Kazakhstan Steppe Eagle Exercise Helps Sustain NATO Ties

The latest Steppe Eagle annual multilateral military exercise in Kazakhstan occurred from August 10-23, at the Illisky Training Centre near Almaty. The exercise, held under NATO auspices, confirms that the Kazakhstani national security community wants to retain defense ties with Western countries despite their country’s deep military relations with Russia. This goal should grow in coming years as NATO winds down its combat operations in Afghanistan. In this context, sustaining Kazakhstan’s Airmobile Forces Brigade (KAZBRIG) is important for promoting interoperability between NATO and the rest of Kazakhstan’s military.

Like the other newly independent states that emerged from the wrecked Soviet military-industrial complex, Kazakhstan had to construct novel military institutions based initially on the few suitable defense resources the country managed to inherit from the former Soviet armed forces. In developing their armed forces, the Kazakhstani authorities pursued an eclectic approach. Since independence, they have readily sought subsidized military training, donated weapons, and other defense assistance from Russia, China, NATO and other foreign sources. More recently, the Kazakhstani armed forces have become more closely integrated with the Russian military, but Kazakhstan strives to maintain defense ties with Western and other countries as well.

Kazakhstan struggled to sustain adequate defense spending during the first years after independence. The authorities had to grant Russian forces access to test ranges on Kazakhstani territory in exchange for Russia’s providing the underequipped Kazakhstani armed forces with former Soviet weapons. But since the late 1990s, the Kazakhstani government has used some of its surging energy revenue to modernize and expand its conventional armed forces. The country’s military reformers, backed by NATO experts, have been focusing on qualitative rather than quantitative improvements. They have been focusing on developing a more professional, flexible, and effective force with better quality equipment and training. NATO-backed programmes have focused on strengthening Kazakhstan’s capabilities for peacekeeping, Caspian Sea maritime defenses, and interoperability with the alliance. For example, NATO has been promoting Western-language training of Kazakhstani officers and helping to develop a professional noncommissioned officer class based on Western NCO standards.

The revival of Kazakhstan’s economy since the late 1990s, combined with the post-9/11 influx of foreign militaries into Central Asia and the Caspian region, has enabled the government to pursue its objective of developing a dual-purpose military, one capable of both self-defense and promoting international peace and security. The country’s growing military capabilities, combined with the government’s fundamental foreign policy principle that Kazakhstan requires a secure environment to develop politically and economically, has induced Kazakhstan to pursue capabilities that can be used outside the country’s national borders in support of broader regional security objectives, including peacekeeping and post-conflict reconstruction missions. Kazakhstani leaders see multilateral military cooperation as making an important contribution to securing regional stability as well as their own country’s security. Although Kazakhstan does not currently face a conventional military threat from another nation state, the country is challenged by transnational security threats such as narcotics trafficking, ethnic unrest and terrorism.

Kazakhstan’s armed forces have developed extensive ties with Russia and the two defense establishments share doctrine, weapons, and training. Almost all of Kazakhstan’s military units have greater interoperability with Russian forces than with NATO. Astana’s only military alliance is the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), through which Russia provides its members extended security guarantees against external threats. After Russia, Kazakhstan provides the most military personnel to the CSTO’s elite collective units. As a CSTO member, Kazakhstan is eligible to purchase some Russian military equipment at wholesale prices. Russia and Kazakhstan have joint air defense and other partnered units and missions.

In accordance with its multi-vector foreign policy, Kazakhstan has sought to develop military ties with Western countries. From 2003 to 2008, Kazakhstan deployed its elite Airmobile Forces Battalion (KAZBAT) to Iraq to assist in finding and neutralizing unexploded ordinance, constructing fresh water facilities, and providing medical treatment for the local population.

In December 2006, the battalion was formally expanded to brigade size and renamed the KAZBRIG, though the first KAZBAT still remains the core unit since the other two battalions have taken time to build into capable formations. The KAZBRIG has received substantial training, equipment, and other assistance from NATO and its member governments to increase its effectiveness and interoperability with the alliance. The brigade’s one fully operational battalion is widely considered the Kazakhstani unit most likely to be capable of participating in Western-led multinational operations, which has yet to occur. KAZBRIG regularly participates in the annual Steppe Eagle exercise series designed to prepare the Kazakhstani armed forces to join international peacekeeping exercises led by NATO or the United Nations.

