Armed Forces of Central Asia and the Regional Threat Situation

In the most recent issue of NVO, Aleksandr Khramchikhin has a very useful description of the forces located in Russia’s Central Operational Strategic Command. This is in the context of an article examining the total array of forces located in or near Central Asia, including Kazakh, Uzbek, Pakistani, and Chinese forces in the region. I haven’t seen all this data in a single place before, so it seems worthwhile to reproduce it here, followed by a discussion of the extent to which these forces present a threat to Russia.

Eventually, I’ll update my series on the structure of Russia’s Ground Forces to take into account the new organizational structure, but until I have time to do that, this will have to do.

Russia’s Central Operational Strategic Command

Ground Forces

  • 1 tank brigade
  • 7 motorized rifle brigades
  • 2 special forces brigades (one of which is being demobilized)
  • 2 rocket brigades
  • 1 artillery brigade
  • 1 MLRS brigade
  • 2 missile brigades
  • 5 bases for storage and equipment repair

These forces are equipped with: 400 T-72 tanks, more than 500 BMP infantry fighting vehicles, 200 airborne infantry fighting vehicles, 400 armored personnel carriers, 400 self-propelled guns, 100 other pieces of artillery, 200 mortars, 250 multiple rocket launchers, 300 anti-tank guns, and 270 air defense missiles of various kinds

Air Defense Forces

  • 5 S-300PS regiments
  • 1 S-300 V regiment

Air Forces

  • 6 airbases housing 48 MiG-31 interceptors, 32 Mi-24 helicopter gunships and 80 transport aircraft and helicopters.
  • 2 long-range aviation bases in Saratov oblast, housing 14 Tu-160,  16 Tu-95, and 30 Tu-22M3 long range bombers.
  • Military transport aviation base in Orenburg, housing 27 Il-76MD transport planes.
  • Various reserve bases housing over 500 airplanes and over 150 helicopters, though the majority of these are older types that are unlikely to be operational.

In addition to these forces, the Center OSC also controls the 201st military base located in Tajikistan and the 999th airbase located in Kyrgyzstan.

Kazakhstani armed forces

Ground Forces

  • 10 mechanized infantry brigades
  • 7 artillery brigades
  • 1 MLRS brigade
  • 2 anti-tank brigades
  • 4 airborne brigades
  • 1 missile brigade
  • 1 engineering brigade
  • 1 shore defense brigade
  • 1 peacekeeping brigade

These forces are equipped with 1000 tanks (T-80, T-72, T-62), 2500 armored personnel carriers and infantry fighting vehicles, 250 self-propelled guns, 500 towed artillery pieces, and around 200 Uragan and Grad surface-to-air missiles. Air defenses include several S-300 systems.

The Kazakh air force and air defense forces are organized into 10 regiments. They are equipped with:

  • 30 Su-24 bombers
  • 12 Su-24M reconnaissance planes
  • 12 Su-27 fighter planes
  • 40 MiG-29 fighter planes
  • 40+ MiG-31 interceptors
  • 5 MiG-25 interceptors
  • 20 MiG-23 fighter-bombers (being retired)
  • 15 Su-25 close air support planes
  • 40 transport planes
  • 40 Mi-24 helicopter gunships
  • 12 Mi-26 heavy transport helicopters

The Kazakh navy consists of 9 patrol boats, including one Turkish-built boat, 4 1950s vintage German boats, 2 new Saigak boats built in Russia, 1 Dauntless class boat built in the US, and 1 Berkut-class boat built in Kazakhstan.

Uzbekistani armed forces

Ground forces

  • 11 motorized infantry brigades
  • 1 mountain infantry brigade
  • 1 tank brigade
  • 1 airborne brigade
  • 3 air assault brigades
  • 5 engineering brigades

These forces are armed with 340 tanks (half of which are old T-62s), 400 infantry fighting vehicles, more than 500 armored personnel carriers, 140 self-propelled guns, 200 towed artillery pieces, and 80 air defense missiles.

The air forces consist of:

  • 30 Su-24 bombers and reconnaissance planes
  • 20 Su-25 close air support planes
  • 30 MiG-29 fighters
  • 25 Su-27 fighters
  • 40 transport aircraft
  • 30-50 Mi-24 helicopter gunships
  • 90 transport and multi-purpose helicopters

Pakistani armed forces

The ground forces are comprised of 19 infantry divisions, 2 tank divisions, and 35 brigades of various types. These forces are armed with 165 tactical ballistic missiles, 2500 tanks (including 320 T-80UD), 1300 armored personnel carriers, 260 self-propelled guns, 1600 towed artillery pieces, 2350 mortars, 50 multiple launch rocket systems, 1200 MANPADS, 1900 anti-aircraft weapons, and 25 AN-1 Cobra helicopter gunships.

