In his January 14 declaration to the people in Uzbek media, Mr. Mirziyoyev announced an imminent program to re-equip his nation’s armed forces to face the challenges of the 21st century. These reforms would be tailored to fit the unique needs of the Uzbek military to more effectively address current and future threats. Another, perhaps more important set of reforms, has to do with improving legislative efficiency regarding military matters by delegating certain tasks to senior politicians and by reorganizing the military structure to favor more independent regional operations.
Mr. Mirziyoyev’s announcement was ambitious, to say the least, but his idea of a military-industrial complex is likely very different from that of most western notions of what such a system should look like. Uzbekistan has no large scale native arms producers. The country’s military, the largest in Central Asia, is entirely reliant on inherited Soviet era equipment. In addition, its annual military budget, reported to be approximately $2.4 billion (2015 est.), is entirely inadequate to create an arms producing industry in such a short period.
In his statement, Mr. Mirziyoyev was perhaps purposefully vague in outlining equipment updates. Instead, he focused on increasing Uzbekistan’s maintenance and repair capabilities for its current equipment as well as updating educational doctrines to train the next generation of service members. The sometimes vague comments were intended to also outline the Uzbek military’s role in the region and in the world. It is exactly this role which must be clearly examined in order to better determine what attributes Uzbekistan’s military may have in the future.
Uzbekistan is somewhat unique among former Soviet states in its handling of foreign policy which will likely shape its future military structure accordingly. The 25-year-old republic goes to great lengths to abstain from military entanglements by avoiding international alliances and mutual defense treaties. Its geographic proximity to states like Russia, China, and the United States, which has been fighting a prolonged war in neighboring Afghanistan, all but ensured a struggle for influence over Uzbekistan which the country has had varying degrees of success in balancing.
Despite being an on and off again member of the Russian-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which Uzbekistan ultimately left in 2012, it seems that the nation has now taken a firm stand against military cooperation with foreign powers. This policy includes the removal of all foreign bases located on the territory of Uzbekistan. The 2005 removal of an American airbase in the southern city of Karshi following international outrage at the Uzbek authorities’ violent handling of mass protests in Andijan indicates that Uzbek leadership may not want the increased media scrutiny and deteriorating foreign public opinion which often comes with western deployments in authoritarian countries. The only military organization of which Uzbekistan is currently a member is the loosely formed Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). This membership does not currently commit Uzbekistan to any foreign deployments or base hosting responsibilities, but it does allow access to international military exercises with powerful militaries like those of Russia and China.
Outside of military exercises, long term international commitments would not be beneficial for the types of military threats that Uzbekistan faces. Apart from a border dispute with Kyrgyzstan, there are no regional adversaries that an Uzbek military may counter. Instead, terrorism and the illicit drug trade are likely the most practical threats against which to build a future military. Logically, regional reorganization would be more effective in combatting such unpredictable security threats and the country’s current security infrastructure would not be best suited to handle it.
As stated previously, Uzbekistan has the largest military in Central Asia by a substantial amount both in terms of conscripted manpower and equipment; however, it is structurally almost unchanged from Soviet doctrine which was designed to fight large ground wars. Its large stockpile of equipment reflects that doctrine with hundreds of main battle tanks and dozens of fighter planes; tools which have limited value in smaller scale tactical counterterror and policing operations.
Uzbekistan likely needs a smaller professional force which is spread throughout its regions. This force would ideally consist of contract soldiers who are continually trained in counterterrorism operations over the course of years and decades, not single 12 month rotations typically expected of conscripts. Training may be supplemented by taking part in counterterrorism exercises with countries like Russia and China through Uzbekistan’s membership in the SCO. Mr. Mirziyoyev’s proposed equipment maintenance and upgrades would also serve to maintain Uzbekistan’s traditional fighting capabilities, if not to create new ones. Ultimately, Mr. Mirziyoyev’s proposal of creating a native military industrial complex by 2022 may be optimistic at best, but there are a number of concrete steps that the Uzbek leadership can take to make its military more effective and ideally suited for the likely threats it may face in the near future.