Unlike most other post-Soviet countries, the Central Asian states do not believe in openness where national security is concerned. Uzbekistan, however, is ultra-secretive about these matters even by the region’s standards. All details pertaining to national security are banned from publication in the country. The cases where they reach the public domain are few and far between, although snippets of information are sometimes leaked by senior politicians and generals. No wonder, then, that little is known about the country’s secret services, and about its special task forces in particular. Collating and cross-referencing the details available in the public domain produces only a very approximate picture.
Unlike the other four Central Asian republics, Uzbekistan inherited large and capable special task forces from the former Soviet Union. Their most significant component was the HQ of the 15th Independent GRU Spetsnaz Brigade in Chirchik, near Tashkent. The brigade had a lot of combat experience during the War in Afghanistan, where four of its battalions protected the eastern Afghan border. It is important to note, however, that back at the time most of the soldiers and officers serving with the brigade were ethnic Slavs. As of May 15, 1988, out of its 2,482 servicemen some 1,066 (43 per cent) were ethnic Ukrainians, 984 (40 per cent) Russians, 94 (4 per cent) Belarusians, and only 231 (less than 10 per cent) Uzbeks.1 After the pullout of Soviet forces from Afghanistan, the HQ of the 15th Brigade and its 154th Battalion (a.k.a. the Jalalabad Battalion) returned to Chirchik; the other three battalions were stationed in other Soviet republics.
In the first years after the break-up of the Soviet Union the brigade’s units saw action during the civil war in Tajikistan. They fought for the People’s Front, which had the backing of Russia and Uzbekistan. In late 1994 the brigade was officially transferred to the command of the Uzbek MoD. In the early 1990s many of its servicemen, especially officers, were ethnic Slavs. (When the Uzbek armed forces were officially formed, only 6 per cent of their officers were ethnic Uzbeks, although the proportion had risen to 85 per cent by 2000). The Uzbek government’s policy was to build a predominantly mono-ethnic army dominated by ethnic Uzbeks. In addition, Tashkent has always been suspicious of Russia’s intentions. It doubted the loyalties of the highly trained special task force brigade, with its high percentage of Russian officers. That is why the government pursued a strategy of gradually replacing the Slavs serving in the brigade by ethnic Uzbeks; it also changed the specialization of the brigade by designating it as an airborne assault unit.
It would therefore be a mistake to view the existing special forces of the Uzbek army as direct descendants of the former 15th Brigade of the Spetsnaz. Even the brigade’s 154th Independent Special Task Force Battalion, which became a separate 28th Independent Special Task Force Battalion of the Uzbek Armed Forces (or an independent reconnaissance battalion, according to other sources) was disbanded in 2000.2 That is why the existing Uzbek special task force battalions do not trace their lineage directly to the Soviet Spetsnaz. They are more of a national Uzbek product; in addition, several NATO countries had a significant involvement in the making of that product.
Apart from the 15th Brigade, Uzbekistan also inherited the Soviet 459th Independent Special Task Force Company. Also known as the Kabul Company, it was one of the first Soviet special task force units to be deployed in Afghanistan. After the Soviet pullout from that country the company was stationed in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, and later became the core of an Uzbek special task force battalion. Another asset inherited by the Uzbeks from the Soviet Union was the 467th Spetsnaz Traning Regiment in Chirchik, which trained special task force fighters for service in Afghanistan. The availability of an established training facility meant that Uzbekistan was far better equipped than the other Central Asian republics to train its special task forces. However, the actual base of the Soviet Spetsnaz training regiment was used to host the airborne assault brigade (the successor the Soviet 15th Brigade), while the airborne brigade’s base was used as a counterterrorism training center.
Although the Uzbek authorities were suspicious of the former Soviet GRU Spetsnaz units, they seemed to have a lot more confidence in the National Security Service (SNB), the Uzbek successor of the KGB. In addition to taking over all human intelligence operations (except for military intelligence, which remains the Army’s remit), the SNB has also formed its own special task force units. The main of these units is the Burgut special task force brigade.3 In addition, each of the country’s provinces has its own regional SNB Spetsnaz battalion. The SNB also has the Kobra and Chayon reconnaissance-and-search battalions.
As for the Interior Ministry’s special task forces, they were never numerous to begin with, and in recent years they have been cut even further. The most drastic round of cuts came in 2009, when the government disbanded the Bars special battalion, which was involved in suppressing the unrest in Andijan. Prior to that it had disbanded another Interior Ministry unit, Yo’lbars. As a result, the ministry has no special task force units of its own, with the exception of special-purpose mobile police squads, the Uzbek equivalent of the Russian OMON. The decision to disband the special task force units controlled by the Interior Ministry (and some of the Army units) was a result of a power struggle between these two agencies and the SNB, in which the SNB came out on top. However, after the Interior Ministry took control over the National Guard, it set up the Qalqon reconnaissance-and-search battalion. The battalion, which is part of the National Guard, was also involved in the Andijan events.
