Uzbekistan’s Military Reform and Partner Potential


2012-11-05 by Richard Weitz

Uzbekistan is commonly thought to have the most powerful and capable military and especially internal security forces of the five Central Asian countries.

The London-based IISS 2012 Military Balance estimates Uzbekistan’s military and security forces to be around 67,000 people, with 50,000 in the Army and 17,000 people in the Air Force. The U.S. State Department calculates that Uzbekistan has some 65,000 people in uniform out of 13 million people fit for military service.

The duration of conscription time has shortened over time and now stands at 12 months. Before 2008, it was 18 months long; before that, it stood at 24 months, as was traditional in Soviet-style forces. Uzbekistan offers an ROTC program in an effort to increase both recruitment and enthusiasm for the armed forces. It also allows students pursuing higher education to defer their conscription and serve a shorter time in the military. .

It is difficult to ascertain the exact size of Uzbekistan’s military due to a lack of transparency, with government publications providing little information. Nevertheless, Uzbekistan probably spends a higher percentage of its GDP (an estimated 3-4%) on national security than any other Central Asian country, though Kazakhstan’s aggregate defense expenditures may be higher since its national economy is larger.

Following independence, Uzbekistan and the other Central Asian countries had to create a new military and military system from scratch. They naturally followed the Soviet model they were familiar with, but lacked the lavish resources of the Soviet Union as well as the wide range of threats and missions. They have since sought to reduce the size of the forces but upgrade their equipment. Their military doctrine and training increasingly focus on counterterrorism missions rather than winning conventional wars.

For a few years after the fall of the Soviet Union, the newly independent Uzbekistani military sought to cooperate closely with Moscow. Uzbekistani officers continued to attend staff colleges in Russia and obtain much defense equipment from Russian firms. Defense industrial cooperation continued, focusing on the Chkalov factory (TAPO), where the large Soviet military Il-76 transporters were produced to international export standards.

But starting in the mid-1990s, Uzbekistan strived to deepen relations with the United States and major EU countries like Germany.

After 2001, several of these countries used military bases in Uzbekistan to support their military operations in Afghanistan. When Uzbekistan’s relations with the West declined after 2005, Tashkent sought closer relations with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO)–and specifically its two most important members, Russia and China–for increased cooperation in security.

Access to re-supply routes has been a key element in shaping Western policy toward Uzbekistan. In the last decade, Uzbekistan’s main weapons suppliers have been mainly Russia and other former Soviet bloc countries; the United States and more recently China have also provided arms. Credit Image: Bigstock

The Minister of Defense in 2002, Kadyr Gulyamov, launched a program to reform the Uzbekistani military along Western lines by professionalizing the armed forces and focusing on developing small unit leadership as opposed to the more Soviet and Russian style of conscription and top-down bureaucratic leadership. Gulyamov also made the SNB, MVD, and MOD more joint and interoperable. He reduced conscription to 12 months and increased the number of “contract” professional volunteer soldiers. Gulyamov made very successful strides in modernizing and professionalizing the military, but he was removed from office in 2005 and sentenced to five years in prison for allegedly selling secrets to NATO.

Uzbekistan has continued to reform the military, largely but not exclusively along Western lines, moving away from the dominant Soviet influence prevalent in the ground forces.

The country’s military reform program has aimed to downsize the regular army while strengthening the border guards (the government frequently closes its borders—it adjoins every Central Asian country as well as Afghanistan) in response to regional security threats) and the Special Forces, whose mobility is useful to counter terrorist forces or religious extremists.

To strengthen inter-agency coordination of all security forces, a two-layered system of command was established in 2002. The first layer consists of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), which has operational control over all regular units as well as all SOF and other paramilitary formations subordinated to other security agencies such as the MVD and SNB. The JCS also develops operational and tactical doctrines for all SOF units. The second tier consists of the national military districts, to which all regular military formations are subordinated. Operational control over all SOF units, regardless of their parent security agency, report to the joint mobile forces command based in Fergana.

Uzbekistan has retained three of the military schools it had when the Soviet Union dissolved: the Tashkent Higher All-Arms School, Chirchik Higher Tank Engineer Command School, and Samarkand Higher Military Automobile Engineer Command School. Recently, the Academy of the Armed Forces of the Republic of Uzbekistan and the Dzhirak Higher Military Aviation Schools were also created. Additionally, four military lyceums in Tashkent, Samarkand, Fergana, and Urgench were established in 1993 for pre-military education for youth. Officers from the military, Special Forces, and the security agencies are trained at the Joint Service Officer Training Academy in Tashkent. It is the largest academy of its kind in all of Central Asia. Uzbekistan has its own ROTC program.

Thanks to its being the most military significant Central Asian republic in the former Soviet Union, Uzbelistan inherited a modern training site at “Forish” was developed as an advanced Soviet mountain-range exercise facility. Russian and Uzbek units still train there. With NATO’s assistance, Uzbekistan built four training facilities for Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs).

