Gabala on Russia's radar as MDS talks fizzle

The Gabala radar station in Azerbaijan (AFP Photi / Michael Mainville)
As the war of words over the European missile defense shield rages on, Moscow is laying plans to modernize the Gabala radar station in Azerbaijan which is a part of its early warning system, Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov has said.

The Soviet-built radar station, which is operated by Russian Space Forces, is capable of detecting missile launches as far away as the Indian Ocean and is “vital and useful” to national security, Serdyukov stressed.

"Increasing the capacity of the Gabala Radar Station is vital and useful for the Russian early-warning system. It is also important because of the Iranian [missile] program, although we prefer not to link it directly," the minister told journalists, adding, "We need this station."

Russia’s lease on the radar station expires in 2012 and Moscow wants to extend its contract with the Azeri government until 2025.

Admitting that the radar facility requires extensive modernization, Serdyukov also mentioned that Baku is looking to increase Russia’s rent payments on the facility.

"I don't think our Azerbaijani partners have any objections. The question is money," the minister noted. "They want to dramatically raise the rent.”

Azerbaijan’s Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov said that the current lease payment is incommensurate with the value and importance of the radar, while exposing Azerbaijan to unspecified “threats and risks.”

“The attitude of governments – including Russia – to such facilities being sited in other countries gives grounds to say that it is necessary to raise payments several times,” said the Azeri official.

Russia disagrees, however, saying the newly-designed radar station that Russian envisions for the site would require far less territory, water and electricity. This would dramatically lower environmental concerns associated with the older radar system.

“We would like to have it as it is but considerably reduce the territory we are leasing,” he said. “We do not need such vast territories and so many engineering networks for a station of the new type. We will not consume so much water and electricity," explained Anatoly Serdukov.

In June 2007, the then president, Vladimir Putin, made an offer to deploy elements of the US missile defense shield in Azerbaijan, using the Gabala Radar Station jointly with Russia. Putin’s offer came following the US announcement that it was planning to deploy components of the missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic to defend against possible missile attacks from “rogue states.”

According to the press secretary of the Russian Defence Minister, Irina Kovalchyuk, Russia and Azerbaijan are going to extend the Gabala lease contract until 2025.

"The two sides discussed the procedure of joint work to prolong till 2025 the lease contract for the Gabala radar," Kovalchyuk said. "It was agreed to step up work with the aim to agree and prepare for signature within tight deadlines a document that would formalize the agreement between Russia and Azerbaijan on the issue."

The Gabala Radar Station is a Daryal-type bistatic phased-array early warning radar. Its construction began in 1976 and it was finally commissioned in 1985. The radar's surveillance sweep covers an area of up to 6,000 kilometers (3,730 miles).