US Caspian Sea Strategy and Azerbaijan's Shipbuilding Facility
US interests in the Caspian Sea are part of the larger framework of US geo-strategic interests in the Eurasian region. US proxies such as Israel provide support, technical advice and military equipment to the Azerbaijani navy. Both US and Israeli interests against Iranian and Russian influence in the Caspian Sea have aided Azerbaijan in its efforts towards building a modern navy.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Azerbaijan continued to rely on Russia for its arms purchases, though as the decade progressed this dependence shifted towards other manufacturers of advance weaponry. The removal of Azerbaijan from the list of countries eligible to purchase military equipment from the US in 1996-1997 again left the country eying other sources of advanced western standard military equipment. However, while the US has abstained from selling equipment to Azerbaijan that could affect the balance of power in the Nagorno Karabagh conflict, it has continued to indirectly support Azerbaijan in developing its coastal and maritime interests. Israel, whose regional geostrategic interests are co-aligned those of the US, also support the larger framework of military collaboration.
US cooperation with Azerbaijan is motivated by a range of factors, the most important being the current geopolitical crisis in the region and the need to contain Iran and Russia in order to protect US interests in the Caspian. The fragile relationship between the US and Iran has led to a broader containment against Iran, involving not only US naval power docked in the Persian Gulf, but also the creation of a foothold in the Caspian. Israeli assistance in developing Azerbaijan’s maritime capacity is part of the broader US strategy of offsetting Iranian and Russian influence in the region, especially since both nations dispute Azerbaijan’s share in the Caspian.
Imagery of Azerbaijan’s new shipbuilding facility points to the indigenous upgrade of Shaldak MK boats purchased from Israel. Traditionally, Azerbaijan’s shipbuilding facility’s capability has been limited to upgrades only, as indicated by Azerbaijan’s order of Shaldak Mk and Saar 62 patrol vessels from Israel as recently as 2014. Imagery shows evidence of continuous upgrades, with two ships fully upgraded with Spike missile systems and front main guns. Other Shaldak vessels, as well as larger vessels, are berthed for upgrades, including a Saar 62.
More recently, however, reports indicate two Shaldaks being built in a new shipbuilding facility near Turkan, as seen in image below. The ability to reconstruct vessels is indicated by the vessel components in the image. The capacity for the full reconstruction of ships is a turning point in Azerbaijan’s technological development. A closer look reveals the absence of a dry dock in the second image, which could suggest that operations are still based on reconstruction and not full development from design stage. Nevertheless, this is a major step towards future technological advances for Azerbaijan.