Wikileaks: U.S. lobbied Turkey for help with Azeri airbase upgrade

by Emil Sanamyan

Published: Monday January 31, 2011

Gen. Hobbins visits Nasosnaya airbase in May 2006. Defense Department

Washington - The United States sought Turkey's cooperation in upgrading a key air base in Azerbaijan, according to a 2006 diplomatic cable made available through Wikileaks and first published by the Guardian on January 18. But Turkish military was reportedly non-responsive to the proposal.

The June 8 2006 cable from then U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Ross Wilson was addressed to Air Force General Norton Schwartz ahead of his trip to Turkey and Azerbaijan later that month. Gen. Schwartz was at the time commander of U.S. Transportation Command and in 2008 became chief of staff of U.S. Air Force.

Amb. Wilson, who previously served as U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan (2000-3), suggests that Gen. Schwartz "sell the concept" of Azerbaijan airbase upgrade to his Turkish counterparts.

In section headline "An Opening on Nasosnaya?" Amb. Wilson wrote: "A recent proposal -- the upgrade of Nasosnaya Airfield located outside of Baku -- has not taken hold with our Turkish counterparts (at least not in Ankara).

"Over the past 2-3 years, the idea of upgrading the airfield has been briefed in several venues (the Caucasus Working Group and the South Caucasus Clearing House). Additionally, the idea of a joint venture among allies to perform the upgrade has been informally sent to the TGS J5 [acronym for Turkish General Staff's strategic planning and policy office - Ed.] on several occasions.

"While the military has not responded to our entreaties in Ankara, the Turkish [Defense Attache] in Baku (a one-star general) recently told us that Turkey is enthusiastic about working with us on Nasosnaya.

"A push at the senior levels within TGS might help break this proposal loose. Any interest you can promote during your visit would be beneficial."

Nasosnaya airfield just north of Sumgait is a Soviet-era air base from which Azerbaijan inherited the bulk of its nascent air forces in the early 1990s. It is also where Azerbaijan is basing a squadron of MiG-29 fighters acquired in Ukraine since 2006.

U.S. had taken interest in Nasosnaya as a transit point for supplying U.S. forces in Afghanistan and possibly other purposes. At one point the airbase was even considered as possible replacement after U.S. was forced by Uzbek government to leave the Karshi-Khanabad (K2) airbase in 2005.

In May 2006, one month before Gen. Schwartz's visit, Gen. Tom Hobbins, commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe, was reported by the Defense Department to have visited Nasosnaya.

"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 Pentagon report said at the time.

According to Google Earth imagery Nasosnaya's runway was repaired sometime before November 2006, apparently with U.S. participation, even though the airbase never replaced K2.

But in a reflection of continued U.S. interest, Schwartz's successor at Transportation Command Gen. Duncan McNabb visited Azerbaijan in November 2008 and U.S. Air Force Commander in Europe General Roger Brady followed in December 2009.

Reasons for U.S. insistence on Turkey's participation in Nasosnaya upgrade are not offered, and it is also unclear why Turkey was apparently disinclined to participate for at least "2-3 years."

One of the reasons may be that U.S. military assistance to Azerbaijan is restricted by Congress and any such aid must be considered in light of impact it might have on the Karabakh conflict. U.S. officials may have wanted Turkey to become involved to avoid congressional restrictions, or simply to reduce costs.

For its part, Turkey may have been wary of antagonizing Russia and Iran, as any major U.S. or Turkish upgrade of Azerbaijani airbase undoubtedly would.

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