The Central Asian state marked 26 years of independence last week with a lavish parade in the capital Ashgabat. In attendance, of course, was Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow enjoying the spectacle from the balcony of his palace. The despot has been in power for a decade now and there are few genuine threats to his reign.
The festivities on October 27 took place a month after the Turkmen capital played host for an international martial arts tilt, an occasion the regime used to polish its image as a secretive and isolationist dictatorship.
This year’s October 27 military parade did offer fresh glimpses into the state of the national armed forces. The Turkmen military has been modernizing at a rapid pace and its progress is apparent during exercises and public gatherings.
There was a difference, however, between this year’s military parade and the one in 2016, when almost every type of vehicle used by the armed forces and police drove across Independence Square. Unlike before, Turkmenistan is creating a new force structure that’s no longer reliant on leftover Soviet arms.
Despite its opaque defense expenditures, it’s obvious Turkmenistan is now a devoted client of Belarusian, Chinese, Israeli, Italian, and US hardware. During last week’s parade, the infantry squares representing units within the armed forces were all equipped with the Beretta ARX-160. What appeared to be a special counter-terrorism unit even carried the shortened ARX carbine for close quarter battle.
A genuine surprise were dozens of new off-road vehicles that, upon close inspection, turned out to be US-made Polaris ATVs. These streamed past the seated spectators, who were clapping in unison throughout the parade, in two orderly columns. The models were the Sportsman MV 850 ATV, the MRZR scout car, and the DOGOR commando jeep.
Turkmenistan already maintains a diverse fleet of light trucks and armored cars. Aside from the familiar Toyotas and Fords pressed into service as machine gun-armed technicals, there are large batches of DongFeng Humvees, Otokar Cobras, and Nimrs. Having lots of Polaris vehicles means it wants its troops to literally hunt down terrorists.
Indeed, the presence of these vehicles reveals Turkmenistan’s commitment with policing its borders that are under threat from terrorist infiltration. The seriousness of border security is why the Turkmen military has so many wheeled recce vehicles and APCs. This includes the Israeli-made CombatGuard, a model that first appeared in the 2016 parade, that is armed with a four barrel rotary cannon that’s only been seen in Turkmenistan.
The Turkmen army and police also rely on a lot of MRAPs. Two models enjoy widespread use. These are the Turkish-made Kirpi, which is based on an Israeli design, the Austrian-made PMV Survior. Some of the Kirpi MRAPs were upgraded with a new remote controlled turret armed with a 12.7mm NSV machine gun.
But the Berdimuhamedow regime hasn’t neglected its conventional hard power. The existing inventory of Soviet-era towed howitzers have been augmented with BM-21 Grad launchers, newer Grad launchers from Belarus, and the deadly Russian BM-30 Smerch.
Turkmenistan’s air defenses are even more formidable today compared to the previous decade. Last week two medium-range systems were in Independence Square, these were the Chinese HQ-7B and the Russian S-125 Neva/Pechora. Ever conscious of aerial threats, the Turkmen army has brought the SA-18 Igla MANPAD to the squad level as these were carried by soldiers in trucks and APCs throughout the parade.
The 2016 parade did offer a better selection of Turkmenistan’s air defense systems. Included then were anti-aircraft artillery such as the towed ZU-23-2 and the timeless ZSU-23-4. Missile complexes such as the Strela-10, the SA-6 Kub, SA-8 Gecko, the venerable S-200, and the new Chinese HQ-9 basked in the spotlight. When combined, these SAMs give Turkmenistan a remarkable multi-layered anti-access network whose reach at the very least covers its major cities.
Absent from last week’s parade were Turkmenistan’s truly impressive fleet of UAVs as only small models were displayed. Again, last year’s show was more helpful in revealing the scale of this capability. Turkmenistan is one of the few countries in the world with a large armed drone fleet. These were bought from China in recent years and include the CH-3 and the jet-powered WJ-600A/D. Other UAVs in the Turkmen arsenal are the Italian Falco and Israeli Orbiter 3 mini drones.
Turkmenistan is often lampooned for its bizarre civic culture that combines national symbols with its leader’s personality cult. But judging by the recent military parade in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan’s armed strength is for the sole purpose of territorial defense. Unlike North Korea, Turkmenistan doesn’t pose a threat to global peace. It’s also trying to crawl out of an economic mess caused by its reliance on energy exports.
Neither does Ashgabat appear to have regional ambitions. On the contrary, it faces a grave threat from its border with Afghanistan where militants tied to either the Taliban or ISIS are active. In the greater scheme of things, Turkmenistan’s imperative is balancing its aspirations with the looming strength of China, India, Iran, Russia and Turkey.
Yet even if it’s overshadowed by larger countries in its neighborhood, when it comes to mass calisthenics, very impressive rifle drills, and costumed Turkmen archers trotting on horseback, Turkmenistan makes sure it surpasses its neighbors in pageantry.