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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ivanov Hails Rebirth of Air Defense

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ASHULUK, Astrakhan region ? An increasingly aggressive NATO is demanding that Russia place its nuclear arsenal under international supervision. Poland is insisting that its border with Belarus be redrawn. And Islamic extremists in Central Asia have just received additional financial and military support for carrying out terrorist attacks in the Russian heartland.

Suddenly, at 10:08 a.m., Moscow air command radars register a clear violation of Russian air space by an unmanned flying object. The commander puts air defense units on high alert and orders the destruction of the incoming object, which is located and targeted. An anti-ballistic missile pierces the sky and obliterates the projectile in a ball of fire. But two more are detected ?

Welcome to Combat Commonwealth 2001, the fourth annual joint military exercise for the Commonwealth of Independent States' Unified Air Defense forces at the Ashuluk firing range in the Astrakhan region, more than 1,000 kilometers southeast of Moscow.

The main goal of the exercise, completed Thursday by delegates from Russia, Belarus, Armenia and Tajikistan, is to increase battle readiness and improve coordination among CIS member states. But it also serves to boost morale, allowing fellow soldiers from former Soviet republics a chance to rub shoulders and get a taste of combat situations that cannot be taught in a classroom.

Just as last year, the simulated battle was coordinated by Russian Air Force Commander Anatoly Kornukov and supervised by CIS defense ministers. But unlike previous years, Russia's first civilian military chief, Sergei Ivanov, opted to sport denim jeans and a plain white shirt, putting him in stark contrast to his camouflaged, shoulder-strapped colleagues.

As air defense units of the four participating nations took turns launching missiles from S-125, S-300PS and S-300PM Favorit systems that blew out of the sky simulated incoming enemy aerial targets nicknamed strizh (swift), bekas (snipe) and kaban (boar), Lieutenant General Arkady Barsukov, head of combat training for the Russian Air Force, stood atop the command tower under a camouflaged net barking out commentary.

Two hours and more than a dozen explosions later, the exercise was over. With all enemy targets eliminated, soldiers congratulated each other on a successful mission and compared their rewards ? watches, radios and cameras handed out by Ivanov.

"Combat Commonwealth is no showoff... The combat units ? and I would emphasize that ? didn't know the time their targets would be launched," Ivanov said.

CIS members are moving from a unified to a single air defense system, Ivanov said. "The single system of air defense is not a fiction but already a reality," he said. Only Belarus and Russia, however, have made the first step in this direction and no time frame for the other countries has been set.

Kornukov said the joint exercises would continue but, given the expense, would be held only every other year, and with more participants. Few, however, doubted that the 2.5 million rubles ($85,000) spent on organizing the event, not to mention the hundreds of millions of rubles spent in arsenal depletion (each S-300 missile costs 13 million rubles), was worth it.

"This is the third time we've participated in the Combat Commonwealth exercise and it's very important for us to check our combat readiness and compare our unit's performance with that of other republics," said Lieutenant Colonel Artur Pogosyan, head of an Armenian air defense unit.

"These [units] know the equipment very well, understand how it works and can draw schemes with their eyes closed," said Russian air defense systems test engineer Lieutenant Colonel Valery Dolgopoltsev. "But some have never been in a combat environment. The moment of pressing the button that fires the missile puts them under a lot of stress. They need to experience that so they are calm when they do it for real."

The once-mighty shield that covered the entire Soviet Union ceased to exist practically overnight with the collapse of communism a decade ago, forcing Russia to change its defensive strategy. What was once an all-encompassing protective umbrella became a selective system that covered just a few major cities, strategic industrial centers and nuclear arsenals.

Of all the former republics, only Belarus and Kazakhstan managed to keep some sort of similar system intact, with the others seeing their systems fall into total disarray. The S-75 and S-125 systems they inherited became useless scraps of metal while the specialists trained to operate and maintain them fled.

Participants said that if it wasn't for the efforts of Russia and Belarus to undertake joint training exercises like Combat Commonwealth, the whole region's security would be threatened.

"In the past few years we brought the air defense forces of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan off their knees. [What they had] was scrap metal... but with the help of Russia and Belarus their systems were improved to functioning condition and their units were trained," Kornukov said.

"These joint exercises help us fill in the gaps, eliminate the weak spots in Russia's air defense system and strengthen the air defenses of countries that serve as buffer zones," said Lieutenant General Yury Bondarev, who oversees the unified CIS air defense system.

This unified system was created in 1995 by the heads of 10 CIS nations ? Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Ukraine.

The Ashuluk firing range was set up in 1960 for research and experimental tests on air defense systems and offensive weapons and has since hosted 33 nations, including former Warsaw Pact members and specialists from China, Iraq and Vietnam. Originally encompassing parts of Kazakhstan, Russia moved it completely onto Russian soil in 1993 to have direct control over it and cut costs.

Seven countries participated in last year's exercise, but this year was larger geographically, with the expansion onto five firing ranges. In the first stage in June, Belarus and Russia conducted exercises at the Telemba firing range in the Chita region. Then in August, Kornukov oversaw Baltic Fleet exercises at a firing range in the Baltic Sea. Thursday's activities marked the third stage, with exercises at Kazakhstan's Sary-Shagan firing range and Uzbekistan's Zhaslyk facility in the coming months.

Altogether, 30 air defense divisions, 23 variations of military jets and 40 types of targets will be used during Combat Commonwealth.