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Tajikistan Has Formidable Air Power

November 9, 2021
Via Tajikistan media.

The poorest country in Central Asia arranged unprecedented military exercises throughout this year to deter the mounting chaos in neighboring Afghanistan. Even when the Taliban seized Kabul on August 15 and consolidated their power in the weeks that followed Tajikistan refused to recognize them and even welcomed scores of fleeing Afghan forces. Dushanbe’s support for the vanquished regime of exiled former President Ghani isn’t a secret; the now fugitive Vice President Saleh and his allies in the “National Resistance Front” are ethnic Tajiks with firm ties across the Panj River. Although Tajikistan enjoys a large presence of Russian forces inside its borders its own military isn’t a paper tiger.

Throughout the summer Tajikistan’s state media gave extensive coverage of mobilizing troops in different cities. Even President Emomali Rahmon, now in power for three decades, inspected bases put on high alert. The annual independence day parade held at the capital Dushanbe on September 9 was grander than usual with thousands of soldiers participating. A remarkable aspect of Tajikistan’s forces, however, are the operational helicopters they’ve maintained over the years. Footage from an airport south of Dushanbe revealed 21 helicopters and three L-39 trainer jets that can be armed for close air support.

The pride of the fleet were clearly the Mi-24 gunships of the “Hind D” variant. (Pictured above.) Based on the footage shown in state media it appears Tajikistan’s armed forces have nine operational gunships stationed outside Dushanbe along with 11 Mi-17 transports. The Hind D is recognizable for its spherical stepped cockpit and large wings that each have three hardpoints. The payload of a Hind D is unmatched, with internal space for eight passengers including a door gunner, to go with a quartet of rocket pods, four air-to-ground missiles, and a rotary four barrel machine gun under the cockpit. Being an older variant of the well-known Soviet helicopter gunship Russia no longer officially exports these. The Mi-35P “Phoenix” is the newest variant offered for international clients. The reader should be aware the available footage of Tajikistan’s Hind D gunships was taken at the airfield in Rudaki and it’s unclear if the exercises at the time (in July) featured Russian and Tajik rotorcraft for a joint exercise. Still, the deployment of nine Hind D gunships for a sortie represents an enormous amount of airborne firepower.

It’s possible Tajikistan’s armed forces have operational Hind D’s assigned to other bases. Their roles as either heavily armored transports or providers of close air support make them essential for protecting a long and volatile border with Afghanistan. Augmenting the Hind D’s are multiple Mi-17’s that are able to carry rocket pods. There’s no evidence to date Tajikistan has acquired low and medium altitude drones for enhancing its military’s intelligence and surveillance capabilities. Of course, it helps that Russia maintains a sizable airbase in the country with its own helicopter gunships. By comparison, the Taliban have collected an “air force” that’s much larger but its usefulness is in doubt given the fleet’s composition; A-29 Super Tucano attack aircraft, UH-60 Blackhawk transports, and MD-500 scout helicopters deprived of ammunition, fuel, and spare parts. The Taliban did seize the very same Mi-24 Hind V gunships paid for by India and delivered to Afghanistan two years ago.

Because of its relative isolation Tajikistan’s armed forces have avoided careful analysis since the late 1990s. The pace of recent events meant the veil is lifted and what it reveals is a far better equipped ground force than previously assumed. Much of its Soviet vintage inventory is in working order and China has done its part delivering vehicles and weapons. The surprising result is Tajikistan’s army in particular have grown their arsenal, once limited to old T-72 tanks and BTR-80 APCs, and its soldiers have an abundance of Dongfeng EQ2050s–the Chinese Humvee variants–together with protected armored trucks such as the Tiger, the VN3, and the VP11 MRAP. The US also aided Dushanbe’s domestic security apparatus with funds and training but its impact was limited to border protection and counter-terrorism. With a modest annual budget for the armed forces whose total personnel reaches just 11,000 conscripts and officers Tajikistan’s short and medium-term plans for enhancing its air power is guesswork.

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