Domestic Production of Drones: The Latest in Uzbekistan’s Military Modernization Drive
Feb 17, 2022
On January 18, 2022, the State Defense Industry Committee in Uzbekistan released a statement announcing the domestic production of winged drones and quadcopters under the brand name Lochin (Falcon). This will make Uzbekistan the first Central Asian country to produce unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), a significant milestone for a country that has focused on expanding its domestic military industrial capabilities in recent years. The Scientific Production Center for Unmanned Aerial Systems, under the authority of the State Defense Industry Committee, is equipped with the facilities to handle all aspects of production, assembly, inspection, repair, and maintenance for the Lochin UAVs, which meet international technical requirements. The drones are designed for offensive strikes, reconnaissance, and a variety of non-military monitoring purposes. It is not clear from the recent announcement if plans are underway to bring Lochin drones to the international market. The State Defense Industry Committee has instead focused on highlighting the broad application of UAVs to support a number of domestic interests.
Realizing domestic capacity to produce strategic equipment is a key step towards improving technical capabilities and modernizing the military, a focus of President Shavkat Mirziyoyev since 2017. Mirziyoyev has previously criticized the Uzbek military, claiming that it “does not meet the demands of [this] rapidly changing era.” In 2017, he directed the formation of the State Committee of Uzbekistan on the Defense Industry, which sought to consolidate decision-making on state defense policy and defense production under a single entity. Since then, the government has been targeting increased industrial potential for military and dual-use items. This strategy pivots away from historical reliance on imports for military equipment, which in recent years has raised concerns about dependency on foreign supplies. It also sets Uzbekistan apart from its neighbors. Over the past year, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan have opted to boost their military arsenal with purchases of Turkish- and Russian-made drones, rather than divert resources towards domestic production.
Modest steps have been taken towards boosting domestic industrial production since 2020 when the Uzbek government set a goal to double production of military and dual-use items. In 2021, the State Defense Industry Committee announced that it had developed a remote-controlled heavy machine gun and had begun production for a light-armored vehicle, Qalqon (Shield). The Lochin drone is a particularly notable development in this initiative, given Mirziyoyev’s specific interest in developing drones as a more cost efficient alternative to the Soviet AN-2 aircraft, used to carry out surveillance operations.
While the use of drones is strictly regulated in Uzbekistan, they hold value for their potential civil applications in addition to military use. UAVs have already been used to target key interests of the government of Uzbekistan. On January 2, 2021, drones were deployed in the Fergana region to monitor compliance with COVID masking rules and traffic laws. That same year, a German consortium in collaboration with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) developed drones with specialized equipment, set to be deployed in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan for remote monitoring of radiation at former uranium mines and processing areas.
Recent events in Afghanistan have reinforced the critical importance of military readiness, drawing focus to the tactical uses of UAVs. In August 2021, Uzbek armed forces participated in a series of joint defense readiness drills with Russian armed forces along Uzbekistan’s 89-mile shared border with Afghanistan, incorporating Russian-made ZALA 421-16E drones for aerial reconnaissance. Descriptions of Uzbek drones’ capabilities, still in the design phase at this time, emphasized enhanced reconnaissance and situational monitoring to target illegal armed groups. These capabilities equip the Uzbek military with modern tools to maintain stability along the border.
Maintaining a peaceful border is not just critical for security, but also to maintain trade links throughout Central Asia. The Dustlik Bridge between Uzbekistan and Afghanistan serves as a critical land link in transit routes between Europe and Asia, allowing the economy of Uzbekistan to benefit from transit fees paid by China, Kazakhstan, and other Central Asian countries.
Given Uzbek government concerns on maintaining stability along the border, the technical and monitoring capabilities of the new Lochin drones will provide distinct benefits to this end.
Despite ongoing reforms under Mirziyoyev, Uzbekistan remains a consolidated authoritarian regime, raising concerns that drones could be broadly misapplied to monitor citizens. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the global rise of digital authoritarianism, particularly in non-democratic countries where advanced AI systems have been utilized to tighten domestic controls. Within the past several years, Uzbekistan has signed a number of agreements with Chinese companies, such as ZTE and Huawei, to introduce facial recognition technologies in a variety of sectors ranging from education to law enforcement. Integration of these technologies into the new drone program raises questions whether the government will use this expansive surveillance infrastructure to target political dissenters and other demonstrators.