The first Steppe Eagle exercise occurred in 2003 as a trilateral drill involving troops only from Kazakhstan, the UK, and the US. The number of participating countries has since doubled to include several more European and Central Asian states, though the number of Kazakhs considerably exceeds those of other countries. Steppe Eagle has been a NATO Partnership for Peace (PfP) exercise since 2006. On January 31 of that year, Kazakhstan signed an Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP) with NATO.

Steppe Eagle 2013 occurred at the KAZBRIG’s main training area in Almaty province. The participants included soldiers from Italy, Lithuania, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, as well as Kazakhstan, the UK, and the US. In addition to KAZBRIG, units from Kazakhstan’s Army and Air Force also participated. In total, 1,680 multinational military personnel were involved in the exercise. By contrast, the previous Steppe Eagle, which occurred from September 6-18, 2012, involved fewer personnel from fewer countries. Observers from Belarus, Germany, Spain, and Ukraine also were present at Steppe Eagle 2013. Colonel General Zhasuzakov, Kazakhstan’s First Deputy Minister and Chief of the General Staff, opened this year’s exercise.

This year’s Steppe Eagle 2013 was especially important because a team of experts from NATO’s SHAPE Military Partnership Directorate is evaluating the KAZBRIG’s ability to achieve NATO Evaluation Level 1 on interoperability according to the alliance’s Operational Capabilities Concept Programme, which allows non-NATO militaries to practice alliance procedures and standards and enhance their interoperability with NATO through training and evaluation. Certification that the KAZBRIG is interoperable with NATO’s standards would allow elements of the unit to operate with NATO forces on international Peace Keeping and Peace Support Operations (PKO/PSO). If the KAZBRIG achieves Level 1 interoperability, the alliance will work with Kazakhstan to raise the unit’s capabilities to NATO Evaluation Level 2, which would allow the unit to join the NATO Pool of Forces.

The KAZBRIG”s growing capabilities result from years of hard effort. The preparatory efforts included the establishment of the PfP training centre of the Military Institute of Land Forces (KATZSENT) to train Kazakhstani military personnel to NATO standards and procedures. In 2008, KATZSENT was designated the 19th Partnership Training and Educations Centre with NATO. Since then, several dozen courses and workshops have been held there, covering such topics as NATO military staff procedures and English military terminology. To improve their English language skills, senior Kazakhstani officers participate in an English Language Training Programme at the Royal College of Defence Studies and Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst in the UK. More junior military personnel learn English at York St John University in Britain and in classes organized by the British Military and Advisory Training Team (BMATT) at Vyskov in the Czech Republic. Other KAZBRIG personnel attend different courses at BMATT, which is the UK Ministry of Defence’s Training Establishment for Peace Support Operations for the militaries of Eastern Europe, Central Asia and North Africa.

NATO certification would also confirm the KAZBRIG’s ability to operate in a multinational peacekeeping environment under a UN mandate. In line with the country’s current defense doctrine, the Kazakhstani government has announced its intention to provide approximately 200 personnel from the KAZBRIG to one or more UN peacekeeping missions. It would still be difficult to send the entire unit since Kazakhstan’s constitution prohibits the deployment of conscript soldiers on foreign missions; only long-term professional soldiers can be sent. And KAZBRIG, like other Kazakhstani military units, still contains some conscripts.

Sustaining KAZBRIG is important for promoting interoperability between NATO and the rest of Kazakhstan’s military, which have less compatible equipment, training, and command and control arrangements. Most of the Kazakhstani armed forces also rely heavily on traditional Soviet military doctrine, which prioritizes defeating an adversary’s conventional forces. Such a posture is not optimal for the type of foreign terrorist threats that currently present a more plausible danger to Kazakhstan.

The author is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute. This opinion was first published in the September 18, 2013 issue of the CACI Analyst in Washington, DC, and is reprinted here with permission.

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