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Defense Policies

Formation and Development of Armenian Armed Forces


Political analyst

Noyan Tapan news agency, Armenia

The establishment of the Armenian Armed Forces began in the early 1990s, practically before the collapse of the Soviet Union. In 1989-1990 the Armenian leadership - as repre­sented by then speaker of parliament, later Ar­menia's first president, Levon Ter-Petrosyan and Prime Minister Vazgen Manukian - was alarmed by the scope of unauthorized military activities and took a number of steps to regain control over the situation. According to various esti­mates, the Armenian side had up to 5,000 troops involved in hostilities on the border with Azer­baijan and in Nagorno-Karabakh that were not under central Soviet control. One of the first steps was the formation of a special regiment of the Armenian Interior Ministry in 1990 that had up to 400 men. In early 1991, when the regi­ment was reorganized into four battalions, it al­ready had over 1,000 troops. At the same time, volunteers fighting on the border with Azerbai­jan were organized into six to eight battalions.

A special Defense Committee under the Arme­nian government was set up around that time. Parliament member Vagan Shirkhanian chaired the committee and Captain 1st rank Vaghar­shak Harutiunian, who became the Armenian defense minister in 1999-2000, was his deputy. The Committee was tasked with uniting all ir­regular formations and units of the Interior Ministry - the Interior Troops regiment, special purpose police units, etc - under one command within the framework of the Soviet political system and using government agencies. It had to pro­vide the forces with all necessary re­sources for conducting combat operations in the border zone and in Nagorno-Karabakh. In addition, the De­fense Committee leadership considered the pos­sibility that social and po­litical developments could lead to the collapse of the USSR, and consequently the escalation of hostilities in Na­gorno-Karabakh. Naturally, at least medium-term military planning was re­quired, as was se­rious preparation for possible escalations.

The Creation and Establishment of the National Armed Forces

After the collapse of the USSR, Armenia set up its  own  Defense  Ministry, headed  by  Vazgen

Sarkisian, the former chairman of the parlia­mentary defense and security commission. While the radical opposition demanded that former Soviet army property be nationalized/seized, the Armenian leadership chose to obtain the arms and materiel thorough negotiations with the military and political leadership of the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) and Russia. In the summer of 1992, Moscow trans­ferred the arms, ammunition and military hard­ware of two out of three motorized rifle divi­sions deployed on Armenian territory (15th and 165th) to Yerevan. Around the same time, the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty imposed restrictions on Armenia as well as its neighbors in the former Soviet Transcau­casus. Each country in the region was allowed to have no more than 220 battle tanks, 220 ar­mored combat vehicles, 150 artillery systems, 100 combat aircraft and 50 multi-use combat helicopters.

After the defeats in Nagorno-Karabakh in the summer of 1992, and especially after the loss of the village of Artsvashen, Defense Minister Sarkisian admitted in a TV appearance that the appointment of a better trained person to the post of defense minister was necessary for the successful development of the Armed Forces. In the fall of 1992 he was replaced for opposition leader and former Prime Minister Vazgen Manukian. It was during his term that the de­velopment of the Armenian Armed Forces be­came more extensive and better organized. Manukian was able to bring together like-minded persons and lay down the foundation of the army, relying on professionals. Former dep­uty commander-in-chief of the ground troops of the Soviet Armed Forces, Lieutenant General Norat Ter-Grigoryants, who held the posts of first deputy defense minister and chief of the General Staff in 1991-1995 (with intervals) was the main ideologue of military development in Armenia and the architect of its fundamental doctrines.

The partial conversion of the army to a profes­sional basis was an important step in the first stage of military reform. At the turn of 1993, a special presidential decree ordered the creation of a motorized rifle brigade filled on a purely contract basis*. It was mainly comprised of Fedayeen from various militia formations. The step put an end to the existence of illegal armed groups in Armenia, stabilized the political situa­tion and created an extremely combat capable unit, the core of which was made up of service­men who had gained combat experience in Af­ghanistan and Nagorno-Karabakh. Thus, for a long time, professional formations operated in the border zone with Azerbaijan, which suffered minimal losses while delivering significant dam­age to the adversary. Having set up professional formations, Armenia's military and political leadership minimized the combat use of un­trained recruits and developing units of the na­tional army. This crucially changed the domestic situation and stabilized conscription to the Armed Forces, Border Troops and Interior Troops. Since spring of 1993, target figures for conscription have regularly been reached.

