Azerbaijani Defense Policy and Military Power


2012-10-18 by Richard Weitz

The lingering impact of the Georgian war remains.  

NATO’s failure to intervene to prevent Russia’s occupation of Georgian territory in 2008 reminded all that the geography of the South Caucasus limits the possibilities for Western military support.

This has shaped Azerbaijani defense policy and approach to military power.


On June 8, 2010, the Azerbaijani Parliament approved a military doctrine that identified Armenia’s occupation of Azerbaijani lands, regional military imbalances, extremist religious movements, and claims of neighboring states on Azerbaijan’s territory as major threats.

The doctrine affirms that Azerbaijan would not start a military operation against any country unless Azerbaijan is a victim of aggression, but it also affirms Azerbaijan’s right to use all necessary means to liberate its occupied territories. Although the doctrine characterizes Armenia as an enemy, it did not list any state as an ally. Both Georgia and especially Turkey have close ties and mutual military and economic commitments with Azerbaijan, but not a formal military alliance.

Fear of provoking unilateral Russian intervention probably also explains why Azerbaijan permits Russia to send men and supplies to its bases in Armenia. Otherwise, Russia would have a pretext to carve out one or more transit routes through Azerbaijani or Georgian territory. Credit Image: Bigstock 

The doctrine does not mention Azerbaijan’s desire to integrate into NATO. Azerbaijan has consistently worked with NATO for the past two decades to achieve greater integration with the Euro-Atlantic community and to modernize its armed forces. Azerbaijan joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace program in 1994, which laid the foundation for future cooperation. Since then, Azerbaijan has contributed troops and supplies to NATO operations in Kosovo and Afghanistan, and it has prepared multiple Individual Partnership Action Plans.  About a third of all supplies for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan are now transported through Azerbaijan. The country is a critical stopover point for ISAF troops as well. Azerbaijan currently has almost one hundred of its own soldiers deployed in Afghanistan.

Azerbaijan has since stated it has no plans to join NATO, a stance that seeks to avoid alienating Moscow and also avoids NATO’s requirements for civilian control of the military and democratic oversight and other membership obstacles

Azerbaijan has consistently suffered from poor civil-military relations. The armed forces originally consisted of popular militia loyal to various parties, people, and localities. The military overthrew the country’s second president, and the current political leaders see another military coup as a potential threat. For this reason, political and familial connections can influence whom is appointed to the most senior military positions.

Despite its exclusion from any multinational military alliance, the extraordinary rapid growth of Azerbaijan’s economy has allowed the country to achieve a sustained military buildup. Defense spending rose from $135 million in 2003 to $3.12 billion in 2011. Azerbaijan’s current military budget, which constitutes one-fifth of the national budget, now stands at $4.4 billion, about 6.2% of GDP and a 45% increase from 2010. This figure exceeds the entire budget of Armenia’s national government, which in 2011 amounted to only $2.8 billion, with $386 million earmarked for defense (or 4.1% of GDP).

Military Modernization

Azerbaijan’s main goal for now is to modernize its military, which hitherto has relied heavily on outdated Soviet equipment. Between 2005 and 2010, Azerbaijan was second only to Algeria in purchase of T-72 tanks from Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. Azerbaijan also purchased missile and artillery pieces from Ukraine, anti-tank guns from Belarus, and several S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems from Russia.

Azerbaijan has used much of this budget to make large-scale weapons imports.

Azerbaijan’s foreign military shopping spree has encompassed many sources, including Ukraine, Belarus, Israel, Russia, Turkey, and South Africa. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s (SIPRI) Arms Transfers Database; between 2003 and 2011, Azerbaijan purchased 17 different types of military equipment from  Ukraine: 45 T-72M1 Tanks,12 BM-9A52 Smerch self-propelled Multiple Rocket Launch systems, 2 BMP-1 IFVs, 85 M-43 120mm Mortars, 2 BTR-3U Guardian IFVs, 12 L-39C Albatros trainer aircrafts, 15 Mig 29/fulcrum-A fighter aircraft, 18 BTR-80 APC, 4 BTS AVR, 55 D-30 122 mm Tower guns, 43 R-27/AA-10 Alamo BVRAAM, 54 2S1 122mm Self-propelled guns. 3 2S7Pion 203mm Self-propelled guns, 12 Mi-24V/Hind-E Combat Helicopters, 18 Strela-3/SA-14 Gremlin Portable SAM, 16 2S3 152mm Self-propelled guns, and 400 R-2 Ant-Tank missiles.

