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Isolationist Turkmenistan Is Rearming Too

March 27, 2016

Turkmenistan map via Wikimedia

The Central Asian oddity is thriving from exports of its abundant domestic gas reserves and isn’t afflicted by climate change, terrorism, or poor relations with its neighbors. Its economy is growing amid a currency crisis.

It’s also a secretive police state ruled by President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow with a megalomaniac’s iron fist. Like North Korea if it were awash in money Turkmenistan’s self-image is filled with colossal monuments, propaganda, a national horse breed, and a homogeneous society of less than six million people. And its government is buying a lot of new weapons.

Turkmenistan was left with an impressive Soviet arsenal upon independence in 1991. It was in mid-2015 when the Russian Orthodox Christian channel Tsargrad TV broadcast the contents of this Turkmen stockpile to discredit alleged US efforts at selling Ashgabat weapons.

Turkmenistan 4x4 APC

A Bars “Immediate Response Vehicle” armed with a 12.7mm NSV heavy machine gun in Ashgabat. This was imported from Belarus. Via Wikimedia Commons.

According to Tsargrad the Armed Forces of Turkmenistan has at its disposal 702 T-72 MBTs, a total of 1,660 BMP and BTR APCs, 540 mortars and recoilless rifles, and 96 towed howitzers. The Turkmen air force allegedly maintains a fleet of 314 combat aircraft–mostly old MiG-23‘s–and 20 Mi-24 Hind gunships.

Tsargrad’s figures almost match an open source tally of the Turkmen military’s equipment that combines dated research from the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) and the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). An alternate survey of the Turkmen arsenal, whose bulk are deployed in bases on the border with Iran, was published by the magazine Moscow Defense Brief.

But in recent years Turkmenistan appears to have embraced a new doctrine along with different suppliers. The emphasis is now on domestic security and the Berdimuhamedow regime is looking far and wide for the best gear money can buy. Be it from Austria, Belarus, Israel, Italy, Japan, Turkey, Ukraine, and even China.

Proof can be found during the Independence Day parade on October 27 2014. Unlike previous occasions this event went viral and offers a rare glimpse of Turkmenistan’s recent arms purchases and their use. What it reveals is an army bristling with imported weapons, albeit on a smaller scale than, say, belligerent Azerbaijan.

Judging by the 2014 parade Turkmenistan’s army has moved away from the AK-74 and AKM as standard rifles. It appears specialized units have their own weapons. During the parade one formation was equipped with the Beretta ARX-160. Another carried the Micro Tavor.

Turkmenistan Preisdent with an assault rifle

Via Turkmenistan media.

Further insight can be gleaned from open sources like the dissident news site Chronicles of Turkmenistan and its coverage of President Berdimuhamedow. In a still from state TV footage published in 2015 the President is seen dressed in digital camouflage clutching an ARX-160. Behind him are a row of polymer cases and farther back are diagrams for two exotic weapons.

One is obviously a Milkor MGL, which is made in several countries (Croatia, Egypt, India, Serbia, South Africa, Turkey, and the US), and beside it is an unspecified pistol. Both are non-standard issue in the “post-Soviet space.”

It’s difficult to ascertain the context of the photo but Turkmenistan does feel threatened by its long border with Afghanistan. Hence its guns are becoming more diverse. Turkmenistan is believed to have bought anti-material rifles from South Africa in 2014. Some of the army’s 4×4’s even come armed with M2 Browning .50 caliber machine guns.

Turkmenistan’s arid and flat geography makes it a tank customer. A small batch of 10 T-90S’ were ordered in 2009 but it appears an additional 30 were ordered from Uralvagonzavod in 2012. Turkmenistan has followed in the footsteps of Algeria and Azerbaijan by later adding BMP-3‘s to go with its T-90S’. Both were hauled in trucks for President Berdimuhamedow’s viewing pleasure during the 2014 parade.

