Drones in the Nagorno-Karabakh
By Ridvan Bari Urcosta
It is not a sci-fi movie anymore: the war of the drone is reality and it is happening now. The current conflict in the South Caucasus started on 27 September with Azerbaijan air and forces armed with massive support of artillery against the positions of the unrecognized Republic of Artsakh. It is a large-scale offensive against Armenia in general, and unprecedented in its nature since the beginning of the 1990s. Neither Armenia nor the international backers of stability in this region were ready for such developments. The Ministry of Defense of Azerbaijan reports on a daily basis with videos on the military equipment and weapons of the Armenian army destroyed by high-precision weapons. The footage shows the destruction of armored vehicles, launchers of multiple-launch rocket systems, tanks and barreled artillery. This is a big contrast with Armenian video reports, the major part of Baku’s reports based upon drone footage from Israelis kamikaze drones, Turkish Bayraktars and different types of reconnaissance drones. Azerbaijani drones controlling the airspace of Armenia and able to penetrate into the deep rear of Nagorno-Karabakh. The drone factor became so important that it has put Armenian-Israeli relations into a difficult position. At the same time, Turkey through its drone-policy is able to demonstrate to the “big league” that it is able to conduct and implement its own geopolitical agenda in all corners of the Greater Middle East. Since the end of Chechen Wars, this is its first return to the Post-Soviet region, particularly to the Caucasus, but this time as a drone-power.
Drones as geopolitical tool of Turkey: the case of Azerbaijan
In recent years, the Turkish UAV industry has become one of the most advanced in the world and Ankara is wisely using this cutting-edge technology for achieving its geopolitical goals. The foundation for the development of the UAV industry in Turkey was the close cooperation with Israel, despite the geopolitical contradictions, but Ankara has succeeded in a timely way to create its own indigenous drones of all types. Turkish drones can now be found in Ukraine, Qatar, Libya (GNA) and Azerbaijan.
Turkey excellently used them in Idlib, Syria and Libya and well-learned how to integrate them into the concept of the new generation warfare. Nobody would complain in Turkey if several drones are shot down in Syria, Libya or now in the South Caucasus, but the factor of prestige and projection of power is undeniable. In Nagorno-Karabakh, Turkey supports Azerbaijan and in recent years military cooperation between the two states has intensified.
The issue over Turkish drones was serious for Baku. It faced multifaceted diplomatic pressure both from the West and from neighbors like Iran and Armenia. In June 2016, Baku announced that it was going to purchase drones from Turkey alone with financial support from Turkey. Again this news appeared a couple weeks before the confrontation in July, when it became official that Baku was ready to buy Bayraktar drones from Turkey. The July Clashes opened room for Turkey to initiate greater military support and on July 17, the Turkish Defense Industry promised immediately to supply Baku with combat-drones, missiles and electronic warfare (EW) systems.
The Armenian-Azerbaijani Drone War of 2016
The first systematic reports about the use of drones in the conflict came in 2016 during the April War. Both sides actively used the UAVs throughout the hot phase of the conflict. Azerbaijan reported that they had managed to down the Armenian drone “X-55.” Baku already in this period of confrontation used the combat-drones against the Armenians. The Ministry of Defense of Armenia reported that due to the attack of a combat-kamikaze drone, seven Armenians had died,but in response Erevan destroyed six drones. Concurrently, the Armenians reported that in four days of war they shut down 6 drones of Azerbaijan. In total Baku engaged into the battlefield Israelis drones: IAI Harop (drone-kamikaze), ThunderB, Orbiter 2M (36 items), Aerostar (30 items), Hermes 450 (2) and Heron-1 (13). The Armenian drones (“Krunk” or “Crane”) are very cheap and three times less effective in the air than the drones of Azerbaijan.
Russian experts claimed that Azerbaijani drones were engaged into the liquidation of the battalion headquarters of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. “Spikes” destroyed at least three Armenian tanks, and directly on the caponiers, from where they tried to fire at the positions occupied by the Azerbaijanis. Most likely, the targets were detected using drones, which transmitted the picture and coordinates directly to the ATGM calculation. At the end of the conflict it was clear that Baku had really undertaken serious revisions of its military doctrine and an upgrade of its weaponry, but the price for such success is very big. Especially if we take into account the price of every drone on the international market. Interestingly, right after the end of hostilities the Deputy of the Minister of Defense of Armenia stated that he “does not consider it necessary to buy expensive drones when it is possible to hit the target with a conventional grenade launcher.”