Given the small size of the country, Ter-Grigor­yants rejected the Soviet system of building up defenses - the multi-tier system of gradual de­ployment of units from the state border throughout the territory. Armenia was thus able to set up more mobile and flexible units. Mo­torized rifle brigades of three-four battalions, with 1,500 to 2,500 troops each, best fit this model during the first stage. Presently, the regiment is apparently becoming the basic building bock of the Armenian army. The main objective of Armenia's combat tactics has be­come minimizing losses.

The foundations of the defense doctrine intro­duced by Ter-Grigoryants and his aides at the General Staff clearly provides for powerful pre­emptive strikes at an adversary preparing for aggression as well as for purely defensive ac­tions. At present, troops are working to raise combat training to a qualitatively higher degree. Joint exercises and practice firings with the Russian troops deployed in Armenia are also carried out for this purpose.

At the first stage of the development of its Armed Forces, Armenia purposefully refrained from establishing an air force. This was largely due to the absence of proper military airfields, repair and maintenance services and well-trained flight and ground personnel. In addition, fuel supplies were quite irregular. Armenia had to opt for setting up effective air defense units for neutralizing enemy fighter and ground-attack aircraft. It managed to almost fully restore the Soviet-era air defense system (SAMs and radar stations) on Armenian territory. In April 1994 came the first official declaration that "air de­fense means reliably protect the skies above Yerevan as well as the entire air space of Arme­nia." The assistance of Russian military experts and the highly trained local personnel greatly contributed to the revival of the air defense sys­tem and the enhancement of its combat readi­ness.

The Armenian Air Force was established in the summer of 1993. Later, Armenian aviation units participated in a number of exercises and won praise from military observers.

There were certain problems with personnel training the first stage of army development, since, unlike other CIS countries, Armenia did not have a single military college or academy in its territory. At the same time, many Armenian officers had served with the Soviet Armed Forces. Some sources assert that, among Soviet officers, only Russians, Ukrainians and Belaru­sians outnumbered Armenians. However, only a fraction of them (5-7%) responded to the call of the Armenian leadership in 1992 to return to their homeland and participate in the develop­ment of the national armed forces. Their reluc­tance can mainly be attributed to Armenia's desperate economic position and the inability of the authorities to resolve the numerous social and housing problems of the returnees. At first the authorities resolved the problem by calling up reservists, and even officers who had retired 5-10 and sometimes 15 years earlier. Later, in 1993-1994, Armenia developed its own system of personnel training that includes a military sec­ondary school, an aviation vocational institute, one-year-long officers' courses for college gradu­ates, the Vazgen Sarkisian Military College and training units within the Armed Forces. Officers for the Armenian army are also trained in Rus­sia and Greece. Military service combines con­scription with voluntary service. Conscripts serve for 24 months in training units and regu­lar forces (before fall of 1994 the term was 18 months). Volunteers sign a contract for 3 to 15 years.

It is clear that the army is one of the most sus­tainable Armenian institutions. The Defense Ministry regularly takes tough and sometimes controversial steps to minimize negative proc­esses in the Armed Forces and to ensure disci­pline and high combat readiness.

By now the very important first stage of mili­tary development has been successfully com­pleted. The second and far more serious stage is ahead - creating a 21st-century army adapted to the changing military and political situation, capable of responding to current and future threats, and fully able to guarantee national se­curity. The process implies a set of political, economic, social, legislative, military and other efforts that must be carried out by the highest executive and legislative bodies as well as the Defense Ministry and the public at large.

