By Nicolas von Kospoth
Israel’s Elbit Systems will reportedly upgrade the Azerbaijani Army’s T-72 main battle tanks (MBTs). Earlier this month, Elbit Systems announced that it has been selected by an undisclosed Asian customer for a tank upgrade project.
Rashad Suleymanov of the Azeri-Press Agency (APA) quoted military sources, reporting that the Israeli company and Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defence Industry (MDI) had reached an agreement on the upgrade of the Army’s Russian-built MBTs.
The contract, which was announced by Elbit Systems on 4 October 2010, will provide Azerbaijan’s T-72s with state-of-the-art battle management systems as well as observation and surveillance systems. According to the Israeli company, the modernisation programme has a total value of $56 million and will be completed within two years. Neither Elbit Systems nor Azerbaijani officials provided further details on the contract, such as the number of tanks to be upgraded. Azerbaijan operates a fleet of some 180 T-72 main battle tanks, of which 62, reportedly, were purchased from Russia in 2009.
According to APA, Elbit Systems was recently selected over Turkish-based ASELSAN to carry out the modernisation project. Both companies had simultaneously tested the systems offered in their respective bids for the multi-million dollar programme on several tanks of the Azerbaijani Army in Nakhchivan, an autonomous region in south-western Azerbaijan.
The selection of Elbit Systems underlines the company’s efforts to gain a stronger foothold in the South Caucasian country. Israel’s largest defence electronics company opened an office in Baku in September 2009 and founded a local company, registered as Elbit Systems of Azerbaijan Ltd and led by Edward Majorovich Chernin.
On the occasion of the contract announcement, Joseph Ackerman, Elbit Systems' President and CEO, said: “Our selection for this upgrade project, following previous projects we have carried out for this customer, attests to the high level of satisfaction with our systems and performance.” The head of the Israeli company added that both Elbit Systems subsidiaries, Elbit Systems Land & C4I – Tadiran and Elbit Systems Electro-optics – Elop, would contribute to the programme.
The company already works with the Azerbaijani Ministry of Defence Industry in the field of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Furthermore, APA reported in September 2009 that the MDI decided to co-operate with Turkish and Israeli defence companies in the joint production of armoured combat vehicles, including tracked fighting vehicles, bridge-layers and armoured trucks assembled on surplus vehicle chassis.
In addition to its strong co-operation with the Israeli defence industry and major purchases from Russian surplus, the country has a long-lasting industrial link with Turkey, underlined by a number of upgrade programmes awarded to Turkish companies and joint production projects (e.g. see http://goo.gl/USgF and http://goo.gl/dOsH).
Furthermore, Azerbaijan, which still has significant border issues with neighbouring Armenia, plays an important role in support of the international Afghanistan operation and currently deploys 90 soldiers to ISAF. During a visit in July, US Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates praised the country’s contribution to ISAF. According to US Department of Defense (DoD) officials, about 25 per cent of Coalition supplies bound for Afghanistan pass through the so-called “Caucasus Spur”, which includes Azerbaijan. In July, Gates stated: “Clearly, the ability to overfly Azerbaijan [and] the ability to use ground transportation through Azerbaijan – as with Russia, and as with Kyrgyzstan – is [...] the most effective, the most cost-efficient ways to get supplies to the international Coalition in Afghanistan, as well as the Afghan forces themselves.”
Therefore, Azerbaijan does not only remain an important local player in the politically still turbulent Caucasian region, but is also a strategically important hub for Western armed forces – not least because of its significant crude oil industry and its geographical location on the shore of the Caspian Sea between the regional and international key powers Iran, Turkey and Russia.
Azerbaijan's finance minister has recently announced that the country will spend $3.287 billion on defence next year, making it one of the priorities in the 2011 state budget. According to AzerNews, this financial boost doubles the defence budget to a total of 18.9 per cent of the overall state budget in comparison to 2010. Nearly half the budget, reportedly, will be spent to modernise the Azerbaijani Armed Forces.