In recent years, following the post-Andijan rupture, Uzbekistan has tried to improve its relations with NATO, which in turn needs Tashkent’s help to send supplies through the Northern Distribution Network (NDN). Uzbekistan just resumed participating in bilateral defense consultations with the United States, for the first time since Andijan.

Uzbekistani military units have participated in several joint training operations with other countries, training most often with Russia and other Central Asian countries.

The frequency of joint training seems to correlate to the current political climate of the region in regards to Uzbekistan’s relations with her neighbors. Uzbekistan strives to avoid aligning too closely with a major military power or becoming military dependent on its military assistance.

For this reason, Uzbekistani forces do not participate in the many large exercises of the SCO, Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), or Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Instead, the Uzbekistan government has preferred to participate in the smaller exercises offered by these organizations, which offer Uzbek military forces more concentrated training in areas in which they wish to improve, especially counterterrorism. Their lack of participation in large training exercises does, however, restrict their access to foreign education and training opportunities.

Uzbekistan strongly objected to the increasing military cooperation in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), especially the creation of the 20,000 person CSTO Collective Rapid Reaction Forces in 2009, based on its concern regarding the amendments to the CSTO charter allowing military action in response to more security crises, including domestic and civil problems based on a majority vote, rather than full consensus. Uzbekistan was also concerned with the relative contributions of CTSO members, advocating an equal number of troops committed by each member, with all members having joint control over their use. Other CTSO members, however, did not agree, and the final Collective Rapid Reaction Forces are primarily composed of Russian and Kazakhistani elite airborne and air mobile units. Uzbekistan has also opposed CSTO efforts to engage in Afghanistan. Tashkent eventually suspended its CSTO membership in June 2012.

Uzbekistan already has a place in the CIS air defense system and participated in the 65th meeting of the CIS defense ministries in Kaliningrad. Immediately following the suspension of its CSTO membership, Uzbekistan reaffirmed its commitment to joint air defense with CIS at one such meeting, demonstrating its commitment to CIS over CSTO. Uzbekistan is also a participant in many other security organizations besides the CIS Air Defense Coordination Committee. It also participates in the CIS Anti-terrorist Center, the CIS Military Cooperation Coordination Headquarters, and the CIS Council of Commanders of Border Troops. The CIS Council of Commanders of Border Troops (SKPV) develops relations among CIS countries’ border troops and facilitates joint training programs and technical cooperation.

In the last decade, Uzbekistan’s main weapons suppliers have been mainly Russia and other former Soviet bloc countries; the United States and more recently China have also provided arms.

Uzbekistan spent more than $300 million on Russian arms between 2000 and 2010. Uzbekistan would like to reduce its dependence on Russian arms due to the rising cost of Russian equipment. The government is considering obtaining more spare parts and services from other former Soviet bloc states such as Poland and Ukraine, where the costs could be lower due to less corruption than in the Russian arms industry.

Beginning in the late 1990s until 2004, Uzbekistan received U.S. Foreign Military Financing (FMF), International Military Education and Training (IMET), and other security assistance funds. The United States provided Uzbekistan with defensive (non-lethal) equipment. The Pentagon supplied Uzbekistan’s Special Forces with individual combat kits, radios and night vision goggles, and light patrol vehicles. New FMF and IMET assistance to Uzbekistan was suspended in 2004 after the Congress banned it due to concerns about the country’s human rights policies. In November 2005, the EU Council banned the sale by EU members to Uzbekistan of “arms, military equipment, and other equipment that might be used for internal repression.”  In October 2009, the EU lifted the arms embargo, citing improvements in Uzbekistan’s human rights situation.

Whatever their human rights concerns, Western governments are committed to maintaining good relations with Uzbekistan for the purpose of securing NATO supply routes to Afghanistan.

In February 2012, the U.S. Congress eased military sanctions on Uzbekistan. The Department of State could more easily waive its ban on non-lethal defense supplies to Uzbekistan, allowing Uzbekistan to import night vision goggles, personal protection equipment, global position satellite systems, and other non-lethal equipment. Supporters stressed the need to ensure that Uzbekistan is capable of countering terrorist threats to NATO’s NDN supply lines. Uzbekistan has agreed to allow NATO governments to move some defense items out of Afghanistan through their territory.

In its subsequent budget documents to Congress, the Obama administration proposed that Uzbekistan receive $1.5 million in military aid, the same as Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan and only slightly behind Kazakhstan, which was designated $1.8 million.

Tashkent anticipates a decrease in U.S. military aid after the 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan. Uzbekistan expects to receive some “Excess Defense Articles” (EDA) and has already submitted a list to the U.S. government of the items it would like to receive. However, EDA are not free and Uzbekistan must pay for these items to include shipping costs from Afghanistan.