The air force operates 400 combat aircraft, including 50 F-16s and more than 100 Chinese JF-17s.

Iranian armed forces

Khramchikhin briefly addresses the armaments of the Iranian armed forces, These include 1700 tanks, 700 infantry fighting vehicles, 600 APCs, 2400 artillery pieces (including 300 self-propelled), 5000 mortars, 900 MLRS, 900 anti-tank guided weapons, 2000 air defense artillery pieces, 300 combat airplanes, 100 combat helicopters, and over 250 air defense missile systems.

Chinese armed forces (Lanzhou Military Region)

Finally, Khramchikhin discusses the Chinese forces focused on Central Asia. These are located in the Lanzhou Military region.

Ground Forces

  • 2 tank divisions
  • 2 motorized infantry divisions
  • 3 infantry divisions
  • 1 mountain infantry division
  • 3 motorized infantry brigades
  • 2 artillery brigades
  • 3 air defense brigades
  • 2 reserve infantry divisions
  • 2 reserve anti-aircraft artillery divisions

The Air Force is organized into 1 bomber division and 2 fighter divisions. There are three regiments of H-6H bombers, 2 regiments of J-11 (Su-27) fighters, 4 regiments of J-7 (MiG-21) fighters. Ground air defenses are comprised of one regiment of HQ-2 missiles.

The Regional Balance of Forces

Khramchikhin engages in this description in order to provide a rough description of the balance of forces in the region. Oddly enough, he does not include the NATO coalition forces in Afghanistan in this assessment. But he does point out a couple of interesting things. First of all, the Chinese forces in just the Lanzhou military region, which is generally a low priority for the Chinese government and receives few modern weapons, are more powerful than all of the other forces in the region put together (once again, excluding the NATO forces).

Second, none of the other countries in the region present realistic military threats to Russia. Neither Iran nor Pakistan are likely to have any reason to engage in conflict with Russia, though Pakistan’s forces are, at least on paper, more powerful than those of Russia’s Center OSC. Pakistan is more concerned with India and its own internal instability. The only possible scenario where it might present a threat to Russia would involve a violent overthrow of its government by the Taliban and its allies, followed by its joining an anti-Russian effort in Central Asia. If the Taliban were to take over in Pakistan, it would have many more pressing concerns than attacking Russia or even Central Asia. This scenario is therefore sufficiently far-fetched as to be not worth considering for the moment.

Despite a recent deterioration in military relations because of Russia’s adherence to UN sanctions, Iran is also not interested in engaging in hostilities with Russia. It has more pressing concerns in every other direction.

Three of the Central Asian states (Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan) have no military forces worth the name. All five states have sufficiently good relations with Russia that they pose no real threat. The only potential threat to Russia from Central Asia comes from the possibility of a mass radical Islamist uprising in the Ferghana Valley, especially in the event of a NATO failure in Afghanistan that results in the Taliban’s return to power there. In that case, Khramchikhin argues for joining forces with Kazakhstan to keep the radicals in the south, while leaving the governments of the other Central Asian to survive as best they can on their own.

The Chinese Threat?

This brings Khramchikhin back to China.  He has previously written some fairly alarmist pieces about the potential Chinese threat to Russia, so this time he focuses on the possibility that China would attack Kazakhstan. This seems to be a sufficiently fantastic scenario that it could be dismissed out of hand, but instead he argues that China would easily win such a conflict while absorbing Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan with minimal effort. This means that Russia would have to come to Kazakhstan’s assistance or face the prospect of a 12,000km border with China stretching from Astrakhan to Vladivostok. (I’m not sure what happens to Mongolia in this scenario, but I assume it’s nothing good.) And at this point, Khramchikhin argues that Russia might as well capitulate on the spot.

I have never understood the extent of Russian paranoia about Chinese intentions. China is certainly a rising power, but it has accomplished its rise by developing its economy while remaining fairly quiet and conservative on the international scene. While there are certainly circumstances under which China would use its military forces offensively, particularly in Taiwan, the only scenario I can imagine where it feels the need to use armed force in Central Asia would involve defending itself against Islamist forces that have come to power in the region and are assisting Uyghur separatists in Xinjiang. In this scenario, Russia, Kazakhstan and China are all allies uniting to stop the Islamist threat, rather than adversaries.

In other words, Russians (and Kazakhs) should continue to sleep safely, knowing that China is not going to attack — either now or anytime in the foreseeable future.