The Kalashnikov Concern is the flagship manufacturer of small arms in Russia and one of the Russian defense industry’s most important enterprises, which has had a long and successful history of exporting its products to numerous different countries for many decades. Foreigners are interested in what is the first thing that comes to mind, the legendary Kalashnikov assault rifle (the AK). The Kalashnikov assault rifle series is so popular that for many countries, import alone is not enough to meet the demand: once they have received the green light from the Russian Federation, other states are keen to organize the licensed production of the AK on their own territory. However, some countries will even go ahead and start manufacturing their own AKs without having received any prior consent from Russia.
It is a well-known fact that the Kalashnikov assault rifle was invented by the Soviet small arms designer Mikhail Kalashnikov in 1947. The Kalashnikov stood out and its popularity was mainly down to its substantial reliability and its ease of handling and maintenance. The assault rifle was well suited for combat in harsh conditions in forests, wetlands, and deserts — places where there are no repair shops — where fighters are forced to take care of their own weapons and carry out repairs without any assistance. In 1949, the AK was officially accepted in the Soviet Armed Forces, having been introduced into active service, and in the 1950s, the USSR issued its partners and member states in the Warsaw Pact and a variety of other countries with licenses to produce the weapon.
The assault rifle’s design was so successful that other states were lining up to get their hands on licenses. Some countries then resold their rights to produce the AK to other countries at a profit. For instance, Finland bought an AK production license from the USSR and is said to have paid extra for the right to resell it. In the years that followed, the Finnish Rk 62, an assault rifle manufactured by Valmet and Sako, was developed based on the AK. Then Finland sold its rights to manufacture the RK 62 to Israel, which went on to develop its own weapon based on the Finnish assault rifle — the Galil assault rifle — which was in service with the Israeli Army between 1973-2007.
In the 1950s, many countries had already begun the unlicensed production of AKs. The AK is currently the most widely used assault rifle in the world. Reportedly up to 20% of all existing small arms are legally or illegally produced AKs, various modifications of the AK, or products that are based on the design of the AK. According to various different sources, there is a total of 70-105 million of these assault rifles scattered all over the planet.
The AK gained the most popularity in the developing countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America, as it is not only a reliable weapon, but it is also relatively cheap. However, rich countries with advanced technologies have not overlooked it either: as this article has already mentioned, modifications of the AK have been used by Israel and Finland. During the Soviet period, the assault rifle was also produced in the socialist German Democratic Republic (GDR). A modification of the AK known as the Type 81 is manufactured in China. You can hardly classify China as a developing country today, yet the Type 81 is still in service in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA). In addition, AK modifications have been made or are still being produced in Sweden and South Africa. Finally, the AK is produced in the US. The US military has constantly been confronted with the Kalashnikov, from the time of the Vietnam War, right up to its most recent military operations in the Middle East and Africa. With first-hand experience of the AK which has been repeatedly “tested out on the Americans”, many of them have recognized Russian assault rifle as an excellent weapon, and in 1970s, the United States received an AK production license. This license has already expired, but several American companies continue to produce AKs which vary in quality. They could perhaps face legal action if Russia chooses to resolve this issue with the US and the other countries which have overstretched their licenses in breach of international law.
As you may be aware, the Soviet Union was not too worried about copyright, as its time was occupied by its greater concern in supporting socialist regimes all around the world, so the Soviet Union distributed its military technology rather freely and did not keep a close eye on it as the AK began to spread further afield. This approach helped the Soviet Union achieve some geopolitical success, but also accounts for the country’s huge loss in profits which could have been generated if the AK had had its copyright protected. Russia is now looking to rectify this situation. Although unlicensed AKs are manufactured all over the world, most of the copies pale in comparison to the quality of products which are produced using the official and original technology which has been legally acquired from the USSR or the Russian Federation. Russia is now more cautious when it comes to sharing these technologies, and only cooperates with reliable partners.
At the beginning of 2019, there were three main known candidates who expressed a desire to set up their own domestic licensed AK production: India, Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.
The Indo-Russian Rifles Private Limited Joint Venture for AK production has already been launched in the Indian city of Korwa: the opening ceremony took place in early March 2019. Russia and India have had a very long and close defense partnership in sharing military technology. It was no surprise that India turned to Russia when its army needed to be fully re-equipped with high-quality small arms. In view of the great mutual trust that the two countries have built up over decades of successful cooperation, the Russian Federation decided to share its latest development with India: the plant in Korwa will produce its latest AK-200 series. Outside Russia, the AK-200 series was first presented to public at the IDEX 2019 International Defense Exhibition, which was held in the UAE in February 2019. There are currently plans to release about 800 thousand AKs, which will meet all the needs of the Indian Armed Forces. In the future, additional batches may be produced for sale to third-party countries. Production is expected to get underway by early summer 2019.
As for Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom has traditionally cooperated with the United States and Europe on defense and military technology, and the Royal Saudi Land Forces (KSA) are largely equipped with small arms of American, German, Belgian and Austrian origin. However, Saudi Arabia has not been quite able to part with the AK, which has made a name for itself in the harsh sandy landscape of the Arabian Desert. In February 2019, the news broke that Russian AKs were beginning to be supplied to Saudi Arabia. It is expected that by the end of the first half of 2019, Saudi Arabia and Russia will also sign an agreement on the construction of a small arms factory on Saudi territory.
Venezuela is another of the Russian Federation’s partners, who are not as close as India, but Venezuela is a state which has also earned Russia’s trust. The enterprise will produce the AK-103 — a worthy ambassador of the AK-100 series — and although it is not as new as the latest AK-200 assault rifles, it has repeatedly been tried and tested in a variety of military conflicts since the 1990s, when they were adopted by Russia and began to be exported abroad. At the same time, they are slightly cheaper to produce and are more suitable given Venezuela’s economic situation. The Russian-Venezuelan agreement was signed in 2016, paving the way for the construction of an AK-103 factory along with another plant where cartridges for them are to be produced. Construction work has already begun, which got underway in early 2019.
The construction of the factory where the AKs are to be produced coincided with the flare-up in Venezuela’s political crisis with the threat of foreign military invasion. Therefore, the AK factory, which is expected to be built by the end of 2019, could significantly help to protect the Maduro regime. Moreover, AK production in Venezuela could hurt the US economy by making their position in the arms market less stable. Up to now, the US has been the main arms supplier in Latin America. Among other factors, the geographical location of the United States contributes to its dominant position as an arms supplier: all other major arms exporters are cut off from Latin America by the Oceans. You would be right to guess that the most popular weapons in this region are AKs. The US has been supplying AKs of various origins to Latin American countries, some of which have been supplied in a rather shady manner. But in the near future, all Latin American countries will be able to purchase real Russian AKs produced in Venezuela using the original technology. Large quantities of weapons from Venezuela and supplied to other Latin American countries will not have to be transported across the Pacific or the Atlantic Ocean, and this will reduce the cost. By the look of things, the United States will have to cede certain positions to Russia in the arms industry and its partners in the huge Latin American arms market, and this will compensate the Russian Federation to some extent for the losses it has incurred from decades of illegal AK production worldwide.
Dmitry Bokarev, political observer, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”