Ever Wondered About the Military Balance in Central Asia?
We have. Fortunately here's Ukrainian military analyst Dmitry Gorenburg with an assessment. We learn:
- Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have tiny militaries and rely on Russia for their defense
- Isolationist Turkmenistan is attempting to rearm its modestly-sized military
- Kazakhstan has a credible and relatively capable armed force - but albeit the biggest in the region still counts under 50,000 men
- Uzbekistan has the second most capable army after Kazakhstan - but one that is underfunded and takes a back seat to the security police
Originally published in Oxford Analytica. Republished at Russian Military Reform
SIGNIFICANCE: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are leading other Central Asian governments in increased spending on military and security forces and the procurement of modern equipment. Regional governments have long-standing fears of potential Russian military interference and remain concerned about the situation in Afghanistan. The increase in military expenditures is expanding capabilities, although the degree and pace of improvement varies from country to country, and regional militaries still lag Russian and NATO forces.
Russian forces presence in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan will increase.
Mobile and counter-terrorism focused forces will be seen as more important than conventional land forces.
While Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan will drive military reform, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan will increasingly rely on Russia.
Kazakhstan’s military is Central Asia’s most capable, but it is far less capable than NATO or Russian militaries. Special forces will play a larger role as Kazakhstan looks to make a greater contribution to the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s counter-terrorism capability.
A Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) report estimates Kazakhstan’s armed forces at 30,000-45,000 troops — plus many thousands of other personnel attached to the Interior Ministry. In 2014, Astana said that it would be increasing defence spending by 36% over three years from around 2 billion dollars per annum to 2.7 billion dollars by 2017, according to a report by IHS Janes. However, this increase may have to be reduced slightly to fall in line with expected budget cuts due to low oil prices.
Astana is looking to trim all 2015-17 budgets to match a 50 dollars per barrel oil price, but President Nursultan Nazarbayev could authorise the government to support increased defence expenditure with oil reserves from the National Fund. The World Bank noted that in 2013 Kazakhstan spent the equivalent of 1.2% of GDP on defence.
The air force, which has a primarily air defence role, has between 11,000 and 13,000 personnel, according to SIPRI and the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). Combat pilots average 100 hours of flight time per year, which is lower than the NATO standard. On February 4, Major General Nurlan Ormanbetov, Commander in Chief of the Kazakhstan Air Defence Forces (KADF), said that Astana plans to acquire the Russian Sukhoi Su-30SM ‘Flanker’ from Russia. As noted by IHS Janes, the KADF currently uses the MiG-27 ‘Flogger’, Su-25 ‘Frogfoot’, MiG-31 ‘Foxhound’, Su-27 ‘Flanker’, and MiG-29 ‘Fulcrum’ aircraft. The SU-30SM has been developed by Russia as a stopgap unitl the MiG-35 and Sukoi T-50 PAK-FA fifth generation fighters become fully operational.
Uzbekistan’s military is reckoned to be Central Asia’s second most capable with an army currently numbering 40,000 personnel. Total defence spending is approximately 2 billion dollars per annum, according to SIPRI. The military is focused on improving its capabilities to defeat asymmetric challenges to President Islam Karimov’s administration. However, in Uzbekistan, the National Security Service (SNB) has historically been seen as significantly more important than the military. This trend will likely continue. The SNB will be a key powerbroker in any Karimov succession crisis. This highlights Tashkent’s main security priority, which is to maintain internal stability as opposed to undertake foreign operations.
Air force disrepair
Joint Russian training
Uzbekistan’s defence priorities include procuring modern military equipment, improving combat readiness and mobility, and increasing professionalism among the officer corps. In December 2014, defence and military cooperation were discussed during President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Uzbekistan. Some 3,000 Uzbekistani military officers will reportedly study at military schools in Russia this year, which will increase Russia-Uzbekistan military interoperability.
Leaner fighting force
Uzbekistan aims to cut the overall size of its military in order to free up resources to create and train more mobile units. Heavy armour formations — using T-72, T-64 and T-62 battle tanks — and high-calibre artillery units are being reduced in favour of lighter infantry units with counter-insurgency/counter-terrorism and mountain warfare capabilities.
Ashgabat’s military numbers an estimated 22,000-30,000, according to SIPRI. Despite being willing to spend money on modern weapons, Turkmenistan’s armed forces are considered weak with low operational effectiveness. Ashgabat has been unwilling to allocate spending to training and equipment maintenance. Meanwhile, the modern weapons it has acquired largely remain unused due to a lack of qualified personnel. The 2012 defence budget is estimated to be 210 million dollars, according to SIPRI. The army currently uses a lot of old Soviet era hardware such as T-72 tanks, BTRs and BMP infantry fighting vehicles.
