The Sound of Managed Democracy?

The classic dilemma of civil-military relations . . . is jet noise the sound of freedom — or in this case, of managed democracy?

Or is jet noise a dangerous nuisance?

Last Sunday, Svpressa.ru ran an article on complaints about a major expansion of Baltimor Air Base on the outskirts of Voronezh.  Baltimor also goes by the name Voronezh-B.  This is just the most recent article on local concerns about Baltimor.  Novaya gazeta published on the situation in the middle of last year.

By year’s end, Baltimor is supposed to be Russia’s largest air base, with 200 aircraft, according to Svpressa.  A second, 3,500-meter runway is being built there to accommodate all aircraft types.  Takeoffs and landings at Baltimor occur just a few hundred meters away from apartment blocks.  Residents expect the jet noise to double along with the number of aircraft.  Here’s a video of local aircraft operations.  And another

Svpressa notes the air base was used little after 1990, except for spikes during the Chechen wars.  And from about 4 years ago, it was all but abandoned, overgrown, and broken down.  At the same time,  apartment construction grew outward toward the base.

The resumption and expansion of activity at Baltimor put nearby residents into action.  They believe, with 200 aircraft, flights will be virtually constant.  And a former serviceman told Svpressa he expects the base to have 200 flight days (and nights) a year, with as many as 10 aircraft up simultaneously.

Not surprisingly, residents worry about crashes, about fuel and munitions storage depots, about airport-level noise and vibration, and its effect on young children and infants.  Svpressa reprints their long petition to Voronezh officials asking who and how the air base’s expansion was approved:

“How was such a document signed?  Who was responsible for preparing it?  Why is the population’s opinion supplanted by the conclusions of some ‘experts’ and the silent consent of the oblast administration?”

The website also publishes Air Forces CINC Aleksandr Zelin’s answer.  He asserts they illegally built too close to the airfield, and emphasizes the state’s interest in expanding an existing air base rather than building a new one for “several billion rubles.”

The case of Baltimor Air Base is interesting in its own right, but it’s significant on two other levels.

On the first, the Baltimor situation is evolving in the context of debate over the Air Forces’ force structure and base structure.

Defense Minister Serdyukov’s major reforms pointed immediately at concentrating the Air Forces at fewer bases.  The exact number, however, has shifted constantly downward from 55 at first.  Recall at the 1 April Security Council session on the aviation sector, Medvedev told ministers and officials:

“Now the airfield network of military aviation does not correspond to the basing requirements of aviation groupings.  At the Defense Ministry collegium which took place recently [18 March], I gave orders to establish several large air bases.  Taking into account the deployment of troops, they will be situated on the main strategic axes.”

At the collegium, Serdyukov in fact announced, instead of 33 air bases, there will be eight army aviation bases subordinate to the four military districts / OSKs, and the number of aircraft at each will increase 2.5 or 3 times.  Of course, saying that and getting to that point are two different things entirely. 

Gazeta.ru printed a nice summary of the VVS ground infrastructure issue.  It concluded fewer bases would make things cheaper, but also easier for a potential enemy.  It said a similar effort to resubordinate air and air defense forces to MD commanders in the early 1980s failed.  Rossiyskaya gazeta said experts think the number of air bases should be different for different MDs, as should the mix of aircraft.

It seems, for economic reasons, these large air bases will be picked from the list of existing ones, they won’t necessarily take advantage of vast swaths of unpopulated territory, and they’re likely to irritate the civilian population.

Abandoning old bases and airfields leads to another, longstanding but growing problem of late — the archipelago of unneeded garrisons and military towns.  The Defense Ministry would like to shuffle them off to someone else’s responsibility, and resettling retired military, dependents, and civilian workers elsewhere has been problematic.  BRAC-like processes are especially painful in Russia. 

On the second level, Baltimor could become politically and socially significant.  It’s rare in Russia these days for a military problem to have that kind of potential.  

If politicians ignore or downplay what the locals feel is their basic right to health and environmental protection for the sake of an intangible state interest, there’s a chance Baltimor could become a more serious regional, or even national, issue.  Especially if similar circumstances arise in other cities.

This may seem a stretch, but remember ordinary Russians tend to be galvanized by the local impact of things like auto import tariffs, immigration, building roads through forests, etc.  And concern about the impact of air bases would come on top of other civil-military issues.

In Chelyabinsk, and several other places, the locals are protesting explosive ammunition destruction that is rocking parts of their cities.  Prosecutors already found that the military lied about the size and power of demolition activities not far from Chelyabinsk.  Chelyabinsk residents are also angry about overflights of the city from nearby military airfields.

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