Armenian Armed Forces Today

As of the start of 2002, the Armenian Armed Forces has 60,000 troops (52,000 in the Ground Troops and the rest in Air Defense and Air Force). The 2002 defense budget was $75 mil­lion and the draft budget for 2003 allots at least $82 million for defense. This is more than 4% of the GDP - the highest figure among CIS coun­tries.

In addition to the aforementioned weaponry of the two motorized rifle divisions received in 1992, between 1994 and 1996 Russia transferred the following to its strategic ally under inter­agency agreements:

  • 8 R-17 (SS-1B Scud) short-range tactical mis­sile systems,

  • 27 Krug (SA-4 Ganef) short-range surface-to-air missile systems,

  • 84 T-72 main battle tanks,

  • 50 BMP-2 AIFVs,

  • 36 D-30 howitzers,

  • 18 D-20 howitzers,

  • 18 Grad MLRSs;

  • and other military hardware.

Armenia's ground troops presently include:

  • 4 motorized infantry brigades,

  • 10 independent infantry regiments,

  • 1 artillery brigade,

  • 2 air defense missile brigades.

The Armenian Armed Forces are also prepared to closely cooperate with the virtually profes­sional army of the self-proclaimed republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, which, according to various media reports, has 316 tanks, 324 armored com­bat vehicles and 322 guns with a caliber of 122 millimeters and more (44 of them MLRS).

Arms upgrading and procurement programs are fairly limited by the shortage of funding. Never­theless, we believe that in the foreseeable future Armenia will concentrate on upgrading its fleet of armored combat vehicles, tanks and self-pro­pelled artillery. Upgrading armor protection (anti-mine and electrodynamic protection de­vices) and installing special laser equipment to improve firing accuracy may be of particular in­terest.

The Armenian leadership is very likely to take advantage of the opportunity to procure arms at factory prices under the CIS Collective Security Agreement in order to supply its army with the latest Russian armaments, primarily short- and medium-range anti-aircraft systems. The latest Russian models (such as the Tor short-range surface-to-air missile system) perform as well as Western systems and, at discounted prices, are quite affordable even for countries with re­sources as limited as Armenia's.

In Soviet times, Armenia had many defense in­dustry facilities, however, most of them manu­factured only components, not end products. Nevertheless, according to some estimates, Ar­menia produced up to 40% of all Soviet military electronics, including air defense automated control systems (Razdanmash), independent fuel systems for air defense (Armelektromash), vari­ous space systems (Galaktika) and electronics for air defense systems (Elektron).

However, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the virtual termination of financing from Soviet defense orders, most of the munitions plants have been either standing idle or operat­ing at extremely low capacity. Some of the en­terprises work closely with Russian facilities and are ready to cooperate in the development of new types of armaments and the assembly of individual systems.

In the 1990s, Armenia built production facilities that can satisfy the needs of the national armed forces for ammunition for small arms of varying caliber and for certain artillery systems. The production of portable and light mortars and ammunition for them was launched. The Arme­nian defense industry also developed new mod­els of small arms that use 5.45- and 7.62-mm ammunition and portable anti-tank grenade launchers that use standard rounds. All of the newly developed models have gone through the entire set of testing.

As for heavy armaments, Armenian defense plants can repair as well as upgrade most exist­ing armaments, including tanks and armored vehicles, the main components of air defense systems and small arms.

Potential security threats and challenges

The start of a new stage in the development of the Armed Forces requires, above all, the de­termination of current and future threats and challenges to Armenian national security that need to be addressed by the Armed Forces, and also an accurate forecast of political and mili­tary developments in the region.

Armenia is the only country in the region and one of the few in the world that faces almost exclusively external national security threats. Two of its closest neighbors - Azerbaijan and Turkey - pose the greatest threats and chal­lenges to Armenian national security.


Potential Azerbaijani armed aggression against Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia is clearly the greatest threat to national security today and in the future. The border with Azerbaijan consti­tutes 65% of Armenia's total borderline - 787 out of 1,254 kilometers. Azerbaijan has concen­trated 80% of its military potential at its border with Armenia and in the frontline zone of Na­gorno-Karabakh and may resume hostilities any time. The main objective of combat training in the Azerbaijani Armed Forces is establishing full control over Nagorno-Karabakh and parts of Armenia. All large-scale exercises rehearse these very scenarios.