The structure of the Uzbek armed forces has a number of significant differences from the old Soviet template. They do not have squads, companies or regiments. What they have instead is combat groups, platoons, battalions, brigades and military districts.4 The Uzbek combat group is bigger than a squad; its size is similar to that of the old special task force groups of the Soviet Army. An Uzbek platoon is the size of a Soviet Spetsnaz company. Uzbek special task force battalions are much smaller than their Western equivalents or the “reinforced” Soviet Spetsnaz battalions which were deployed in Afghanistan.
The main threat to Uzbekistan’s national security is posed by the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which is a powerful terrorist organization. The training programs of the republic’s special task force units therefore have a clear focus on counterinsurgency.
This is amply demonstrated by the recent joint exercises. The scenario of a joint Russian-Uzbek training event held at the Forish training grounds in Uzbekistan’s Central Military District in 2005 involved an operation against a “rebel base” in a village high in the mountains. The base was first surrounded by Russian and Uzbek Spetsnaz units, and then attacked by Uzbek alpine snipers.5 The scenario of the Combat Brotherhood exercise in 2006, held in Russia’s North Caucasus Military District, involved an operation by Russian and Uzbek special task forces to blockade “rebels” in a village. Fighters of a Uzbek counterterrorism unit then took the village by storm, and prevented trucks carrying reinforcements from joining the main rebel strength.6
These scenarios, as well as the scenarios of other national or multinational exercises in which Uzbek forces take part7, are closely modeled on real events that took place during fighting with IMU rebels in 1999-2000 and during the two Russian campaigns in Chechnya. It is worth noting, however, that these exercises tend to ignore the possibility of the rebels changing their tactics in view of the new lessons leant in Libya and Syria.
The Uzbek special task force units which took part in these and other joint training events were quite small, up to 200 people. That is equivalent to two reinforced platoons or an incomplete battalion.
There has been some speculation about the possibility of the Uzbek special task forces being used in a conventional war. But Uzbekistan’s most likely adversary, Tajikistan, is too weak militarily to mount an energetic offensive. On the other hand, Tajikistan’s membership of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and the presence of Russia’s 201st Military Base on the country’s territory substantially reduce the likelihood of a direct attack by Uzbekistan. As a result, the two countries are far more likely to fight by proxy, i.e. by supporting armed rebels operating in each other’s territory — which is something they have already done in the past. This is why it makes sense for Uzbekistan to focus on developing the counter-insurgency capability of its special task forces.
In the past, IMU rebels have repeatedly tried to reach densely populated parts of Uzbekistan via the country’s mountainous areas. This is why mountain training is one of the key parts of the Uzbek special forces’ training programs. The facility used for these purposes is the Forish armed forces training base near Hayatbashi Mountain, on the northern slopes of the Nuratau ridge. The base has a computerized simulator complex, a firing range, a mountain obstacle course, a “spy trail”, and a psychological resilience course.8 The latter deserves to be described in a bit more detail. “It consists of an underground bunker with five separate rooms, with an entry hatch and an exit hatch,” the Krasnaya Zvezda newspaper wrote in 2005. “The main purpose of this facility is to give personnel the necessary skills and training in conducting special operations indoors, where they have to overcome various obstacles. The fighters are given a limited amount of time to reach the exit; they have to do it in utter darkness, with only occasional flashes of gunfire and explosions lighting up their way. The rooms are filled with obstacles such as crates, rocks, and razor wire. Part of the course is a labyrinth. Some sections of the floor unexpectedly collapse by 20 to 50 centimeters. The trainees are surprised by ‘rebels’ with assault rifles or by ‘hostages’ suddenly emerging from the dark. The atmosphere is augmented by the blaring of sirens, screams, shouts and cries of the ‘hostages’. The fighters are armed with special AK-74 rifles which fire a laser beam instead of bullets every time the trigger is pressed. The targets are equipped with sensors; each hit is registered on the display on the central computer operated by the staff of the facility.” 9
Special task force fighters are also trained at the former base of the Soviet 15th Spetsnaz Brigade, which is now being used as a counterterrorism training facility.
As part of the overall emphasis on mountain training of the Uzbek special task forces, in 2005 the Tashkent Higher Armed Forces Command School set up a separate Mountain Training Department.10
The standards of mountain training of the Uzbek special task forces are fairly high. Fighters of the Burgut SNB special task force division came 7th in a mountain triathlon competition in Russia in 2010, beating several Russian mountain units.11
The Uzbek Spetsnaz units are also given a lot of training in urban warfare. That is entirely justified, given that the country has several big cities and a high proportion of its population is urban. Besides, recent experience has demonstrated that conflicts are increasingly being fought in urban environments. The importance of proper training in this area was underscored by the 2005 unrest in Andijan, in which several special task force units operated by various Uzbek defense and security agencies were involved, including the Army special task force battalion of the Eastern Military District.
