Dawn of the Drone Age in Central Asia

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Dawn of the Drone Age in Central Asia

Central Asian countries have been stepping up their drone capabilities.

Dawn of the Drone Age in Central Asia

Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov signs one of the country’s new drones at the inauguration of a new UAV base in the country on September 13, 2022.

Credit: Office of the President of Kyrgyzstan

The Central Asian republics have in the recent years increased their stock of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), common called drones. Whether triggered by overall changes in warfare or specific events such as the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan or the conflict between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the region has been increasingly arming itself with drones. 

However, not all the countries are looking to enhance their drone capabilities in the same way. Their specific defense strategy, budgetary position and choice of foreign partners are factors that shape which type of UAVs they are purchasing and from which providers. 

A Kyrgyz-Tajik Drone Race?

Last September military drones in Central Asia were involved in attacks for the first time. The action took place during the armed clashes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. The Tajik authorities accused the Kyrgyz of employing their Turkish-made TB2 Bayraktar drones to bombard Tajik territory and footage emerged on social media of the alleged Kyrgyz drone attack. It was reported that the Kyrgyz TB2 were responsible for the destruction of Tajik military hardware, including two tanks, one multiple rocket launcher, and an ammunition truck. Earlier in the same week that hostilities broke out between the two countries, Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov had inaugurated a base for the country’s new TB2 drones.

The Bayraktar drones had been purchased by Kyrgyzstan with much fanfare in late 2021. Around the same time, Bishkek also announced the acquisition of Russian Orlan-10E surveillance UAVs. Prior to that, the Kyrgyz armed forces had received Chinese WJ-100 surveillance UAVs. These moves followed the intensification of border conflict with neighboring Tajikistan in spring 2021, in which the Tajik military got the upper hand.

The TB2 drones will soon be followed by the Bayraktar Akıncı, from the same manufacturer, and by the Aksungur. The former is a combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) with more firepower and range than the TB2, while the latter is a multirole drone capable of carrying out long-term surveillance as well as strike missions. The trio of Turkish-made drones sets Kyrgyzstan apart from its neighbor to the south in terms of UAV capabilities. 

Dushanbe’s efforts to catch up with Bishkek have been more modest. However, early this year alarms rang in Kyrgyzstan when the Tajik minister of defense visited the Bayraktar factory in Turkey and rumors surfaced of Tajikistan’s plans to purchase TB2s, too. This would have neutralized the advantage Kyrgyzstan had recently obtained vis-à-vis Tajikistan. Even the future Kyrgyz foreign minister admitted in Parliament that the deal was a reality. However, Tajikistan did not end up buying the Bayraktar drone. 

Instead of acquiring TB2s, Tajikistan looked to Iran. The following month, in May 2022, Iran opened in Tajikistan a factory for Ababil-2 drones, older and more limited devices when compared to Kyrgyzstan’s Turkish drones. In addition to the Iranian-made UAVs, both surveillance and loitering munition models, the Tajiks will also add to their inventory American Puma drones. These are hand-launched surveillance UAVs supplied by the U.S. as part of a wider $60 million security aid package provided with Afghanistan and the Taliban in mind.  

The Iranian factor has caused controversy further afield. In late October, a Ukrainian journalist accused Uzbekistan of assembling Iranian drones that were used by Russia to attack population centers in Ukraine. Uzbekistan denied the allegation and the journalist then admitted he had meant Tajikistan. But the Tajik authorities also denied any role in the production and export of drones to Russia. 

A Surprising Drone Powerhouse

Kazakhstan, meanwhile, had begun building up its drone stock back in 2016 with the purchase of Chinese-made Wing Loong Is. Rather than continue improving its UCAV capabilities with the successor model, the Wing Loong II, the Kazakh authorities turned to Turkey. But instead of focusing on the Bayraktar TB2, as Kyrgyzstan did, Astana chose the TAI Anka. The deal, which allows for the production of the drones in Kazakhstan under license, was signed during President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev’s visit to Turkey in May 2022. In terms of surveillance, Kazakhstan relies on Russian Orlan-10Es, two types of Israeli drones and, according to the U.S. Embassy in Kazakhstan, small hand-launched RQ-11 Ravens.

