U.S. Helping Build Caspian Navies

By Joshua Kucera

The U.S. is planning to help Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan develop their navies, emphasizing the increasing importance of Caspian Sea security and the possibility of the sea's militarization, with all five bordering countries (including Iran and Russia) planning to build up their strength in the oil- and gas-rich sea.

In a just-released 875-page document (pdf), the State Department (which administers military aid, not the Pentagon) gives more information about what it plans to spend its money on. As previously reported, the Obama administration is proposing to cut its military aid to the Caucasus and Central Asia by about 8 percent, from $36.7 million in last year's request to $34 million this year. More than half that aid, $18 million, is earmarked for Georgia. But in the initial announcement, there wasn't much explanation for where the money is going. ($34 million, after all, is a drop in the $47 billion ocean of the total proposed State Department budget.)

> Caspian Region Map
Reading through the plans for military aid in the region, the most intriguing thing is that there is a clear emphasis on aid for the navies of the countries that border the Caspian. Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are all planning on building navies more or less from scratch, rich with oil money and anxious to protect their investments (and flex their muscles). The U.S. has helped these countries with their naval capabilities in the past, with the ill-fated Caspian Guard program and by donating some leftover patrol boats to the three countries. But that was before any of these countries got serious themselves about their navies, and was a bit ad hoc. It's hard to tell how serious the new plans are, and of course the amounts of money are still pretty small, but it does seem to be a concerted effort to build naval capacity in the Caspian.

The plans for Azerbaijan...

U.S. efforts will also continue to help develop Azerbaijan’s maritime capabilities and contribute to the overall security of the resource-rich Caspian Sea... The United States will continue to work with Azerbaijan’s navy to increase Caspian maritime security, develop professional military education, enhance peacekeeping capabilities in support of coalition operations, and promote progress towards NATO interoperability...
... Turkmenistan ...

U.S. assistance will be used to help establish Turkmenistan’s fledgling naval capability to improve security on the Caspian Sea. FMF also will be used to enhance the baseline in-country English-language training capability to develop opportunities for expanded engagement further.... Exchange programs funded by IMET will focus on English language and basic naval administration training. IMET funds will help Turkmenistan to develop a naval force to increase security on the Caspian Sea.
--- and Kazakhstan:

A top priority will be the refurbishment of a fourth helicopter in Kazakhstan’s Huey II helicopter fleet, which will enhance the military’s ability to protect significant energy infrastructure and respond to threats in Kazakhstan and on the Caspian Sea.

What's the U.S. interest in all this? Obviously an attack on oil or natural gas infrastructure in the Caspian would be an economic blow to the world economy, though a small one. It's also an obvious geopolitical check on the two major Caspian naval powers, Iran and Russia, which both have been building up their navies recently. And the cynic might suggest that Caspian navies, being built basically from scratch, are ripe opportunities for U.S. defense contractors. Air forces that are already built around MiGs and Sukhois are tough markets for Western products; a brand-new navy can buy whatever it wants. The language-training and basic naval administration of today could translate into good relationships between the U.S. Navy and these partner navies, which could pay off down the road. Whatever the case, all five countries are building up their navies in the sea, and the U.S. is getting involved.