The areas where the rebels are active (Fergana Valley, parts of the Tashkent Region, Surkhandarya Region, etc) are quite remote, and separated from the central parts of the country by natural barriers, including mountain ridges, rivers, and irrigation channels. Bringing special task forces to these areas by trucks can be very time-consuming, so these forces rely on airlift capability — especially helicopters — for rapid deployment. Most of the Uzbek helicopter fleet is old Soviet hardware, so it needs timely repairs and maintenance; new helicopters are needed as well. Given sufficient time, Uzbekistan is capable of deploying a fairly large special task force strength. When tensions rose on the Afghan border as IMU rebels were preparing to invade Uzbekistan in August 2000 in the Babatag ridge area, two special task force battalions were deployed. It is worth remembering, however, that each of these battalions is actually no more than the size of a reinforced company.
Another thing to take into account is that so far, all the large clashes between the Uzbek forces and IMU rebels (in Kyrgyzstan’s Batken District, and around the Babatag and Kuramin ridges) took place in the mountains, where the rebels were on foot and could not move very quickly. That meant that the Uzbek forces had enough time to intercept them. In addition, these areas are close to large bases of the Uzbek army (in Fergana, Termez, and Tashkent), as well as the bases of special task force units of the MoD, the Interior Ministry and the SNB, mobile army units, and Interior Troops. Such a situation meant that ensuring rapid deployment capability for the special task force battalions was not quite as pressing as it would have been otherwise.
Each of the Uzbek special task force battalions can form up to nine reconnaissance-and-search groups. That is less than the corresponding figure for the Soviet Spetsnaz battalions. In fact, the battalions which were part of the 15th and 22nd Spetsnaz brigades in Afghanistan each had 12 reinforced reconnaissance groups.
The Uzbek special task force battalions’ limited reconnaissance capability, combined with the large territory they need to protect, as well as the difficult terrain, call for use of additional reconnaissance and search instruments. UAVs in particular would help a lot.
The Uzbek government is aiming gradually to replace the conscripts in the armed forced with professional soldiers. It has reduced the term of conscription service from 18 months to 12. It has also introduced more stringent selection of conscripts. Half of the servicemen in the Uzbek armed forces are now professionals serving under contract. The special task force battalions are manned only by professionals. It is safe to assume that most of them are former conscripts who served in the paratrooper and airborne assault units, as well as in military reconnaissance.
In addition to efforts to raise the professional level of the rank and file soldiers, Uzbekistan is also trying to establish a professional NCO corps, modeled on Western equivalents. To that end the government has established NCO schools at every military district. The length of the training course at these schools has been increased from the initial five months to nine.12
One of the problems faced by the Uzbek special task forces is nepotism, with senior officers hiring members of their extended families to positions for which they are patently unsuitable. In the most egregious cases, some of the people on the payroll draw their salaries without ever showing up for work.13
Events in Andijan in 2005 have shown that fighters of the Uzbek special task force units, including the special task force battalion of the Eastern Military District, are very loyal to the regime. These units also demonstrated relatively high morale — compared at least with their Kyrgyz counterparts — during clashes with armed rebels in 2000. But the scale of the fighting was small, the losses sustained by the Uzbek forces were not large, and the opponents they have faced so far were relatively weak. It is not clear, therefore, whether that high level of morale can be sustained if the Uzbek special task forces ever face a more formidable adversary capable of inflicting heavier losses.
The weaponry used by the Uzbek Spetsnaz is overwhelmingly Soviet and Russian hardware. There are several explanations for this. To begin with, the Uzbek army has inherited a lot of Soviet hardware, as well as Soviet standards and military traditions. Another factor is that military-and-technical cooperation between Uzbekistan and NATO countries was frozen after the violent suppression of unrest in Andijan. Finally, Western weapons tend to be more expensive.
In the first half of the 2000s Uzbekistan began to receive Russian small arms, including assault rifles, sniper rifles, and hand-held machine guns.14 Nevertheless, the Uzbek special task forces are not very-well armed compared with their Russian counterparts (i.e. special units of the FSB and the Interior Ministry), who have the latest Western and Russian-made sniper rifles, assault rifles and pistols. The difference has been very obvious during joint exercises and competitions in which the two countries’ forces were involved. The performance of the Uzbek teams during those events has also been described as "middling".15
Clashes with rebels in August 2000 have demonstrated the importance of mobility in mountainous terrain. To that end the Uzbek special task forces are actively using helicopters. To bolster their firepower, they also rely on the ZU-23 23mm AA guns and mortars. During the unrest in Andijan they used BTR-80 APCs, trucks, and Land Rover Defender vehicles received from NATO countries as aid.
