Thursday, 21 July 2011

Azerbaijan's hunger for military hardware

Baku's military build-up continued apace in 2010, according to recent figures from the UN Register on Conventional Arms

Azerbaijan imported a fair number of armoured vehicles, multiple rocket launchers, and small arms throughout 2010 (as well as a single helicopter from Ukraine and a single Su-25 fighter jet from Belarus). The information available seems to be patchy: according to Azeri media, the data is collected only from the countries which submitted their information to the Register. So no word yet on which other suppliers Baku has been buying from. However, the excellent Stockholm International Peace Research Institute has more detailed figures from 2010 drawn from a range of sources, which paints a better picture of the volume of Azeri arms imports. 

The SIPRI figures (available through their database) show that 2010 saw the delivery of the last batch of 10 Israeli unmanned aerial vehicles - drones, in other words - which had been ordered in 2008. Indeed the rise in Israeli-supplied military hardware is one of the most notable features of Azerbaijan's defence procurement over the past few years, with armoured vehicles, artillery, and sophisticated anti-tank missiles all making their way from Tel Aviv to Baku.

South Africa is another new player in Azerbaijan's burgeoning defence industry. Azerbaijan began assembling 35 modern South African armoured personnel carriers under licence in 2009, and is expected to have them ready by this year. South Africa's weapon sales to Baku came to $6 billion in 2010; Israel has crept ahead with $8 billion worth of sales, up from $2 billion in 2008.

Ukraine and Belarus are also big exporters to Azerbaijan, selling a range of old Soviet hardware over the last couple of years: fighter jets, helicopters, armoured personnel carriers, anti-tank rockets, and artillery. But twenty years after the end of the USSR, Russia continues to be the biggest exporter of arms to Baku, with $43 billion of sales last year. 

The full breakdown of these supplies isn't clear, but it seems that much of it comes from the delivery of 70 BTR-80A armoured personnel carriers under a deal struck in 2007. However given the opacity of arms sales in the former Soviet Union, there may be plenty more.

Azerbaijan already has a huge stockpile of military hardware left over from the Soviet Union, even accounting for the losses suffered in the Nagorno-Karabakh War. It has continued to import dozens if not hundreds of aircraft, helicopters, missile systems, armoured vehicles and tanks, only some of which are modern replacements for old Soviet assets. And it is committed to developing its own nascent defence industry, which is seeking to retrofit foreign systems and eventually develop indigenous combat vehicles, aircraft and warships. All this raises a question - why the need for quite so much hardware?

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