By Shahin Abbasov
With energy exports providing plenty of spare cash, Azerbaijan is taking steps to produce Israeli-designed spy planes. Local analysts say the venture reflects Baku’s desire to become a major arms exporter to the South Caucasus, Central Asia and Middle East.
The Israeli-licensed Orbiter-2M pilotless spy plane, or drone, is capable of flying non-stop for five hours at an altitude of four to six kilometers; another model, the Aerostar, can fly for 12 hours at an altitude of 10 kilometers. Both types of aircraft will be manufactured at the government-owned AZAD Systems Company plant near Baku.
Azerbaijani-made prototypes are expected to undergo testing for up to two years. Full-scale production won’t begin before 2013, under the existing timetable. Already, the Azerbaijani military uses 10 Israeli-built models of the drones, said Mil.az news agency Editor-in-Chief Jasur Sumarinly.
The initiative is seen as a critical strategic element in Azerbaijan’s ongoing efforts to regain control over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh. “Having such aircraft is important for gaining military superiority over Armenia,” said Uzeir Jafarov, a colonel in the army reserves. “It is an irreplaceable armament for intelligence purposes in Nagorno-Karabakh now, and, in case of conflict, for the precise identification of the location, readiness and number of enemy troops.”
Other motivations are also involved. Israeli arms interest Azerbaijani officials since “the country’s military needs are largely ignored by Russia, Europe and the United States due to the Karabakh conflict,” according to an alleged cable prepared by the US Embassy in Baku in 2009 and posted on the WikiLeaks website.
Azerbaijani diplomats and military officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told EurasiaNet.org that Baku wants to become more self-reliant in terms of weaponry. The chief concern among Azerbaijani military planners is that supplies of military equipment from Russia and/or the West could cease in the event that the Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia reignites.
Baku is also entertaining notions of export earnings. If proven successful, Azerbaijan’s Israeli-designed drones could help the country emerge as a regional arms dealer, said Sumarinly. “Georgia, Central Asian and some Arab countries have a shortage of such planes,” he noted. “If the tests are successful and Baku can offer a good price for them, demand for Azerbaijani-made drones could be high.”
The Israeli embassy has declined to comment on the topic. Nor are drone orders from other countries known to exist yet.
Baku’s military production plans do not stop at drones. The Ministry of Defense Industry (MDI) has been in talks with various Israeli defense firms and two Turkish companies about the production of an armored vehicle based on the Russian T-55 tank’s chassis, according to Sumarinly. MDI representatives declined to comment.
Citing unnamed military sources, the pro-government APA news agency reported in February that MDI will provide 30 South-African-designed Matador and Marauder armored vehicles to the army. The vehicles are designed to be mine resistant and can be used to transport troops, or used for other tasks in urban settings.
Planes are also in the works. President Ilham Aliyev this month was shown a prototype of an Austrian-designed four-seater known as the Diamond DA-42 military passenger plane. The plane is assembled by AZAD Systems, an Azerbaijani state-owned firm.
In addition, the newly opened Sayayedzhihaz plant in Baku is set to manufacture a mobile mini-bakery and mini-kitchen as well as a mobile water purifier station.
Overall, Azerbaijani military production more than doubled between 2009 and 2010, and the product line expanded by 17 percent, according to MDI. No breakdown of expenditures is publically available for MDI apart from a general budget line item for military spending, which accounts for a whopping 19.6 percent of Azerbaijan’s 2011 budget, or $3.1 billion.
To show off its goods, Azerbaijan took part in Abu Dhabi’s IDEX-2011 international arms trade show this February, and, since last year, has taken part in arms fairs in Jordan, Poland and South Africa.
Some 71 types of Azerbaijani-made armaments were reported to be on display at the IDEX show, according to MDI – ranging from sniper rifles to mortars. No sales figures have been disclosed.
At present, national pride more than a quest for profits appears to be driving efforts to build up Azerbaijan’s defense sector. “A few years ago, we did not have any military production, but now it is booming,” President Ilham Aliyev noted during a government meeting in early March. He also praised the five-year-old Ministry of Defense Industry as creating a model that other government agencies could emulate.
On March 15, Prime Minister Arthur Rasizade told parliament that Azerbaijan has become “a leader in the South Caucasus” for arms production, with supposedly 350 different types of armament and related equipment being produced. Rasizade’s enthusiasm may have run away with him, however. Sumarinly, the military expert, says that, so far, only Azerbaijani-made bullets and cartridges have been given to the army. “All the rest … are at a testing stage,” he said.
The MDI was not available for comment. Time could prove the ultimate test for the armaments’ value, continued Sumarinly. “MDI has nice PR, but not only the quantity of products produced is important; their quality is, too.”
Shahin Abbasov is a freelance reporter based in Baku and a board member of the Open Society Assistance Foundation-Azerbaijan.