Belarusian Claims That It Now Has Nuclear Strike Jets Spurs Conflicting Reports
The Belarusian president, and close Kremlin ally, says some of his aircraft have been adapted to carry nuclear weapons. But it’s unclear which aircraft.
Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus and a close ally of Russia in its war in Ukraine, announced today that some of his country’s combat aircraft had been modified to carry nuclear weapons. There are currently reports, including from the Reuters agency, that long-withdrawn Belarusian Su-24 Fencer strike aircraft are involved, although this doesn’t stack up for several reasons. On the other hand, it’s significant that Lukashenko has even made these claims, together with a threat to respond to perceived Western aggression in the future.
Interestingly, the source of the Reuters report is a story that was originally carried by the Belarusian BelTA news agency, this morning. When this first appeared, it referred to Lukashenko having said that Belarusian Su-24s had been re-equipped to carry nuclear weapons. In a subsequent version of the same story, the mention of Su-24s had been replaced with the more generic ‘Sukhoi aircraft.’
“Some time ago in St. Petersburg, we together with Putin announced that we would re-equip Belarusian Su-24 aircraft so that they could carry nuclear weapons,” Lukashenko said, according to the original version of the BelTA story. “Do you think we’re just talking? Everything is ready!”
The Belarusian Air Force currently operates Su-25 Frogfoot ground-attack aircraft and Su-30SM Flanker multirole fighter jets. Its fleet of Su-24s has not seen any use since being withdrawn in 2012 and has apparently stood idle since then, although a batch was refurbished and delivered to Sudan.
Lukashenko also issued a warning to Western countries, declaring: “They should understand that no helicopters or aircraft will save them if they escalate.” This was a reference to continued Western military deployments in Europe, expressed through Operation Atlantic Resolve, which began in response to Russian military operations in Ukraine. For Belarus, this is also a symptom of wider Western hostility toward Russia, Lukashenko’s main ally.
So, where does the truth of the Belarusian claims lie?
There is no evidence that the Su-24s that were removed from service at their base in Ross between 2010 and 2012 have been reactivated. Any remaining airframes remain stored at Baranovichi Air Base, alongside other withdrawn types, including Su-27 Flanker fighter jets. Furthermore, these particular Su-24M strike aircraft were always capable of carrying nuclear weapons, meaning they wouldn’t need to be “re-equipped.” While it’s possible Russia might have transferred airworthy Su-24s to its ally, that would seem less likely and doesn’t fit with any official statements.
The War Zone spoke to Stefan Büttner, an expert in Russian airbase infrastructure, and Cold War nuclear weapons, who noted that he found the “unquestioned disclosure of the Su-24 declaration irritating.” He added: “That only confuses things further. The entire media landscape picks it up and spreads it. I would like to rule out that the possibility of the Su-24 being reactivated.”
Another option that some have identified is the Belarusian fleet of subsonic Su-25s, a type that has seen extensive use in the Ukrainian conflict in Russian and Ukrainian hands. Belarusian Su-25s have not been used in the war but they are still in active use, at Lida Air Base. In addition, when in Soviet service, at least some Su-25s were capable of carrying freefall tactical nuclear bombs.
It would be possible, in theory, to adapt Belarusian Su-25s with a nuclear capability (providing they didn’t already have it). However, with a speed of only 590 mph when carrying a modest weapons load, and a range of only around 320 miles on internal fuel, at low altitude, the Frogfoot is far from suitable for nuclear strike — especially against NATO opposition.
There had also been previous reports in June suggesting that Belarusian Su-25s were in line to be adapted for nuclear missions, apparently originating in a statement from the Belarusian government.
“The Belarusian Armed Forces are armed with a fairly large number of Su-25 aircraft,” Russia’s President Vladimir Putin said during talks in St. Petersburg, according to the Belarusian government. “They could be retrofitted; however, this modernization should be carried out at Russian aircraft factories (we will agree on how to do that) and start training the flight personnel accordingly.”
While the context makes that sound like a proposal to have Belarusian Su-25s take on nuclear missions, that may not be the case at all, with the aircraft instead being earmarked for refurbishment and upgrade in Russia. Such activities could, of course, encompass a whole range of different work other than adding or reinstating nuclear capability.