Map 1. Armenia

The map is prepared by CAST.

An armed conflict is all the more likely, since the only solution to the problem of Nagorno-Karabakh Azerbaijan finds acceptable is "the restoration of territorial integrity," i.e. the es­tablishment of full control over Nagorno-Kara­bakh. Azerbaijan regards any other settlement option as temporary. The moment Azerbaijan's military and political leadership feels it has reached military superiority over Armenia, war will become inevitable and will be directed not only against Nagorno-Karabakh but also against Armenia, since the Azerbaijani leadership be­lieves that it is impossible to establish control over Nagorno-Karabakh without defeating Ar­menia militarily.

The Nagorno-Karabakh issue will be the trump card in domestic political rivalry under any re­gime in Azerbaijan. Opposition groups will al­ways accuse the authorities of inability to re­solve the question and speculate on the problem in their quest for power. In turn, any Azerbai­jani government will try to settle the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh on its favor to strengthen its own positions.

While, according to Yerevan, the confrontation in Nagorno-Karabakh centers on rights of na­tions to self-determination, Azerbaijan aims to play up the religious and ethnic aspects, hoping to win the support of the entire Islamic world through. Using the religious factor, it appeals to all Islamic countries to denounce Armenia and impose sanctions against it. This policy has been effective, as demonstrated by the participa­tion of Afghan Mujahedin, the Turkish Boz Gurd (Gray Wolf) organization and volunteers from other Muslim organizations in hostilities in Nagorno-Karabakh in 1992-1994 on the Azerbai­jani side and by the decision of the 1997 Tehran summit of the Organization of the Islamic Con­ference to denounce Armenian actions.

In addition to seeking control over Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan presents territorial claims over certain Armenian areas it has declared are parts of "historical Azerbaijan," namely the ba­sin of Lake Sevan and Zangezur (the marz of Syunik). Of particular strategic significance to Azerbaijan is the establishment of joint Azerbai­jani-Turkish control over Zangezur. This would establish a direct link between Turkey and Azerbaijan and separate Armenia from Iran.

Azerbaijan has initiated political alliances with countries that have similar strategic interests. These alliances tend to become military-political unions indirectly aimed against Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh. One example is GUUAM (Georgia, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Moldova), which describes its objective as the pursuit of a concerted policy of protecting terri­torial integrity. The organization proposes military-technical and economic cooperation and the formation of a joint peacekeeping force. There are also reasons to believe that the "Azerbaijan, Turkey and Israel" and "Azerbaijan, Turkey and Georgia" military-strategic alliances are emerging.

Such alliances dangerous because they threaten Armenia's interest in closer integration with CIS countries, and because they give Azerbaijan ad­ditional opportunities to pressure Yerevan through international organizations. Baku will doubtlessly use this factor to change the mili­tary-political situation in the region to its favor, with all of the resulting consequences.

Azerbaijan also plays the "oil card." It tries to pressure the United States, the UK, Japan and other countries, through their oil companies, to exert political and economic pressure on Arme­nia and Nagorno-Karabakh and get Armenia to make unilateral concessions. Simultaneously Azerbaijan attempts to convince the West that Armenia is the main factor of instability in the region, and that it hampers Western penetration of the region and guarantees Russia's presence.


When Armenian independence was restored, Turkey recognized its sovereignty and independ­ence, but put forward unacceptable political conditions for the establishment of diplomatic relations. The 268-kilometer Armenian-Turkish border (21.4% of Armenia's total borderline) remains closed, even for humanitarian cargo.

