Kyrgyzstan’s Path to Rearmament

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Kyrgyzstan’s Path to Rearmament

Kyrgyzstan, a Central Asian country that once wanted to do away with its armed forces, has taken significant steps to rearm itself since the deadly 2021 clashes with neighboring Tajikistan. 

Kyrgyzstan’s Path to Rearmament

Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov (right) and GKNB head Kamchybek Tashiev (left) survey equipment at the opening of a new GBNK building in Osh, July 29, 2023.

Credit: president.kg

On July 20, Kamchybek Tashiev, the head of Kyrgyzstan’s State Committee for National Security (SCNS or GKNB), announced the funds that had been allocated since 2021 for the modernization of the country’s armed forces. The figures confirmed what had been evident since Kyrgyz and Tajik troops clashed in the spring of 2021: Kyrgyzstan has embarked on a militaristic path.

Back in 2020, the country spent 3.5 billion Kyrgyz som on the purchase and update of its military hardware. But this figure increased significantly in 2021, reaching 32 billion som, and followed an upward trend that took it to 53 billion som the following year. In the first half of 2023 alone Kyrgyzstan has spent 40 billion som (approximately $455 million) on its military. In total, Kyrgyzstan has spent close to 129 billion som ($1.4 billion) in the last two and a half years to modernize its army.

That’s a significant figure given that the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) stood at $10.9 billion in 2022, according to the World Bank. It also represents a clear break from the past for the Central Asian nation. 

The armed forces were, until recently, not a priority of successive Kyrgyz governments. In fact, the country’s first president, Askar Akayev, did not want Kyrgyzstan to have a standing army and preferred to rely on troops from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). However, when it became apparent the CIS was not wiling to pay for the country’s defense, Akayev issued a decree to establish the armed forces. That happened in 1992, but the General Staff would not be established until 1993.

Although since that moment Kyrgyzstan has had a standing army, it was poorly equipped and trained. These shortcomings came to light in the summer of 1999 when militants of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) forayed into Kyrgyzstan. The Kyrgyz military, some of which “did not have complete uniforms and were wearing sweatpants; some even in sandals,” was unable to dislodge the militants. The authorities had to issue a call for help from individuals with previous military experience and local hunters. 

Two decades later, in April 2021 Kyrgyz and Tajik troops clashed at the border in a conflict that left 50 dead. That was the moment when Sadyr Japarov’s government decided to change the country’s defense policy.

More Than Just Turkish Drones

Since 2021, Kyrgyzstan has been reinforcing its arsenal through the acquisition of weaponry from different providers. The most significant development has been its drone strategy, which has turned a country with non-existent unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) capabilities into one with an array of attack and surveillance drones thanks to its close ties to Turkey. 

The Turkish-made TB2 Bayraktar was the first drone model purchased by the Kyrgyz authorities in the fall of 2021. These UAVs successfully saw action the following year in yet another conflict with Tajikistan. The Bayraktar UAVs have been followed by other three models: the Akıncı, the Aksungur, and the Anka. The growing supply of Turkish drones is made possible by close security ties between Bishkek and Ankara, including high-level visits between the heads of state and senior officials. Meanwhile, Kyrgyzstan has also invested in smaller Russian and Chinese surveillance UAVs to complete its drone arsenal. 

While drones are a relatively new feature in the country’s armed forces, part of the $1.4 billion mentioned by Tashiev has been used for more conventional weaponry. This includes the purchase of Belarusian S-125 Pechora-2 BM air defense missile systems in 2023 and the upgrade of its Soviet-designed S-125 missile systems to that of the recently acquired Pechora-2 BM.

Similarly, the Kyrgyz authorities refurbished their four Soviet-era Mi-8 helicopters and recently bought their first Mi-17 helicopter, a more advanced model. Japarov stated that he intends to increase the fleet of Mi-17s through further acquisitions. In this regard, Russia remains a key partner.

The country has also acquired a range of ground vehicles recently, with Russia once again as the main supplier. In March 2022, Tashiev announced the country had purchased 55 Tigr armored vehicles and 50 KamAZ trucks for the GKNB Border Service. The previous year the same institution received 40 armored vehicles bought from the United Arab Emirates. 

The GKNB has also seen its presence throughout the country boosted since it was taken over by Tashiev in 2020. In late 2022, Tashiev claimed that 50 new buildings for the GKNB had been built since Japarov came to power. So far this year the GKNB has continued increasing its footprint in the country, with Tashiev laying the ground for a new building in Bishkek and inaugurating, together with the president, regional headquarters in both Osh and Talas. 

It is worth pointing out that the GKNB is not technically part of the army, and it is directly subordinated to the president. The fact that the GKNB, an agency primarily tasked with border security, intelligence, and internal security, is led by Japarov’s right-hand man plays a role in its growing importance and acquisitions, and also in the undermining of the other branches of the country’s security forces, including the army. Tashiev has had no problem lecturing the Ministry of Defense on how it should spend its allocated funds and the discipline expected from them. 

Japarov’s New Military Doctrine

Kyrgyzstan has not only acquired new military hardware in recent years but has also introduced changes to its theoretical military frameworks. On June 13, at a meeting of the Security Council, the draft of the country’s new military doctrine was presented and approved. According to Japarov, he personally led its development despite not having a military background. 

The reasons behind the change in the doctrine included “changes in the military-political situation in the world and Central Asia” and the “increasing dangers against military security,” according to Chief of the General Staff Erlis Terdikbayev. The former implicitly refers to the Russian war in Ukraine and the geopolitical changes it has introduced. Presumably the war in Ukraine also led to changes made by both Kazakhstan and Tajikistan to their own military doctrines this year. As for the latter, Terdikbayev said, “You remember what happened in 2021 and 2022 [clashes with Tajikistan]. Therefore, our actions against aggression should be included in this doctrine.”

Since 2021, Kyrgyzstan has embarked on an ambitious program of modernization of its armed forces, within its limited means. The escalation of the border conflict with Tajikistan in 2021 was a wake-up call for Bishkek, which has since focused its attention on its army and security apparatus and invested significant sums. The investments have been focused on the acquisition of new equipment such as drones, armored vehicles, or air defense systems, and the modernization of aging Soviet-era military hardware. This has all been happening against the backdrop of growing authoritarianism in the country in which the GKNB, which is benefitting from these investments, also plays a role. 

The last few years have set a trend for the Kyrgyz government’s budgetary preferences, and the statements from the president indicate further investments in the military sphere are set to continue. At the same time, Kyrgyzstan and its economy face numerous challenges that range from power shortages to the under-funding of public services. It is a matter of priorities, and security has become a primary concern for the authorities. Whether Kyrgyz society agrees with the government and its budgetary allocations is a different question.