Central Asian drones: land of opportunity or saturated market?
Signs of a drone race in Central Asia are nothing new, as the region has represented a land of opportunities for foreign manufacturers, including China, Israel, Belarus, Turkey and Russia, for some time now.
However, with the war in Ukraine, the localisation of technology is a growing trend as players seek to gain regional superiority in the field of UAS.
This pattern was illustrated when in May 2022, Turkey first reported that it would begin co-producing its Anka drones with Kazakhstan at a production facility to be built in Astana, and less than a week later, Iran unveiled a new drone factory – its first one abroad – to domestically manufacture the Ababil-2 system in Tajikistan.
Anka flies the flag for Turkey in Kazakhstan
Claims of Iran drone deal highlight Russia's UAS capability gaps
Both of these operations will be carried out under a transfer of technology (ToT), representing a greater step in terms of cooperation and privileges than non-legally binding MoUs.
Past agreements set the stage for this when in 2013, Belarus set up a production line in Turkmenistan to manufacture three systems: the Busel M, Busel M40 (larger version) and Busel MB2 (combat variant).
Although the facility, coined the ‘Center for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles’, opened its doors in 2015, its success has been limited.
Currently, for surveillance missions, the majority of Central Asian countries (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan) rely on Russian-made Orlan-10 or Zala 421-04M drones. Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan complement this, among other things, with Israeli Elbit UAVs.
For combat operations, most look either to Turkey’s TB2, Anka UCAVs or China’s Wing Loong. Exceptions are Tajikistan, which uses Iran’s combat and reconnaissance Ababil-2 and Uzbekistan, which revealed in January that it is building and investing in its own ‘Lochin’ armed systems.
In February 2021, local media reported that the facilities were expected to undergo modernisation and increase production capabilities. In 2018, Uzbekistan signed an MoU for development of unmanned technologies with Chinese drone manufacturer BShark Holdings.
As for Russia, in 2019, state media alleged that the Kremlin had opened a service centre to repair Orlan-10 UAVs at Uzbekistan’s Chirchik Aviation Repair Plant.
In addition, in September 2020, Kyrgyzstan’s Parliament ratified an agreement enabling Moscow to deploy its UAVs to Kant Air Base, operated by Russian forces up until 2027.
Many of those who have reported on this topic have argued that Turkey is set to prevail in the Central Asian drone market.
The Turkish UAS being offered or acquired are more advanced than Chinese ones already present, and Ankara hasrapidly risen to popularity among regional customers, where three out of five now operate Turkish platforms.
However, four of five Central Asian countries also operate Chinese UAVs, four of five operate Russian ones, and one has Iranian systems.
The market is already somewhat saturated, and states’ financial means will dictate whether they can afford to buy more and increasingly expensive UAVs.
Central Asia’s military spending in 2021 was valued by the Stockholm International Peace Institute (SIPRI) at a mere $1.8 billion – a decrease of 0.8% from the previous year's figures that excluded Turkmenistan as well as Uzbekistan.
In contrast, East Asia’s defence spending totalled $411 billion for the same period.
While difficult to find verified data on the respective military budgets of each Central Asian country. Unconfirmed reports have estimated that Kazakhstan’s defence expenditure totalled $1.5 billion in 2021, followed by Kyrgyzstan’s $131 million and Tajikistan at $80.4 million.
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