China was also the source of Uzbekistan’s first UCAV drones, when it reportedly delivered at least one Wing Loong II as part of a deal to pay for Uzbek gas. No further UCAVs are known to have been purchased by Uzbekistan, which, if true, means Tashkent is lagging behind some of its Central Asian neighbors in this capacity. In the field of surveillance drones, Uzbekistan has Russian-made ZALA 421-16E and American RQ-11 Ravens. Early this year it was reported that Uzbekistan would buy Puma drones, like Tajikistan did, as part of the U.S. Foreign Military Sales program. However, the Uzbek Ministry of Defense later denied the claim. 

Not known for its military strength, ranking 83rd in the 2022 Global Firepower Index behind Uzbekistan (55th) and Kazakhstan (64th), Turkmenistan is the Central Asian nation with the strongest drone force. Ashgabat has a wide range of drone types, including UCAVs, surveillance vehicles and suicide drones (also known as loitering munitions). Several of them took center stage at the military exercises that took place in western Turkmenistan in November. To achieve its varied drone portfolio, the Turkmen authorities have significantly diversified their suppliers.

Turkmenistan was the first Central Asian nation to acquire a Bayraktar TB2. Their presence in the Turkmen armed forces became evident during the 2021 military parade that marked the 30th anniversary of the country’s independence. Before that, Turkmenistan had already turned to China in 2016 to source its UCAVs, acquiring both CH-3As and WJ-600 A/Ds.  

Besides Turkish and Chinese UCAVs, Turkmenistan also produces domestically the Belarussian Busel MB2, as well as surveillance and, probably, suicide drones from the same manufacturer. Israel also features prominently in the Turkmen drone arsenal, with two types of surveillance UAVs and the SkyStriker loitering munition. Italy, the U.S. and Russia have also provided Turkmenistan with reconnaissance drones. 

While Turkmenistan’s wide range of drones can seem surprising, it follows the country’s policy of purchasing foreign-made weaponry from a diverse portfolio of providers such as Italian-made jet trainers or helicopters, Turkish ships or Chinese air-defense systems.

Central Asian-made Drones

In general, the Central Asian countries have relied on foreign-designed drones. That could be about to change as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and, reportedly Kyrgyzstan, are in the path of developing their own national-designed and made UAVs.

Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are leading the way. In Kazakhstan’s case, the surveillance “Shagala” (Seagull) completed its first test flight in early 2021 and months later entered its final stage of testing. Uzbekistan meanwhile launched production in February 2022 of a series of drones under the “Lochin” (Falcon) name, which seem to be for reconnaissance functions although the Uzbek authorities mention they also have strike capabilities. 

Kyrgyzstan would be the third Central Asian nation developing its own drone. Reports of a Kyrgyz-made SAARA-02 drone appeared online, albeit not from official sources. When questioned about this, the Kyrgyz minister of defense neither dismissed nor confirmed the reports. 

The Use of Drones in the Region

After a slow start, the Central Asian countries are looking at drones as a complement, if not a key component, in their armed forces. The case for UAVs in the region is strong, both as a specialized resources or as a low-cost alternatives to bolster air-to-ground attack capabilities.

The use of surveillance drones is a useful tool for the three countries bordering Afghanistan: Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. It is no coincidence that the U.S. has provided both the Tajik and the Uzbek militaries with such vehicles, which are presumably to be used to monitor their neighbor to the south.

Meanwhile, the successful use of a Kyrgyz drones in the latest clash between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan has shown the role such capabilities can play as an attacking force. UAVs can be a cheap alternative for countries with limited defense budgets and modest air forces. This is the case for both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, with defense expenditures of around $123 million and $80 million, respectively, and attack capabilities that rely mostly on Soviet-era helicopters. 

Each Central Asian nation is aware of the growing importance of drones in warfare and are adapting to this new reality. Kyrgyzstan is rapidly expanding its drone capabilities with Turkish drones following border clashes with neighboring Tajikistan. After an initial interest in Turkish drones, Dushanbe has looked to Iran, although the partnership with Tehran has already caused controversies in the international arena. Meanwhile, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan are steadily improving their capabilities which include the development of locally designed and produced vehicles. At the same time, Turkmenistan has become an unlikely regional drone power, sourcing different UAV types from a wide range of suppliers.

The arsenal of the five republics will see their stocks of UAVs increase in the near future. Whether and how they are put to a use or not, that is a separate question.