Air Force struggles
Despite having received a large number of aircraft at the collapse of the Soviet Union, Turkmenistan has struggled to maintain these, and pilot training has suffered. Currently it has MiG-29 and SU-25 fighters along with a handful of Mi-24s and Mi-8 helicopters. The air force lacks a heavy lift capability and would struggle to support the army on out-of-area operations or on Caspian patrols, which it is officially tasked to do.
Navy new ships
The navy was reformed as an independent force in only the past two years. Previously it was a department in the general staff. The navy’s missions include defending the Caspian coastline and protecting energy assets. Ashgabat has focused on improving naval capabilities through building new bases, procuring new ships and setting up a naval officer training academy.
As reported by Eurasianet in 2011, Turkmenistan bought two 12418 Molniya-class missile corvettes armed with the Uran-E missile system. These vessels are among some of the most powerful ships on the Caspian, although Ashgabat still trails Moscow and Tehran in naval capability. In 2013, Turkmenistan reportedly procured eight naval vessels which will be made at the Turkish shipyard Dearsan.
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov has made military reform a central aspect of his policy platform. In 2010, the government adopted a five-year military modernisation plan. However, reports indicate that the programme focuses on rearmament objectives, rather than structural reforms. In November, Berdymukhamedov reportedly told his national security council that Turkmenistan must procure the most advanced modern military equipment.
With the country having a long, porous border with Afghanistan, Ashgabat will increasingly look to procure unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for surveillance. However, despite buying modern arms, absent reforms and greater training of personnel, Turkmenistan’s military will remain an impressive military on paper but will lack the capabilities to defend the state.
In 2013, according to World Bank data, Kyrgyzstan allocated the equivalent of 3.2% of GDP to defence spending. This represents a gradual decline over the last four years from 2010 (3.8%) and 2011 (3.4%). The Kyrgyzstani armed forces are weak overall with gaps in command and control. Total spending on military and security services is estimated by SIPRI at 234 million dollars per annum.
Morale is assessed to be low. Declining funding means that Kyrgyzstan is increasingly dependent on external assistance for equipment and training. Bishkek’s main goal is to improve readiness and mobility in order to let the military respond to both border and internal events.
The army’s total strength is 8,500 personnel, according to SIPRI. The army is looking to become a more agile force focused on mountain warfare. Mirroring a common theme across the region, the army is equipped with T-72 tanks, BMPs and BTR armoured vehicles.
Poor pilot and personnel training hinder Kyrgyzstan’s air force which is considered to be one of Central Asia’s weakest. Given limited resources, the country’s leadership has chosen not to upgrade the air force’s capabilities. Instead, Bishkek relies on assistance from Russian air forces based at Kant, where Moscow has rights until 2032 ( see CIS: Unstable Central Asia will drive Russian ties – January 23, 2015). In February, Russia announced intentions to reinforce the combat capabilities at Kant.
With its 1,300 kilometre border with Afghanistan, Tajikistan’s military would be pressed to halt any incursions from militant groups. To boost security, Tajikistan is planning a new military base on the Afghan border.
Total spending on military and security services is estimated at 164 million dollars per annum, according to SIPRI. Dushanbe’s military forces developed out of irregulars that operated during the 1992-97 civil war. In recent years, the military has sought to increase mobility by establishing airborne and mountain infantry units. Tajikistan is dependent on Moscow for its security. Russia has 7,000 troops in Tajikistan that are set to remain in the country until 2042 ( see CIS: Unstable Central Asia will drive Russian ties – January 23, 2015).
Tajikistan’s army has only 7,000 personnel, and uses a variety of Soviet era equipment. Air forces are divided among various ministries, and have only a handful of Mi-24 and Mi-8 helicopters. With GDP of 8.5 billion dollars (World Bank 2013), Tajikistan’s military and security forces are likely to remain constrained for the foreseeable future. Dushanbe lacks the spending power to boost the military significantly.
CONCLUSION: Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan appear to be building reasonably capable military forces. In Uzbekistan, the security service (SNB) will likely remain pre-eminent and enjoy the best access to the president. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are struggling to maintain even small rapid reaction forces; Bishkek and Dushanbe would likely need Russian military support in the event of a security crisis. Turkmenistan has the wealth to formulate a major military force, but Ashgabat has been unwilling to spend on training and maintenance.
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