Western allies have also helped to equip the Uzbek special task forces with modern communication and navigation instruments, thermal imagers, and other advanced technology. Relations between the United States and Uzbekistan have improved in recent years, and the unofficial ban on selling non-lethal weaponry to that country has been lifted. It is therefore reasonable to expect that the Uzbek special task forces will receive more Western hardware, including some of the NATO transport vehicles being pulled out out Afghanistan.
To summarize, the following conclusions can be made:
Uzbekistan has formidable special task forces. Most of them are controlled by the MoD and the National Security Service, the SNB.
Efforts to make these forces more capable are being hampered by rivalry between the various Uzbek defense and security agencies. Another problem, which affects personnel policy in particular, is nepotism.
The main objective of the Uzbek special task forces is to fight armed rebels based in the country itself and in neighboring states. The training programs of these forces therefore place heavy emphasis on counterinsurgency operations in mountainous terrain and in urban environments.
Compared with their counterparts in the other former Soviet states, the training standards of the Uzbek special task forces are middling.
These forces are armed mostly with Soviet and Russian-made weaponry, although they have some Western gear as well.
On the whole, the capability of the Uzbek special task forces seems adequate to the challenges currently facing them. But in the event of a mass uprising (such as the one in Libya or Syria), the numerical strength and mobility of the these forces and of the MoD/Interior Ministry mobile units could well prove insufficient to nip such an uprising in the bud (as happened in Andijan in 2005) or to fight a large-scale civil war.
1. The birthplace of the Chirchik Spetsnaz. History of the 15th Independent Special Task Force Brigade of the GRU. Edited by O.V. Krivolapov. — Dnipropetrovsk — 2007. — P.572.
2. 154th Special Task Force Battalion. Reference. http://154stoder.ru/history.html.
4. Islam Karimov. We will fight in a new way. Interview with the Uzbek President, by Yuriy Chernogayev. Kommersant newspaper, May 26, 2000. http://kommersant.ru/doc/148935.
Interview with Uzbek Defense Minister Kabul Berdiev, by Mikhail Sevastyanov. Natsionalnaya Oborona journal, 2011. http://www.oborona.ru/includes/periodics/geopolitics/2011/0516/21276148/print.shtml.
5. Roman Stershnev. Forish — tested by battle. Krasnaya Zvesda newspaper. September 24, 2005. http://old.redstar.ru/2005/09/24_09/1_01.html.
Roman Stershnev. Alma Mater in Forish. Krasnaya Zvezda newspaper. September 29, 2005. http://old.redstar.ru/2005/09/29_09/n.html.
6. Oleg Gorupay, Aleksandr Khrolenko, Vladimir Yevdomashkin. Military brotherhood of Moscow and Tashkent. Krasnaya Zvezda newspaper, September 22, 2006. http://old.redstar.ru/2006/09/22_09/1_02.html.
7. Aleksey Matveyev. Military exercises as a weapon against dissidents. Gazeta SNG. http://www.centrasia.ru/newsA.php?st=1058993700.
8. Andrey Korbut. Forish for Spetsnaz. Voyenno-promyshlennyy kuryer newspaper. September 28, 2005. http://18.104.22.168/articles/2591
Roman Stershnev. Alma Mater in Forish. Krasnaya Zvezda newspaper. September 29, 2005. http://old.redstar.ru/2005/09/29_09/n.html.
10. The mountains choose the strongest. Uzbekistan Today. January 17, 2007. http://www.ut.uz/rus/obshestvo/gori_vibirayut_silneyshix.mgr.
11. Sergey Shibayev. Mountain triathlon: Closing the subject. http://www.risk.ru/users/ssh/12842/.
12. Andrey Teshayev. Uzbekistan’s armed forces guarantee the country’s peace and security. Uzbekistan Today. January 15, 2009. http://www.ut.uz/rus/obshestvo/voorujennie_sili_uzbekistana_garant_mirnoy_i_bezopasnoy_jizni_strani.mgr.
13. Shomurod Ismoilov. Criminal clans in Uzbek secret services. September 13, 2004. http://www.centrasia.ru/newsA.php?st=1095045180.
14. Bilateral military cooperation between Russia and Uzbekistan. December 29, 2008. http://easttime.ru/analitic/3/8/550p.html.
15. Aleksandr Tikhonov. Alfa’s victory shots. Krasnaya Zvezda newspaper. July 1, 2009. http://old.redstar.ru/2009/07/01_07/1_11.html.