21st Century Asian Arms Race

Uzbekistan Plans To Rebuild Its Military

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Another Central Asian republic–the most populous among the former Soviet -stans–is undergoing a remarkable transformation. The death of Uzbekistan’s career dictator Islam Karimov in 2016 brought about a smooth handover to a dependable replacement, the Prime Minister Shavkat Mirziyoyev. As President, one of Mirziyoyev’s most important projects in 2017 was to restore his country’s armed forces.

The foundations of this effort involve consolidating Uzbekistan’s almost defunct military-industrial sector and buying new stuff from abroad. Another is diplomacy. Short of permanent alliances, Mirziyoyev is making friends with his neighbors and trying to improve relations with China and Russia, the two world powers who can sell him the right weapons. Being able to afford these is another problem. It’s not really surprising Tashkent allocated an astronomical 4% of nominal GDP for the military’s budget this year.

To set the ball rolling on these plans a “Defence Doctrine” was formulated and then passed in the course of 2017. When it was finally signed on the first week of January the occasion marked a historic shift in Uzbekistan’s previous behavior as a landlocked Central Asian state. No longer will it cling to the Karimov era’s isolation and detachment from global affairs. According to the new doctrine, Uzbekistan is going to field an army equipped with the newest gear and tasked with defeating terrorism.

There’s usually a dearth of information on Uzbek military affairs. But enough proof has emerged in recent months that show the direction of its new doctrine. Just like its paranoid neighbor Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan is organizing a force structure that can protect its southern borders and fight in cities. In late 2017 Russian media broke the story of a helicopter deal worth an unspecified amount. Tashkent had ordered 12 Mi-35M gunships to augment its rotor fleet and these are scheduled for delivery soon.

The arrival of Mi-35M’s could be the reason why the defense budget was raised in 2018. Another probable effect is the government’s belated attempts at promoting the local arms industry and its three main enterprises–an import-export office, a manufacturing plant, and an “aviation repair” facility.

Uzbekistan is often recognized for having the region’s largest armed forces. This is correct to an extent. Given its large national population, annual levees of conscripts allows the military to field more than 60,000 personnel. Sizable quantities of hand-me-down tanks, howitzers, and jets makes Uzbekistan superior to its immediate neighbors like Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Afghanistan, whose militaries are generally ineffective and reliant on foreign aid.

But the Uzbek military is far from a regional menace. Its only relevant combat experience was during the bitter Tajik civil war in the 1990s and Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have spent more money on acquiring newer hardware like armed drones and the latest multi-rocket launchers. The firepower balance may shift in Tashkent’s favor if Mirziyoyev’s planned reforms from 2018 until 2021 succeed. This should be attainable as long as the economy keeps humming along at its current pace and foreign investments builds Uzbekistan’s domestic industries.

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