plenty of prognostication and speculation about the possibility of Belarus allying itself with Russia in the efforts to destroy Ukraine’s independence.

And as I noted in the first half of this two-part series on the Armed Forces of Belarus, reports were leaked that Mr. Putin’s executive office distributed an internal strategy document in fall 2021 that lays out the Kremlin’s 10-year plan to take full control of Belarus.

I’ll leave it to the soothsayers and tea leaf-readers to predict whether those linkups will take place. In the meantime, going back that “birds of a feather” proverb, I’ll conclude this two-part series with a look at Belarus’s warbirds, i.e., their air force.

Belarus Air Force Structure

Officially known as the Air Force and Air Defence Forces of the Republic of Belarus (Ваенна-паветраныя сілы і войскі супрацьпаветранай абароны Рэспублікі Беларусь) and officially established on 15 June 1992, the air force has a current manpower strength of approximately 18,200 personnel, thus ranking it 27th out of 145 countries in terms of size. The chain of command starts with the aforementioned Mr. Lukashenko, followed by the Minister of Defense, Lieutenant General Viktor Khrenin, and  the Commander of the Air Force, Colonel Andrey Lukyanovich. Air Force and Air Defence Command is headquartered in the capital city of Minsk, and from there, the force structure divvies into three arms and several support services: air forces, missile air defence troops, radiotechnical troops, and so-called special troops and services. There are currently four active airbases: Baranovichi, Lida, Minsk – Machulishchy, and Osovcy.

MiG-29 “Fulcrum” Jet Fighter

This is the primary fighter plane of Belarus’s air force, and it is believed that there are 34 of these warplanes in the arsenal. Prior to the outset of the 1991 Persian Gulf War AKA Operation Desert Storm, the Fulcrum was much vaunted, thought to be (on-paper at least) the rough equal of the American F-15 Eagle and F-16 Fighting Falcon AKA Viper.

However, actual fights between the MiG-29 and those two American-made warbirds – both during the Gulf War as well as Operation Allied Force in Kosovo in 1999 – would dispel that notion, and the MiG-29 losses suffered by Russia in the current conflict are wiping away the plane’s former luster even further.

However, it is still a formidable aircraft. Making her maiden flight in 1977 and entering official operational service in 1982, the Fulcrum zips through the air at a max airspeed of Mach 2.25 (1,500 mph/1,300 knots) and is armed with a single Gryazev-Shipurov GSh-30-1 30mm autocannon with 150 rounds, plus hardpoints with a capacity for 4,000 kilograms’ (8,800 pounds) worth of bombs or missiles such as the AA-8 Aphid, AA-10 Alamo, AA-11 Archer, or AA-12 Adder.

Sukhoi Su-25 “Frogfoot” Ground Attack Jet

Or as the Russkies prefer to call it, the “Grach” (“Rook”). Making her maiden flight in February 1975 and officially introduced to the service of the “Rodina” (“Motherland”) in July 1981, this was basically the Soviets’ answer to the American A-10 Warthog (Thunderbolt II), in other words, their subsonic jet-powered ground attack, close air support (CAS), and tank-busting airplane.

However, whilst the Frogfoot/Grach certainly has seen plenty of combat, including 60,000 sorties flown during the Soviet-Afghan War, I have yet to come across any accounts of the Su-25 actually killing any enemy tanks. (Dear readers, if you know of any such instances, please let us know in the comments section).

Whilst the Frogfoot is a tough bird (mixing my amphibian and avian metaphors there), it is far from invulnerable, as the Russians and Ukrainians have lost more Frogfoots (Frogfeet?) than any other aircraft, with the most dramatic instance taking place back on 22 May 2022, when the Ukrainian 80th Air Assault Brigade used a 9k38 Igla (“Needle”) MANPAD to shoot down a Su-25 piloted by Major General Kanamat Botashev. Making Botashev the highest-ranking Russian pilot killed in the war.

The Frogfoot certainly does pack a formidable punch: the 30mm AO-17A twin-barrel gun, mounted in the underside of the fuselage on the port side; The wings have ten pylons for carrying a range of air-to-ground weapon systems include Kh-23 (AS-7 “Kerry:), Kh-25ML (AS-10 “Karen”) and Kh-29l (AS-14 “Kedge”) missiles, 350kg-670kg laser-guided bombs, 500kg incendiary devices and cluster bombs. Max airspeed is 950 km/h (590 mph/Mach 0.89).

Belarus has an estimated 57 Su-25s.

Mil Mi-24 “Hind” Attack Helicopter

This chopper was the terror of the skies both during the real-life Soviet-Afghan War and in fictional stories of the conflict such as the 1988 movie Rambo III and Ken Follett’s bestselling 1986 novel Lie Down With Lions. The Hind made her maiden flight in 1969 and was officially adopted by the Soviet armed forces in 1972. Although newer attack helicopters such as the Mi-28 “Havoc” and Ka-52 “Alligator” are now carrying out the majority of the Russian Federation’s whirlybird-related dirty work, there are still plenty of Mi-24s in service, in both Russian and Ukrainian hands, inflicting casualties and taking casualties alike.

The Hind absolutely bristles with armament: flexible 12.7mm Yak-B Gatling gun, fixed twin-barrel GSh-30K or GSh-23L autocannon (depending on the variant of the chopper), 1,500 kilograms-worth of iron bombs or fuel-air bombs on external stores — spread out between inner and outer hardpoints and wingtip pylons — UB-16 S-5 and UB-32 S-5 rocket launchers, S-24 240mm rockets, and the 9K114 Shturm anti-tank missile, to name just a few examples. Max airspeed is 181 knots, with a range of 240 nautical miles and a service ceiling of 16,100 feet.

The Belarusians currently have 21 of these rotary warbirds, with 4 more on order.         

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Christian D. Orr has 33 years of shooting experience, starting at the tender age of 14. His marksmanship accomplishments include: the Air Force Small Arms Ribbon w/one device (for M16A2 rifle and M9 pistol); Pistol Expert Ratings from U.S. Customs & Border Protection (CBP), Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC) Criminal Investigator Training Program (CITP); multiple medals and trophies via the Glock Sport Shooting Foundation (GSSF) and the Nevada Police & Fires Games (NPAF). Chris has been an NRA Certified Basic Pistol Instructor since 2011.  In his spare time, he enjoys (besides shooting, obviously) dining out, cigars, Irish and British pubs, travel, USC Trojans college football, and Washington DC professional sports.

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Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon).