Azerbaijan Air Force
The Azerbaijani air force operates under the auspices of the country's army. In 1994 estimated total troop strength had reached 56,000, of which 49,000 were in the army, 3,000 in the navy, 2,000 in the air force, and 2,000 in the air defense forces. The air force had forty-eight combat aircraft, and one helicopter squadron. Initially, much of the equipment and command and control systems were taken over from the former 19th Independent Air Defense Army, with only marginal upgrades to the network since independence.
The number of combat aircraft and attack helicopters that the Azerbaijan may have in its active inventory is constrained by the equipment ceilings of the CFE Treaty. Azerbaijan's national limits are 100 combat aircraft and 50 attack helicopters, both limits far exceed current holdings. By 2004 the joint air/air defense forces had about 7,900 personnel, and included a combination of combat assets to support both offensive and defensive air operations. The air element reports holdings of at least 47 combat aircraft and 15 attack helicopters. Although IISS reported only 47 combat aircraft, the country's CFE reporting listed 54 combat aircraft.
Along with the other aircraft not-reportable under CFE, the Air Forces are organized into five functional commands: a fighter ground-attack regiment; a fighter squadron; a transport squadron; a training unit; and a composite helicopter regiment. The air defense elements comprise fighter units (in their primary role, these units also are considered part of the offensive air element), surface-to-air gun/missile units, and air defense surveillance radar units.
The various air units included a mix of aircraft types because several of the legacy units were heavily attrited during the Mountainous Karabakh conflict, which claimed over 50 aircraft, including Mi-24 (Hind-attack helicopters), Mi-8 (support helicopters), Su-25 (Frogfoot close air support), MiG-25PB (Foxbat- reconnaissance, used as fighter-bombers) and L-29 (Delphin/Maya-armed trainers) aircraft.
The great portion of the Azerbaijani air forces was made up of a large number of Soviet helicopters and MiG-25 aircraft of various prototypes (nearly 30 units) which are meant to be used in aerial combat, as such they are not practical for use against ground troops. However, in the presence of a very small Armenian air force, the use of Azerbaijani MiG-25 and Su-27 (purchased from Kazakhstan a few years ago) interceptors in aerial combat are very limited in scope. But it is worth mentioning the presence of certain quantity of Su-25 and Su-24 bombers within the Azerbaijani air force. These are meant to be used as close air support for advancing ground troops. These types of aircraft have gained a good reputation in various wars of the 20th century and were commonly used by Azerbaijan in the Karabakh war from 1992-1994.
Azerbaijan signed an agreement with Ukraine on the purchase of 12 MiG-29 fighter jets, two MiG-29 UB and 12 E-39 jets in 2005. The Air Force and Air Defense Force of Azerbaijan acquired two squadrons of MiG-29 fighter aircraft from the Ukraine Air Force in 2007. By one report the purchase comprised 24 MiG-29 (or MiG-29S) fighters, mostly single-seat variants with some MiG-29UB two-seat trainer/combat variants. The Viyskovo-povitryani syly (Air Force of Ukraine) had some 190 MiG-29s of various models in its inventory, including the later-delivered "S" variant. The move confirmed a statement made In March 2007 by Lt.-Gen. Rayil Rzayev, Commander-in-Chief of the Air Forces and the Aircraft Defense Forces, that new fighters had been acquired, and that airfield upgrades were also to begin soon. On 29 January 2008 a MiG-29 from Azerbaijan's air force crashed into the Caspian Sea on Tuesday during a routine training mission, killing both crew members.
Azerbaijan purchased the air missile system S-300 PMU-2 "Favorit" (the amount of the contract was $300 million) from Russia, and along with India it clinched its status as the largest recipient of Russian helicopters. In addition to 24 combat helicopters Mi-35M, ordered by Azerbaijan, contracts with FSUE "Rosoboronexport" in the delivery of 40 military transport helicopters Mi-17-1B for the Azerbaijani Air Force and 20 military transport helicopters Mi -17-1B for the Border Service of Azerbaijan were signed and are still implemented. It should be noted that all contracts involve the purchase of goods at market prices, without any special exclusive privilege.
Gen. Tom Hobbins, U.S. Air Forces in Europe commander, and other US personnel visited Nasosnaya Air Base, Azerbaijan on 18 May 2006. The purpose of the visit was to open relations with Azerbaijani leadership and to check the progress of a runway surveyed by the 16th Air Force team a month earlier. The group exchanged ideas to modernize the runway to place it in NATO standards for potential future use by the United States. A U.S. assessment of the field in 2007 rated it for 500 takeoffs and landings of fully loaded (558,000 lb) C-17s before the surface would require repairs.
Nasosnaya has been informally proposed several times as a potential Cooperative Security Location (CSL) or supplemental refueling/logistics point. The Foreign Minister resurrected the idea of cost-sharing needed improvements to the base in a 23 November 2009 meeting. The United States has already funded Western- standard upgrades to navigational and safety-of-flight infrastructure at the base as part of Azerbaijan's IPAP process. The goal of the upgrade project is to bring the field, with its 2,500x40 meter runway up to ICAO Category I (Note: Category I is the least demanding of the three ICAO categories for airfields certified for operation under instrument flight rules.
