Turkmenistan and Russia have signed a defense deal under which the Central Asian state will purchase six Smerch multiple rocket launcher systems from Moscow for $70 million, Russia's Kommersant reported June 24. The military deal will serve not only to tighten relations between Turkmenistan and Russia, but also show Turkmenistan's neighbors that it is gaining military strength.
Turkmenistan has signed a defense deal with Russia to purchase six Smerch multiple rocket launcher systems for $70 million, Russia's Kommersant media outlet reported June 24. The deal is the first major military-technical deal between Russia and Turkmenistan in a decade and is meant to not only tighten relations between the two, but show Turkmenistan's neighbors that the desert state is about to have some teeth. Turkmenistan is a sparsely populated desert state slightly smaller than Texas located in the heart of Central Asia and bordered to the west by the landlocked Caspian Sea. From 1991, when it gained independence from the fallen Soviet Union, until 2006, the country was almost completely isolated and ruled by one very eccentric man, the now-deceased President Saparmurat Niyazov — better known as the "Turkmenbashi," or "Father of all Turkmen." Aside from its former leader, Turkmenistan's biggest claim to fame is that it is believed to be the home of the world's fifth-largest natural gas supply — something that all of Turkmenistan's neighbors, as well as global energy consumers, have their eyes on. But even though the country is now run by a somewhat more pragmatic leader — Gurbanguly Berdimukhammedov, who looks open to having international players develop Turkmenistan's enormous energy wealth — the president is still beholden to certain security concerns fixed by Turkmenistan's geographic position. The country is surrounded by global players such as Russia and Iran and regional powers such as Uzbekistan. Moreover, nearly all of Turkmenistan's 5 million people live on its borders with these countries, since most of the country's interior is uninhabitable desert. (click image to enlarge) During the Soviet era, Turkmenistan relied on the Soviet military for protection and stability. But now, Turkmenistan's defenses are overall in poor shape. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ashgabat inherited the largest military in Central Asia but was ill-equipped to sustain it. Turkmenistan's legions of Soviet tanks and armored vehicles are now a generation or two out of date, and there is little indication that they have been well maintained. Few of its combat aircraft are actually combat capable, though it does have a handful of MiG-29 Fulcrum fighter jets as well as Su-25 Frogfoot close air support aircraft. The BM-30 Smerch — which Turkmenistan just signed the deal for — is Russia's most modern artillery rocket system. The Russian military has a long-standing doctrinal affinity for and extensive technical experience with artillery and artillery rocket systems. The BM-30 was developed in the 1980s and was the last multiple rocket system to be fielded with the Soviet military — representing essentially the height of Soviet design. It also has the largest multiple rocket launcher system on the market — 300 mm. The launchers, each with 12 tubes (the chassis can vary), are generally deployed in batteries. In Russian orders of battle, a Smerch battery is generally composed of four launchers, though it is unclear from the announcement exactly how much (and which) equipment Turkmenistan reportedly is purchasing. The Turkmen order appears to include the standard submunition rocket, which carries 72 high-explosive fragmentation submunitions. The latest version of the rocket has a range of nearly 56 miles. When fired in a full salvo, these rockets can obliterate a quarter of a square mile. They are devastating military weapons intended to suppress enemy indirect fire and devastate massed forces or simply wipe out entire villages — and while there are many subtleties to indirect fire, the Soviets designed and built their equipment to be operated and maintained by poorly trained conscripts. Turkmenistan's acquisition of these rockets will completely redefine the country's disputes and security fears in the region and internally. Though the Smerch is vulnerable to airpower (and Turkmenistan has little capability of establishing or maintaining air superiority), there are plenty of scenarios in the region in which neither side would be able to conduct major air operations. And there are quite a few audiences that are intended to notice Ashgabat's new purchase from the Russians. One of those is Iran — whose border happens to be just 25 miles from the Turkmen capital — though most Turkmen are mistrustful of their Persian neighbors. Iranian and Turkmen relations have grown steadily colder in the past six months, starting with a series of incidents in which some of the Turkmen population living in Iran was rounded up and arrested. This was followed by Turkmenistan making one of its few assertive international moves by cutting natural gas supplies to Iran at the height of winter. Turkmenistan's leadership has continually spoken of possible Iranian plots against the Turkmen government and country. But Turkmenistan's deep mistrust of one of its other neighbors — Uzbekistan — is far worse. Turkmenistan's concerns with Uzbekistan are twofold. First is Ashgabat's belief that the landlocked Uzbekistan wants access to the Caspian — meaning through Turkmenistan — to export its own energy wealth. The late Turkmenbashi continually referred to foiled Uzbek plots to assassinate him and overthrow the regime. But more important than that is the large Uzbek population inside of Turkmenistan — approximately 400,000 people, or 12 percent of Turkmenistan's population. Ashgabat has been worried that this population could be the means by which the Uzbek government can cause trouble for Ashgabat. Also, Uzbekistan is the center of Central Asian jihadism — something that Turkmenistan does not want spilling across its border. As news breaks of Turkmenistan increasing its military capabilities, reports are also coming out that the Turkmen government is forcibly removing the large population on its border with Uzbekistan and "relocating them" to other regions of the country — those parts of the country that would not only isolate this mainly Uzbek population, but would make life very hard. In short, Ashgabat is ensuring that Tashkent and Central Asian militancy will have a harder time reaching into Turkmenistan, while showing that it has its own defenses if Tashkent or militants should try anything. Another audience for an armed Turkmen government is actually internal. Berdimukhammedov is not part of the majority Mary clan in Turkmenistan. Ashgabat's new toy is a nice little security guarantee should its power be challenged. But there is another element to the Smerch purchase besides Turkmen security: The deal ties Turkmenistan closer to Russia. Turkmenistan has been struggling with the question of which power it would turn to for political and economic security since Berdimukhammedov took over. Westerners, Iranians, Russians and, at times, Asians have all shown interest in increased relations with Ashgabat — mostly in order to lock in access to Turkmen energy supplies. The largest battle thus far has been between Russia and the West, especially as Moscow tries to roll back the West's encroachment on its former Soviet states. Ashgabat has been wary of turning to its former leader in the past decade, but the new military deal is a sign that, with so many other security concerns on the table, Turkmenistan is finally making a choice to have Moscow as its backer again. The purchase of the rocket systems ensures that Ashgabat must rely on Russia for the technology, training and ammunition supplies in the future for its defense. This does not mean that Turkmenistan — and all its energy wealth — is now fully back under Russia's wing. But it is the beginning of Turkmenistan redefining itself for its neighbors and choosing who it will turn to as its protector.