Putin also announced the transfer of Iskander-M tactical missile systems to Belarusian territory “in the next few months.” These can be used to launch ballistic and cruise missiles, fitted with either conventional or nuclear warheads. Here there is no such ambiguity about placing nuclear-capable weapons systems in Belarus.
A training exercise by Russian Iskander-M crews from the Western Military District, with the launchers armed with cruise missiles:
That would leave the Su-30SM, of which 12 were ordered by Belarus in mid-2017, with the first two being delivered in late 2019. At least four were in service by early 2020 but It’s currently unclear how many more have been delivered. Nevertheless, these aircraft are, with some adaptation, suitable for delivering nuclear weapons.
Delivery of the first two Belarusian Su-30SMs to Baranovichi Air Base in November 2019:
Russia is known to practice nuclear strike missions with its Su-30SMs, for which they carry special ‘simulation’ bombs that are the same size and shape as real nuclear bombs, and which also produce a mushroom cloud-like detonation.
With that in mind, if Lukashenko’s words are to be trusted, then the most likely candidate for having been re-equipped to carry nuclear weapons is the Su-30SM.
Belarusian Su-30SM flight operations at Baranovichi Air Base in March 2020:
More important than the possible means of delivering nuclear weapons is the fact that Belarus now claims to host such weapons on its soil, something it’s not done since the days of the Soviet Union when these warheads were controlled by Moscow.
The announcement today only further bolsters Belarus’s status as Putin’s closest military ally, in Europe at least, and ultimately opens the possibility of Minsk fighting alongside Moscow in a potential future nuclear conflict, which would almost certainly be waged against NATO.
However, it’s not clear if nuclear warheads will actually be deployed in Belarus, or if they even already are. The statement “Everything is ready!” also could imply that the aircraft in question are now ready to carry nuclear weapons, or simply that they are ready for conversion.
If nuclear weapons were to be put on Belarusian soil, it’s almost guaranteed they would be held under Russian control, in a similar way to the U.S.-controlled B61 nuclear bombs that can be made available to NATO under the ‘dual key’ arrangement. More likely is the fact that Belarusian personnel will conduct training for the mission, again under Russian supervision, but that the weapons themselves would only be provided in times of significant tensions or all-out war.
In particular, Lukashenko singled out neighboring Poland, a keen supporter of Ukraine, as a potential future threat. According to BelTA, the Belarusian president said he was confident that the Polish military, unlike Warsaw’s politicians, understood how Minsk could respond to any “escalation.” With Poland a NATO member, then this threat is also, by its nature, directed against the wider alliance, as well as other Western countries that have come to Ukraine’s aid.
The geographic location of Belarus in relation to Poland and the three Baltic states is also significant within the context of closer military relations with Russia. Sandwiched between Poland and the Baltic states is the highly militarized exclave of Kaliningrad, with the Suwalki Gap, providing the shortest land route between Belarus and Kaliningrad, roughly 40 miles. As such, this has become a choke point and an area of great strategic and military importance to NATO and Russia.
“It’s not a good idea to escalate things with Belarus because that would be an escalation with the Union State [Russia and Belarus] which has nuclear weapons,” Lukashenko added. “If they start to create problems … the response will be immediate.”
At the same time, the increasingly close military ties between Minsk and Moscow also suggest that Belarus could become more actively involved in the war in Ukraine, which Lukashenko today termed the “special military operation,” echoing the Kremlin’s terminology. So far, Russian forces have launched operations against Ukraine from Belarus, including in the opening offensive, and have used it for the forward basing of troops and materiel, including tactical aircraft and surface-to-air missiles, since then. Furthermore, numerous Russian Iskander missiles have been fired from Belarus and, on at least one occasion, Russian Tu-22M3 Backfire long-range bombers launched missile strikes against Ukraine flying from a base in Belarus.
While there is almost certainly a degree of bluster to Lukashenko’s comments, and the exact nature of Belarus’s claimed new nuclear capability remains very much unclear, there is no doubt that the war in Ukraine has resulted in deepening military ties between Moscow and Minsk. Whatever happens in Ukraine, militarily, at least, closer Russian and Belarusian cooperation can be expected in the future, and there are definitely signs that this will include nuclear arms deployment or at least the capability to do so.
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