As of 2009 Nasosnaya operated MiG-29 fighters and L-39 trainers. Nasosnaya also has a decaying former contingent of MiG-25 interceptors, including trainers, which were corralled in an open area near a set of empty reinforced hangars at the northern end of the base. The MiG-25s are not operational.
Commander, U.S. Air Forces Europe GEN Roger Brady, USAF visited Baku on 08 December 2009, meeting with Defense Minister Gen-Col. Safar Abiyev and visiting the nearby Nasosnaya Air Base. At his uncharacteristically brief meeting with GEN Brady, Minister Abiyev did not revisit the issue of GOAJ clearance for U.S. assessments of Azerbaijani army units for a potential Train and Equip Program (TEP) for an Afghanistan mission, nor of Azerbaijani airfields for expanded OEF logistics cooperation. Instead, he recited a formula deferring to the Foreign Ministry and launched into his well-worn catalog of complaints about U.S. and NATO inattention to Azerbaijan's needs and U.S. favoritism toward Armenia, and fenced verbally with GEN Brady when the latter defended the U.S. record.
Baku was in a state of shock following the 11 February 2009 murder in broad daylight of the commander of the country's air force and air defense forces, Lt. Gen Rail Rzayev, who died from a single gunshot from an assailant who attacked when the General's car made a brief stop on the way to work. He held the rank of Deputy Minister of Defense. Rzayev's murder crossed a line in Azerbaijan, where politics and business can be rough but murders are exceedingly rare. Rzayev, who had served as air force commander since 1992, was a close personal ally of President Aliyev.
The circumstances of Rzayev's murder strongly suggest a professional operation and careful preparation. Rzayev's Ministry of Defense vehicle picked him up at about 0800 local 11 February. While the vehicle was stopped, a single assailant fired into the vehicle, hitting Rzayev in the back of the head. Rzayev died at the central military hospital shortly thereafter. Rzayev was buried within hours of his death, and that there was not time to perform an autopsy and it is not known whether the bullet was extracted. Rzayev's funeral was a hurried, unusual affair at which prominent figures were conspicuous by their absence. No government ministers were able to attend, and even Rzayev's friends failed to come. General Vahid Akhundov, for example, the security chief of the presidential apparat, was a close friend of Rzayev and from the same region as the deceased General and notably did not attend. The murder was exquisitely timed -- President Aliyev and the key ministers of defense and national security and the Procurator-General were all traveling at the time. Aliyev cut his visit to Kuwait short to return to Baku but the three ministers were not back in time to attend his hastily convened Cabinet meeting.
All of these factors suggest detailed planning and extensive preparation. Additionally, the murder took place in one of the most secure neighborhoods of Baku - near, in fact, to the building where the Minister of National Security lives. This suggests strongly that not only did the planners of this crime think of everything - distracting the adjutant, defeating or arranging the lifting of probable heavy surveillance of the street, burying the body immediately and advance knowledge (or orchestration) of the simultaneous absence of the key government leaders - they also had the manpower, influence and perhaps money to put all of these moving parts in play.
Baku was absolutely rife with speculation as to who might be responsible. Some commentators, such as the Zerkalo (Ayna) newspaper's well-respected Rauf Mirkadirov, suggested that Russia might be behind the murder, attempting to destabilize Azerbaijan. He suggested that the murder may be a way to focus Azerbaijan inwardly on a scandalous crime in order to distract the country from widely-believed allegations that Moscow has been transferring weapons to Armenia. While Russian special services could undoubtedly organize something like this, no specific evidence points to this and Russia's motive for going after Rzayev would be unclear.
A second possibility is that Rzayev met his end through a shady business deal gone bad. Some suggested that Rzayev's murder was the result of the wrong company being shut out of a major acquisition by the air force. Also, in 2004 Rzayev was dogged by rumors that he was using air force assets for private gain. These theories are also hard to substantiate due to their lack of specificity and because they fail to explain the strange coincidences described above. A final possibility, which seems on balance to be the most likely explanation, is that the crime was orchestrated from within the government at a very high level. Only someone with access to high-level officials and their schedules could have worked out the plan and timing for this attack. It also appears that at some level Ministry of National Security (MNS) surveillance was circumvented, co-opted or defeated. The orchestration of Rzayev's quick burial without an autopsy also would have to involve the subornation of several officials, all of which suggests a perpetrator from within the government.
Much speculation naturally centered on the Minister for Emergency Situations, Kemaladdin Heydarov, one of the few people in government whose reputation is questionable enough that he would widely be considered a suspect. Newspaper reports suggested that an incident in early December 2008 involving a helicopter carrying Heydarov motivated him to kill Rzayev. No concrete evidence supporting this allegation has emerged.
On 12 December 2009 Defense Minister Safar Abiyev said general Altay Aliyev had been appointed commander of Azerbaijani air forces and air defense. Notably, after Rail Rzayev, commander of the Azerbaijani air forces and air defense, was killed in January of this year, the post had been vacant. The investigation of his murder continued. Azerbaijan's Prosecutor General Zakir Garalov said in October 2010 that he was certain that the perpetrators and organizers of the murder of Lieutenant-General Rail Rzayev will be caught and brought to justice.
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