Azerbaijan also bought considerable military equipment from Belarus and Russia, though Moscow has consistently provided Armenia with more arms than Azerbaijan. According to SIPRI, between 2006 and 2011, Russia sold some  62 T-72M1 tanks, 70 BTA-80 A IFVs, 100 9M133 Kornet/AT-14 anti-tank missiles, 75 48N6E2/SA-10E SAMs, and 24 Mi-24VM/Hind-E combat helicopters to Azerbaijan. Belarus delivered some 60 T-72M1 tanks between 2005 and 2006.  Between the years of 2008 and 2010 Azerbaijan purchased twelve 2S7 Pion 203mm self-propelled guns, thirty D-30 122mm Towed guns, and six Su-25/Frogfoot-A ground attack planes. Azerbaijan currently owns 180 T-72 tanks.

Azerbaijan has developed a deep military partnership with Israel in recent years.

According to SIPRI, Azerbaijan has received many defensive and offensive weapons from Israel: 6 Lynx self-propelled MRL, 50 SSM for Lynx self-propelled MRL, 4 Aerostar UAV, 5 ATMOS-2000 155 mm self-propelled guns, 5 CARDOM 120mm self-propelled mortars, 10 Hermes-450 UAV, 100 Spike-MR/LR Anti-tank missiles, and 10 Sufa APV.

The two countries recently signed a $1.6-billion arm deal, which was the biggest in Azerbaijan’s history. It included: 1 Barak-8 SAM system, 75  Barak 8 SAM, one EL/M-2080 Green Pine Air search radar, Gabriel-5 Anti-ship missile, 5 Heron UAV, and 5 Searcher UAV.

In response to Iranian complaints about Azerbaijan’s massive arms deal with Israel, Azerbaijani officials have argued that the purchase was not directed against Iran, that they would never allow foreign governments to use their territory to threaten Iran, and that they only sought foreign weapons and support to strengthen the Azerbaijani military’s capacity against Armenia, whose troops occupy Azerbaijani territory. Even so, in addition to drones, air defense systems, and a missile defense radar, Israel is also providing Azerbaijan Gabriel 5 anti-ship missiles. Given that Armenia does not have a navy, these weapons would prove most useful against the growing number of Iranian warships in the region.

Traditional ally Turkey also provides weapons.

Last year, the Turkish company “Otokar” delivered 35 Cobra armored fighting vehicles, 37 ZPT armored personnel carrier vehicles and 51 Land Rover vehicles.  In contrast, U.S.-Azerbaijan defense collaboration is limited to training and U.S. use of Azerbaijan’s airspace for medical evacuations (medevacs).

The Azerbaijani government is also developing a national defense industry. President Aliyev signed an order in 2005 establishing a Ministry of Defense Industry.  The ministry has developed partnerships with Israeli, Turkish, and South African companies.  Israel’s Elbit Systems is upgrading Azerbaijan’s T-72 tanks.  The South African company Paramount Group is producing 60 mine resistant ambush resistant vehicles in Azerbaijan.  Azerbaijan has purchased Cummins-6VDiesel engines from the United States for these “Marauder” and “Matador” vehicles.  Azerbaijan and Turkey signed several agreements on joint military equipment production and on military research. In February 2012, for instance, Azerbaijan signed an agreement with the Turkish company ROKETSAN to manufacture 20-millimeter reactive missiles.

The previous year, Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry and Turkey’s Machinery and Chemical Industry Organization (MKEK) agreed to conduct joint research on the modernization of Azerbaijan’s large caliber mortal guns, light arms and, small caliber arms. Azerbaijan and Israel also signed an agreement to co-produce Israel’s Aerostat UAVs, with some components made in Azerbaijan. According to Ilham Aliyev’s 2012 congratulating speech on solidarity day of Azerbaijanis; the Defense industry sector of Azerbaijan produces around 600 different products now.

Over time, Azerbaijan hopes to reduce its dependence on foreign military supplies and technologies. Azerbaijani government is also developing a national defense industry. This effort is led by the Ministry of Defense Industry, created in 2005. In May 2011, SOCAR President Rovnag Abdullayev announced that Azerbaijan would begin producing warships in 2013, and that a shipyard for this purpose was already under construction in Baku.

Both Russia and the United States have only limited military cooperation with Azerbaijan. Russia has closer military ties with Armenia, whereas the U.S.-Azerbaijani defense partnership involves mostly military training and U.S. use of Azerbaijan’s airspace for medical evacuations (medevacs). The U.S. also provides border security assistance to monitor Iranian and Russian naval activities in the Caspian as well as identify the movement of potential weapons of mass destruction through the region.