The latest available wording of the Turkish Na­tional Military Concept (July 1998) regards Armenia as Turkey's second most likely adver­sary after Greece. Turkey poses a number of criticisms against Armenia, "the maximal inten­sification of which may result in a military clash," namely:

  • "the extreme nationalist forces" governing Arme­nia "base their official policy on anti-Turk­ism," make "groundless" territorial claims, and accuse Turkey of genocide against Armenians, demanding compensation;

  • the Armenian lobby, in alliance with Greek and other anti-Turkish forces, pressures the US Congress to make anti-Turkish decisions;

  • Armenia pursues an "aggressive" policy against Turkey's ally, Azerbaijan, carrying out "a policy of genocide against Muslim Turks;"

  • on the international arena, Armenia closely co­operates with all of Turkey's potential adversar­ies in an attempt to form a united anti-Turkish front;

  • Armenia has a military alliance with Russia which is "spearheaded against Turkey" and hosts a Russian military base on its territory;

  • Armenia "offers military assistance and sup­port" to Kurdish separatists by organizing their "training centers and military camps" in its terri­tory.

A major grouping of the Turkish armed forces (the 3rd field army and the 2nd tactical air command) bases its training on possible hostili­ties against Armenia and the improvement of the techniques and methods of such warfare. The Turkish National Security Council ordered the reconstruction (carried out in 1995-1997) of landing strips at airports in Igdir and Agri (Karakose) - 12 and 72 kilometers off the Armenian border, re­spectively - so that they could be used by war­planes of any class for constant air reconnais­sance and possible military actions against Armenia.

Turkey was drawn into the Armenian-Azerbai­jani conflict when it undertook the task of re­forming the Azerbaijani Armed Forces, improv­ing their combat capability, personnel training and retraining. It is implementing a consistent program of building a Turkish military base near Nakhichevan. Turkey provides the majority of armaments and ammunition for Azerbaijan's augmented motorized artillery division deployed in Nakhichevan and has participated in several joint exercises with Azerbaijan on the territory of the Nakhichevan Republic, raising the stan­dard of military cooperation to a higher level. Turkey and Azerbaijan are also increasing and raising to a qualitatively new level cooperation between their special services - directed largely against Armenia.

Turkey's aspirations for leadership in the Mus­lim, combined with its determination to become a regional superpower, also constitute a certain threat to Armenian national security. The Turk­ish fleet is active in the Black Sea, while the Turkish armed forces seek to participate in peacekeeping operations in the Caucasus.

While Yerevan recognizes the military threats coming from Azerbaijan and Turkey, it differen­tiates between them. The military threat posed by Azerbaijan is immediate and real, and may materialize as aggression against Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh whenever Baku finds it con­venient.

The military threat posed by Turkey is also real, but, given its present geopolitical position, An­kara is forced to be extremely cautious in its foreign policy. Its ruling circles recognize the numerous domestic and international problems Turkey is facing (a political crisis, a split in so­ciety, the Kurdish national liberation move­ment, a sharp rise in the activities of Muslim fundamentalists, the problem of Cyprus, com­plicated relations with European institutions, deep contradictions with almost all of its neighbors etc). In these circumstances, armed aggression against Armenia could create com­pletely unexpected problems for Turkey. There­fore, at the present stage, Turkey prefers to carry out its anti-Armenia policy through all-en­compassing military assistance to Azerbaijan rather than military means.


Relations between Armenia and Georgia have traditionally been and remain friendly. Georgia does not pose a threat or danger to Armenia, but there are a number of problems in their re­lations:

  • Parts of Georgia neighboring Armenia are mainly populated by Azeris, and their numbers continue to grow. The Azerbaijani authorities and special services have used this factor during confrontations with Armenia and will undoubt­edly continue to use it to organize provocations, acts of terrorism and sabotage and also to impose communication and other blockades.

  • Turkey and Azerbaijan are making serious ef­forts to send Meskhetian Turks back to Georgia, and more specifically to Samtskhe-Javak­heti/Javakhk (an area with a predominantly Armenian population). At Georgian-Turkish top-level talks on the issue, Georgia agreed in princi­ple to the return of Meskhetian Turks but asked for time "to investigate the public opinion." Cer­tain Georgian political groups are ready to meet these demands in hopes of strengthening relations with Turkey.

