In early March 2018, Uzbek president Shavkat Mirziyoyev conducted the first state visit to Tajikistan since 2000, signalling warmer relations in a region that is infamous for its isolationist states. Economic development, regional and international participation, and increased needs for security facilitated contact between Uzbekistan and its immediate neighbours. There were, consequently, strong implications for Uzbekistan’s military. The problem, however, was the consensus that defense capabilities and related strategies were not sufficient in the post-Soviet era.
The issue seemed to be the organization of its armed forces. Initially, after independence, Uzbekistan had to develop a new military system. It decided to follow the Soviet model, even without the necessary resources or threats of conventional war. Uzbek military organization also originally followed the Soviet doctrine of fighting large scale ground wars, replete with tanks and significant stockpiles and dozens of fighter planes, all of which lost their strategic function since Uzbekistan’s founding after the fall of the USSR. Almost all Uzbek military equipment was Soviet and outdated, no longer easy to maintain and sometimes too old to repair.
But, as much as its organization and armament were Soviet, strategy-wise, according to the Uzbekistan Law of the Republic 1992, Uzbek state policy entrenched defense as the primary function of its forces. Soviet military strategy, conversely, was overwhelmingly offensive, prepared as it was for war. Uzbekistan’s military capabilities were not commensurate with its defense policy.
On December 22 2017, Mirziyoyev gave a four hour speech on the state of Uzbekistan’s development. It covered every aspect of how society should be reformed and modernized. Near the end, he claimed that the “fighting efficiency” of its soldiers did not meet the requirements of this “rapidly changing time.”
One persistent issue seemed to be Soviet military organization that remained since the 90s.
The Defense Doctrine Act, then, approved by the Senate in December 2017, was devised to quicken military modernization by changing the structure of its military units. It focused on three aspects of development. Rearming the military with modern equipment, establishing a local military industry, and reorganizing the armed forces were the focus of military reform. But, so far as modernization was concerned, the point was to improve maintenance and repair capabilities.
In terms of unit size and organization, then, Uzbekistan’s initially large units were reformed into smaller, more professional units based on US organization patterns. The standard to join the armed forces changed accordingly. The size of the unit was important as the only threat to Uzbekistan’s security was terrorism, which required precision rather than attrition.
The smaller size and growing strategic pressure meant that acquiring modern military equipment was necessary. To this end, Tashkent agreed to multiple weapons agreements with Moscow in late January. In mid-March, an additional 10 Mi-35 Russian helicopters were leased.
Uzbekistan is wont to Russian behaviour and has so attempted to avoid strong influence as these agreements are signed. There was speculation that Russian influence was re-establishing itself in the region, but there were stronger signs that its influence had actually started to wane. Even as bilateral trade relations were strong, Tashkent chose not to join the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union and Collective Security Treaty Organization because it was reminiscent of Soviet-era organizations. Also, Chinese influence seemed to eclipse Russian interests. Uzbekistan, it appeared, would not be coerced under the Russian umbrella.
Overall, Uzbekistan is aiming to be economically autonomous. In terms of local arms production, the development of a military industrial complex is not likely to resemble its western counterpart. Uzbekistan has small local arms production. The point of the military-industrial complex is to further fund its modernization programs and spur industrial capabilities.
The Defense Doctrine was not envisioned in a vacuum, as in military development for military development’s sake. The Doctrine’s purpose was to ensure that the Strategy of Actions goals were met between 2017 and 2021. The Strategy of Actions is comprised of five domains, each of which will take a year to accomplish. This five year plan aims to completely democratize and modernize Uzbekistan.
The five domains are primarily concerned with domestic development rather than international security, which may seem incongruous now that it is considered an aspect of defense policy. The first domain aims to reform parliamentary roles, which the government has identified as the most efficient method by which Uzbekistan can modernize. The second domain aims to strengthen the judiciary in a manner that protects individual rights. The third domain aims to spur economic growth, particularly as it relates to agriculture. The fourth domain is concerned with creating social programs and other programs thereof. The fifth domain aims to establish Uzbekistan as a modernized and developed country that will command more control in regional and international affairs. Deterring terrorism was also a key component. Uzbekistan has demonstrated a commitment to this plan.
In 2018, Uzbekistan started to actively attempt bettering its contiguous border relationships. In January, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan agreed to establish Visa-free travel to both countries in an attempt to stimulate dialogue. The agreement facilitated discussions on border disputes, which were as yet mostly unresolved since the fall of the USSR. In early February, the Uzbek Foreign Ministry announced that it was working with Tajikistan to delimit and demarcate parts of the border that were usually considered controversial. Another border crossing, the third, opened two weeks later. It was also revealed that both countries agreed to construct more border crossings.
On December 24 2017, the military held a food service for journalists in the Tashkent Military District. The highest quality of food, the Defence Ministry asserted, was being served in the most technologically up-to-date halls, where it was believed that well-fed troops improved combat training.
Former conscript Sobir Matkarimov stated that, traditionally, the Uzbek army followed the Soviet system of discipline, where, among other things, frequently preparing meals was one form of punishment for multiple infractions. This, apparently, had an overall negative effect on troop preparedness as there was less time to train. There was an overall belief that the removal of Soviet-style organization curbed this effect.
In spite of all the reform in Uzbekistan, embracing modernity does not necessitate breaking with tradition. Even under Karimov, Uzbekistan used and still uses the Uzbek martial art, the Kurash, to train its soldiers who then incorporate it within professional practice. The country, it appears, has retained cultural traditions that give it its character and its citizens a sense of identity.
Mirziyoyev’s agenda is well-received. His policies have raised hopes that the country’s image as an isolationist state were finally at an end and that the new and invigorated policies would change the fabric of society and break Uzbekistan out of its Soviet shell.