Azerbaijan has universal military conscription. Males have a two-year military service requirement unless they join the interior forces or attend college; the duration is shortened to one year for males possessing a Bachelor’s degree. Male citizens between ages 18-35 remain eligible to reserve call ups. Since military service is unpopular and service conditions can be unpleasant, including such Soviet traditions of senior soldiers hazing their more junior colleagues, draft dodging was until recently widespread. Conditions have reportedly improved in recent years. At present, the Azerbaijani armed forces currently consists of 66,940 active duty members and about 300,000 reserve personnel. In contrast, Armenia has less than 50,000 troops.

The Armenian Challenge

Azerbaijani leaders have repeatedly made comments affirming that Azerbaijan is in a position to seize the territories disputed with Armenia if war became necessary. For example, In June 2011, on Azerbaijan’s annual Armed Forces Day, President Aliyev declared that Azerbaijan’s territorial integrity would be restored and the “occupation” of its territory would be ended.

Nonetheless, it is not certain that Azerbaijan would win a future war with Armenia, which won the initial conflict two decades ago. An International Crisis Group (ICG) report called the Azerbaijani armed forces “fragmented, divided, accountable-to-no-one-but-the-president, un-transparent, corrupt, and internally feuding.”

Armenian forces have the advantage of holding the territory in dispute. Through bilateral and CSTO arrangements, Armenia can purchase military equipment from Russia at discounted rates. Meanwhile, various sanctions have limited Azerbaijan’s receipt of Western weapons and military assistance.

Although Armenia’s army is smaller than Azerbaijan’s, its ranks are bolstered by about 3,000 Russian-commanded troops on its territory. Russia would not find it difficult to send additional troops to Armenia in a crisis. Russia recently signed an agreement with Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan extending the Russian military’s lease on its Gyumri base in Armenia until 2044. Clearly, Armenia sees Russia’s military presence as a strong deterrent to Azerbaijani aggression, especially given the recent Georgia War, where Russian “peacekeeping” forces in Georgia’s breakaway region of South Ossetia intervened to defend the separatists against the Tbilisi government.

The military balance may be even less favorable in the Caspian. Azerbaijan has traditionally concentrated on its land capabilities due to the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute.

Of the 67,000 active duty members in the country’s armed forces, only 2,200 belong to the Navy and 7,900 to the Air Force. But since its 2008 maritime clash with Turkmenistan, Azerbaijan has devoted considerable resources to naval buildup and dual-use maritime facilities to protect its Caspian oil fields. The Navy has 2,500 personnel and 39 warships, the second-largest fleet in the Caspian after that of Russia. It has engaged in increasingly sophisticated naval military exercises.


The military expenditure of Azerbaijan has seen a dramatic increase of 375% between 2005 and 2011. As the graph below illustrates, military expenditure has been steadily increasing during this time, except for a small decrease during the global financial crisis:


Source: SIPRI Military Expenditure Database

Azerbaijan spends a substantial portion of its military expenditure on arms imports. The following graph illustrates the amount spent on arms import and its relationship with the overall expenditure.

Source: World Development Indicators (WDI)

Appendix 1: Comparative Military capabilities of Armenia and Azerbaijan


Armenia Azerbaijan
Population 3,090,379 8,933,928
Armed Forces* 48,834 66,940 (+ 15,000 paramilitary)
Army 45,846 (inc. 25,880 conscripts)110 tanks (8 T-54/55, 102 T-72)240 armored combat vehicles(104 AIFVs, 136 APCs)239 artillery, inc. Tochka  tactical missiles 56,840339 tanks (95 T-55, 244 T-72)468 armored combat vehicles (111 AIFVs, 357 APCs)458 artillery, inc. Smerch rocket launcher & Tochka tactical missiles
Border Guards approx. 70 armored combat vehicles 5,000187 armored combat vehicles (168 AIFVs, 19 APCs)
Air Force (& AirDefence) 1,0611 MiG-25 and 15 Su-25 aircraft,30+ helicopters inc. 8 Mi-24 P and10 Mi-H17 7,90041 aircraft, inc.  14 MiG-29, 4 MiG-21, 10Su-25 and 5 Su-2435 helicopters inc. 15 Mi-24, 13 Mi-8 and 7Mi-24 UAVs (ISR)SAM: S-75, S-125/S-200, S-300
Reserves poss. 210,000 with military service within 15 yrs 300,000 with military service within 15 yrs
*Armenia also has around 3,300 Russian service personnel stationed on its territory, as well as a significant amount of military equipment. AIFV = armored infantry fighting vehicle, APC = armored personnel carrier.Source: The Military Balance 2012, The International Institute of Strategic Studies. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012)