The same occasion revealed Turkmenistan’s artillery assets are more substantial than thought–the army fields batteries of the 152mm 2S3 Akatsiya. The Soviet fondness for rocket launchers isn’t neglected either. In 2009 Turkmenistan acquired a half dozen BM-30 Smerch MLRS’. In 2014, however, it was revealed the army’s BM-21’s have been improved. The 122mm launchers are now carried by a 6×6 MAZ, thereby suggesting their Belarusian origins.

Turkmenistan armored vehicles and artillery

Turkmen light vehicles and towed artillery–appears to be an 152mm 2A65 howitzer and a 100 anti-tank gun. Photo was taken in 2014 and released by Iran’s Fars News Agency.

The army’s wheeled vehicle pool is even more diverse. It deploys Land Rover Defenders, modified Toyota pickup trucks, and–interestingly–the Austrian Achleitner PMV Survivor II. The Survivor II is an 18 ton armored car with STANAG III level protection and a blast-resistant hull. These aren’t the only Achleitners in the Turkmen military. The Mantra 4×4 light truck is another workhorse used for various tasks.

Several upgraded vehicles were showcased during the 2014 parade. Turkmenistan appears to be an eager customer of the BTR-80 and BTR-80A APCs. But it seems to have gone ahead with a special variant equipped with the “Grom” module made by Ukraine’s KMDB.

The Grom module is a remote controlled turret armed with a 30mm cannon, a 30mm grenade launcher, a PKT machine gun, and four ATGMs. Another Ukrainian complex, the ZTM-1 module, is used on selected BMP-1’s carried by flatbed trucks during another parade in Ashbagat. The ZTM-1 combines a 30mm cannon, a PKT machine gun, and twin ATGMs in a single turret.

A unique vehicle showcased in 2014 was a 4×4 van carrying a Shershen ATGM quad mount. (See photo above, second from right.) It’s a Belarusian missile carrier with few export customers. The only part of the ground forces who’ve been denied largess appear to be the air defense units who have a familiar combination of ZSU-23-4 Shilka’s, 9K35 Strela-10’s, Pechora 2M’s and S-200’s deployed via individual 10×10 transports.

Rumors began circulating in 2015 that Turkmenistan bought the HQ-9 air defense system and Wing Loong UAV’s from China. The former is a Chinese analog to the Russian S-300, which Iran has been coveting for years now. It appears Turkmenistan has already deployed the HQ-9 and tested the system in April 2016. In late 2015 Turkmenistan may have even launched a joint venture with Japan for local drone production, a probable sign it wishes to expand its existing fleet of Italian Falco UAVs.

Czech Mi-24 Hind gunship

An Mi-24D Hind. The status of the Turkmen air force’s Hind gunships is unknown.

The air force and navy are the weakest links of the armed forces and their presence during the 2014 parade was nil. A flyover of MiG-29’s over Ashgabat suggests these planes, along with a few Su-25’s, are responsible for guarding Turkmenistan’s airspace. Unfortunately Turkmenistan is reported to have just 24 Fulcrums.

Ashgabat has tried improving the decrepit state of its air assets in recent years. A lone entry in a government news portal mentions the deployment of Eurocopter EC-135’s and AgustaWestland AW-109’s during a 2012 exercise involving the armed forces and the interior ministry. The Turkmen government also flies the AW101 medium lift helicopter as a VIP transport. The same news portal claimed Turkmenistan’s military had the PMV Survivor II at the time.

Problems over its maritime borders in the oil-rich Caspian Sea are simmering as well. This has compelled Turkmenistan to buy warships. In 2011 it acquired a pair of Russian Molniya-class corvettes and then ordered four coastal patrol craft from a Turkish shipyard. These investments mark the beginning of a genuine Turkmen navy.

Ashgabat isn’t on a war footing and modernizing the armed forces is an independent country’s prerogative. Besides, Turkmenistan’s neighborhood is a pretty awful place and its own acquisitions are modest when compared to regional giants. But its status as a police state ruled by a megalomaniac doesn’t guarantee a stable future. Only time will tell if its military shall loom over the rest of Central Asia.