  • It should be stressed that Georgia has small but fairly active radical nationalist forces that regard the Lorri district Georgian territory "temporarily adjoined" by Armenia and consider Javakhk a time bomb in Georgia.

  • Despite the development of relations between Armenia and Georgia, their geopolitical interests are gradually diverging. Georgia seeks to secure the transit of Azerbaijani and Kazakh oil to Tur­key and further on to international markets, which should guarantee it $2 billion in annual revenues. Turkey is now Georgia's primary trade partner. Turkish-Georgian military cooperation is rapidly developing. For example, the two coun­tries conduct joint military exercises and Turkey helps Georgia train military personnel and sup­plies military hardware.

The further development and deepening of Georgia's military, political and economic coop­eration with Azerbaijan and Turkey may make Georgia an unwitting member of a tripartite military-political union directed against Arme­nia.


Iran does not pose a serious threat to Armenia and will not in the foreseeable future. Their common border (35 kilometers, or 2.7% of Ar­menia's total borderline) is Armenia's only gateway to the Middle East and is vital to Ar­menia.

However, Azeris constitute about 16% of Iran's population and live in the Iranian provinces of West and East Azerbaijan, which border on Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Taking advan­tage of this - and of the material and moral support from Turkey - many political forces in Azerbaijan call for the formation of a "United Azerbaijan". Under the previous president of Azerbaijan, Abulfaz Elchibey, this was a key national objective. Today some ruling groups (Motherland, United Azerbaijan) and opposi­tion forces (Popular Front, Musavat etc.) that have a certain influence on Azerbaijani political life are listing among their key goals the forma­tion of a United Azerbaijan with Iran's northern provinces, which are populated by Azeris.

While it is unlikely today, a future scenario that cannot be ruled out is that certain liberali­zation and transformation of Iran's domestic scene may strengthen separatist sentiments among Azeris living in Iran's northern regions, who would seek separation or support the for­mation of a common Azeri state. Such develop­ments would seriously endanger the security of Armenian borders in the south and pose the threat of a blockade.

Armenia is cooperating with two regional secu­rity organizations: the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization and NATO. It is one of the most active members of the CIS security organi­zation and cooperates with NATO under the Partnership for Peace program.

Despite its successful interaction with NATO, the Armenian leadership does not plan to adopt the standards of the Alliance, giving priority to military, military-political and military-techni­cal cooperation within the Collective Security Treaty Organization.

Bilateral strategic cooperation with Russia is important for guaranteeing Armenia's security. Military, political and economic cooperation is expanding within the framework of the August 29, 1997 Russian-Armenian treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance.

Nevertheless, Armenia does not regard the treaty as an impenetrable shield against all dangers, primarily because Moscow has signed an almost identical treaty with Baku. Yerevan realizes that Russia has serious political, economic and military interests in Azerbaijan. It is also aware of the attitude of the Russian political leader­ship to the issue of Nagorno-Karabakh - that a settlement should not violate Azerbaijan's terri­torial integrity.

It is clear - considering all of the political chal­lenges to Armenia, actual and possible threats, the processes in the region and around it, the ups and downs in military-political develop­ments, the difficulty of evaluating the current situation, and Armenia's geopolitical position - that Armenian security can be guaranteed only if it manages to secure a strategic balance in the region today and in the foreseeable future. Such a balance may be reached through the de­velopment and implementation of an active for­eign and military policy and the maintenance of sufficient military power (taking into account existing human and material resources).


1. David Petrosyan, "What are the reasons of Armeni­ans' success in the military phase of the Karabakh con­flict (1991 - mid 1994), "The Noyan Tapan High­lights" Weekly, N19-21, 2000.

2. "The Noyan Tapan Highlights", No. 19-21, 2000.

3. Mikael Melokonyan, "Osnovnye printsipy obe­specheniya voennoi bezopasnosti Armenii," Ai Zinvor Weekly, Ministry of Defense of Armenia, October-November, 1998.

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