By Master Sgt. Gregory Ripps, 149th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
/ Published August 17, 2009
YEREVAN, Armenia -- (Author's note: This interview was conducted informally through an interpreter.)
Col. Daniel Balayan, commander of the Military Aviation Institute here, greeted his two public affairs visitors cordially and gestured for them to sit down at a narrow table that formed a "T" with his desk. The desk was modest, but the man who sat down behind it left no doubt that he was comfortable - comfortable in a leadership position.
Colonel Balayan said he had been in a leadership position for 26 years, the last 17 as commander of the institute, where the 149th Civil Engineers billeted for most of the first two weeks of August. He said that whether U.S. military increments would billet at the institute in the future was a decision made "higher up," but that the institute had a tradition of hosting military from other nations.
The institute, which is situated on a city block in southeast Yerevan, was built in the early 1980s as a training facility for high school students and included trade shops, but according to Colonel Balayan, it fell into neglect during the early 1990s, during a period of national educational restructuring.
When the institute first opened in another location in 1993, Colonel Balayan was appointed commander. In years prior to that, he was director of the national aero club, founded during the Soviet era when each of the "republics" had such an organization. Colonel Balayan explained that the Armenian Aero Club, which controlled its own airfield, trained young men in piloting skills and parachute jumping.
"It helped young people find their lives, and it also developed a reserve force for the Soviet Union," said Colonel Balayan.
Some of the aero club pilots developed aerobatic skills. He was especially proud of one who became a world champion. He said he was sharing this to show that Armenia had accumulated valuable aviation experience before the institute was established.
When the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics broke apart, "We were in a tough situation," said Colonel Balayan. "Armenia had no air training."
He outlined the options Armenia faced:
--- It could train pilots in another country for three or four years -- which would be very expensive; or
--- It could establish a national base with a pool of expert knowledge, drawn from that accumulated over many years with the aero club, and keep that knowledge in Armenia.
Colonel Balayan said that when he made the recommendation for a military aviation institute, the Ministry of Defense immediately approved it.
"Since the institute was established, it has continued smoothly," he said, noting that 99 percent of the pilots in Armenia are Armenian.
Colonel Balayan said military cooperation with the United States of America began in 2000.
"When the Soviet Union's [breakup-related] problems settled down, we developed more and more events [with the United States]," he said. "We started with only one or two annually, but recently we had 1,000 professional events. We also have contact with the U.S. European Command, U.S. Air Forces Europe, and NATO and European countries.
"A lot has changed," he continued. "Twenty or 25 years ago, we would not be [sitting] here together."
Previous to the deployment of the Texans here a few days earlier, Colonel Balayan's contact with the National Guard was with Kansans, in a relationship that goes back several years. He pointed to a 2006 exercise as an excellent example of military cooperation among Armenia, the United States and several European countries.
"We were very excited ... to participate," he said. "It was a big success, and it won high praise by the government."
Most importantly, in his eyes, "It made links closer not only militarily but from a man's [individual's] viewpoint.
"The key point is that we are all military," he continued. "That makes us close to each other.... We have a lot in common. First we have to know each other as human beings - the most important part of relations."
Colonel Balayan added that without personal relations, professional relations are nothing.
"During the Cold War, we couldn't even talk," he said. "Through human relations, the Cold War ended, and we started doing things together ... on the highest levels of mutual trust.
He noted as evidence of that trust that Armenia was sending troops to Afghanistan and has a force in Kosovo now. Furthermore, he was "100 percent sure" the Armenian military will fully integrate into any mission in which they participate.
"The objective of the military is to maintain peace - to guarantee peace and security of their country," he said. "The stronger you are, the more confident you are."
He also said military people are the first not to want war to happen.
"I'd like to wish peace to all my colleagues - the military people, [especially those] who travel to other countries.... Don't forget they have left behind families and friends. I wish that they return safely home. That is my biggest wish."
With that, the commander rose from his seat, and so did his visitors. As he walked them to the door, he pointed out, through the interpreter, that he originally trained as a pilot instructor.
"To train a person, you must know him," said Colonel Balayan. "You must train him psychologically as well as technically."