Tashkent looks to boost defence industry, modernise armed forces

By Rustam Temirov

An Uzbek army armoured vehicle is pictured in Samarkand on January 14. [Zamira Baltayeva]

An Uzbek army armoured vehicle is pictured in Samarkand on January 14. [Zamira Baltayeva]

TASHKENT -- Uzbekistan plans to revamp its armed forces with new types of weapons and dual-use technologies by producing its own military goods and importing others.

President Shavkat Mirziyoyev signed a decree January 31 to form the new State Commission for Equipping the Armed Forces of Uzbekistan.

Mirziyoyev will head the new commission, which will be tasked with the approval of state defence purchase orders; creating programmes to provide the armed forces with military and dual-use products; regulating the operations of defence contractors; creating new production facilities -- including through co-operation with foreign partners; and identifying funding sources.

Also under the decree, the State Committee for the Defence Industry, which was created in 2017, will be replaced by the Defence Industry Agency.

The Global Firepower 2023 index, which ranks countries by military power, places Uzbekistan 62nd out of 145, making it the strongest in Central Asia. [Caravanserai]

The Global Firepower 2023 index, which ranks countries by military power, places Uzbekistan 62nd out of 145, making it the strongest in Central Asia. [Caravanserai]

Uzbek soldiers are shown in Fergana city last October 16. [Timur Yuldashev]

Uzbek soldiers are shown in Fergana city last October 16. [Timur Yuldashev]

The agency will organise scientific research, as well as design and experimental work.

In short, the creation of the new commission and agency is aimed at putting the infrastructure of Uzbekistan's armed forces on the cutting edge.

As part of the reform, Uzbekistan is looking at the potential export of a portion of the military and dual-purpose goods manufactured in the country.

Meanwhile, a new state-owned enterprise, Uztechtrade, will be in charge of importing weapons and technology.

Another priority is pursuing military and technical co-operation with foreign partners and attracting foreign investment in the defence industry.

Identifying threats

The Uzbek government chose the right time to become concerned about supplying the army with weapons, said Alisher Ilkhamov, director of the London-based organisation Central Asia Due Diligence.

"In these troubled times, especially in light of Moscow's neo-imperial policy and the war in Ukraine, this is becoming an urgent problem," he said.

Ilkhamov identified several main issues.

The first is that the war in Ukraine has demonstrated the superiority of NATO's weapons and military technologies over those of the Russian armed forces.

The second is whether NATO will share such weapons with Uzbekistan and the other Central Asian republics given the risk of technology or component leakage to Russia, which continues to hold leverage in the region.

Third, as Uzbekistan is planning to produce and purchase weapons, it needs to be guided by where threats to the country's security come from and the nature of those threats.

Those threats come from two places: Russia and Afghanistan, according to Ilkhamov.

"Since Uzbekistan doesn't share a border with Russia, the threat from Russia could mainly show up in the form of sabotage teams that will be flown in," he added.

When it comes to Afghanistan, the concern is raids by terrorist or sabotage teams, he said.

For both of these reasons, Uzbekistan needs the appropriate weapons and technology.

First and foremost, it needs equipment to conduct reconnaissance, including satellite reconnaissance. Moreover, there is an acute need for suicide drones, armoured infantry fighting vehicles, mortars, night-vision instruments and air defence systems, Ilkhamov said.

What can Uzbekistan produce?

As things stand now, it is unlikely that Uzbekistan will be able to produce the highest-tech weapons domestically, Ilkhamov said.

However, Uzbekistan is entirely capable of making drones using Western, Turkish or Israeli licences, and munitions for short-range mortars with a range of 5 to 6km.

It is also capable of putting in place the logistics to maintain and repair the high-tech weapons it does buy.

There are five companies in Uzbekistan's military-industrial complex. In addition to repairing and maintaining aircraft and armoured vehicles, they produce light armoured vehicles, drones, night-vision instruments and a range of combat modules.

Production of the Lochin (Falcon) domestic drones was launched in 2022. These drones are an example of a dual-use product. The Uzbek Falcons have civilian uses as well as military ones: reconnaissance, attacks on the enemy and target spotting for Uzbek artillery.

In 2021, the Qalqon (Shield) light armoured vehicles, which seat eight, were tested.

These vehicles can be used to conduct reconnaissance, transport military personnel, deliver cargo and evacuate the wounded. They can also be used in special operations to ensure crowd control.

A research project on the vehicles cost $55 million, reported in 2021.

Seeking positive partnerships

The main reason why Uzbekistan started to consider revamping its military was Russia's war on Ukraine, said Pulat Akhunov, an Uzbek politician living in Sweden.

"Events in Ukraine have shown that new wars require totally different technical and modern infrastructure. So Tashkent started thinking about this," he said.

What countries should Uzbekistan partner with?

Only NATO countries, he said, noting that no one else has such modern military equipment.

But there is a caveat.

"The Uzbek leadership's closeness to the Kremlin could be a hindrance since the West will be afraid that military technology will be transferred to the Russians," Akhunov said.

However, the United States is already supplying Uzbekistan with military equipment.

In 2018, the two countries initiated their first-ever Five-Year Plan of Military Co-operation, which aims to strengthen the defence relationship.

In late October 2022, the United States transferred to the Uzbek Ministry of Defence 50 Polaris MRZR light tactical combat mobility vehicles worth a total of $2.8 million.

Last month, US Ambassador to Uzbekistan Jonathan Henick transferred to Uzbek border guards 225 FLIR thermal monoculars worth a total of $600,000.

Lessons from Ukraine

The war in Ukraine is strongly influencing military and strategic thinking among Central Asian countries, said Kamoliddin Rabbimov of Tashkent, a political analyst.

"Note that in 2022 Kazakhstan re-examined its military and strategic policies and started allocating substantial financial resources to rearmament," he said. "Also, the region is working with Türkiye to bolster its defence capabilities and buying infrastructure for drones."

Even without the impetus of the war in Ukraine, the Central Asians' focus on strategically building up their defence industries would have been timely, he said.

In addition to having Russia to the north, the Central Asian countries have an ever-stronger China to the east, while to the south they have an unstable Afghanistan.

"The countries in the region have no choice but to shore up their defence capacity and to co-operate with each other," Rabbimov said."Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have been pursuing this trajectory in the past two years."

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The Turkic Union should be revised and turned into a military-political bloc like NATO and according to NATO standards. WE SHOULD LEARN FROM THE FATE OF UIGHURS AND UKRAINIANS. To say our army is strong is a bluff. The "second army in the world" example shows that using ancient Soviet weapons for fighting is an assured defeat. The Armenian-Azeri conflict over Karabakh proved the same.