July 2020 Clashes on the Armenian-Azerbaijan Border
During the July hostilities in the northeastern section of the border with the neighboring republic, Azerbaijani drones of Israeli production Orbiter 3, Orbiter 2, SkyStriker, Hermes 900, and Harop were shot down or captured with the use of electronic warfare. In four days of clashes in the Tavush region, in total, 13 enemy drones were neutralized. Another Hermes 180 and Orbiter 3 were captured in 2012 and 2017, respectively. All UAVs were hit by the Armenian air defense systems which range from the anti-aircraft artillery to the use of modern air defense systems. The head of the Armenian Air Defense stated in this regard, that after the April War of 2016, the Armenian Army had made a sufficient and meticulous assessment of Azerbaijan’s drone warfare strategy and tactics and that this had made it possible to prepare special air defense crews to neutralize the drones attacks of Azerbaijan. The participation of Turkish combat-drones in the war is crystal clear, but what is unclear is who is operating them, personnel from Azerbaijan or from Turkey. Drones are operated under the command of professionals and it is very hard to believe that Azerbaijani drone operators were so quickly able to learn how to operate such expensive combat-drones so skillfully. Armenia reported that since the clashes started, it has shut down more than 20 drones. These vehicles were hit by the air defense systems of the Armenian armed forces, ranging from anti-aircraft artillery and ending with modern air defense systems, depending on the altitude and in the range of which means they were located. Armenia is developing in response to Azerbaijan its own indigenous “Dragon” kamikaze drones. Russian experts are calling to the Ministry of Defense to share their experience with their Armenian counterparts from Idlib and Libya.
The Autumn War of 2020 or the ‘War of Attrition’
From 27 September until the present, the conflict has not finished yet, and has full potential to evolve into a full-scale war. However, the geopolitical situation and the players involved would not allow such a war to be initiated, but there is still a big possibility that Ankara and Baku would try to harm Armenia as deeply as possible and impose on the Armenians a war of attrition in order to exhaust its economy and its army. Drones are an excellent instrument to attempt to achieve such pragmatic goals. Azeri drones are already reaching territories of Armenia not only Karabakh. Azerbaijan even decided to make from the old Antonov An-2T (60 items) Surveillance & Kamikaze biplanes which are forcing the enemy to reveal its defensive positions. Turkey proudly publishes the reports from Azerbaijan on how its drones are destroying the position and materiel of Armenia.
Only now are the Western powers able to recognize the scale of the technological might of Turkey and they are trying to impose drastic anti-Turkish measures in order to prevent further development of the technologies. Israel is already considering a halt to its weapons sales to Azerbaijan and taking a more aggressive stance towards Ankara. Canada has decided to suspend exports of drone military technology (imaging and targeting systems made by L3Harris Wescam, the Canada-based unit of L3Harris Technologies Inc.) to Turkey. Ankara reacted by saying that this is a “double standard” policy.
The future of the use of drones in this war depends entirely upon the success of the Armenian Army in finding a way to counter the combat-drones and kamikaze-drones. Otherwise, Armenia would lose the war in the Nagorno-Karabakh in the air space. Furthermore, drones are able to impose on Armenia the conditions of the war of attrition. Baku can simply send the drones and destroy critical infrastructure of the unrecognized republic and Armenia. Turkish experts, assessing positively the current drone war, claim that it represents the “dronization of war”. They believe that they have developed a revolutionary warfare concept which is continuing its implementation from one military theater to another. This concept is perfectly fitting against the Russian and Soviet types of weaponry. The dronization is inevitable and the Turkish General Staff is oriented in this direction, one Turkish expert wrote.
Israel-Azerbaijan Drone Cooperation
Military cooperation between Azerbaijan and Israel has deeply rooted relations. The most interesting feature of this cooperation is the purchase by Baku of advanced drone systems for the Azerbaijan Army. Ilham Aliyev first saw the Israeli drones in January 2019, but cooperation between the countries had already taken on an unprecedented scale by 2012, when Baku purchased at least $1.6 billion worth of UAVs, radars and air defense missiles from state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) and was talking about buying or leasing IAI-produced spy satellites. In 2014 there were reports after the two-day visit to Baku of the Israeli Minister of Defense Moshe Ya’alon that the total value of the arms deal over the past three years was nearly $4 billion. Inside Israel the reaction to such close cooperation is different.
The strategic reason for enhancing cooperation with Azerbaijan was considerations that it is important to maintain close military cooperation with the country which has difficult relations with Iran. This close cooperation antagonized both Iran and Armenia. Iran many times described close relations as unfriendly. Baku depends on Iran for a passage to Nakhichevan. The strained relationship between Israel and Turkey was not able to undermine the strategic relationship between Baku and Tel Aviv. Russia was not happy with the fact of selling to Baku and the UAVs. The same pressure was on Tel Aviv when Israel was selling drones to Georgia.
Diplomatic relations between Tel Aviv and Erevan within recent weeks tremendously deteriorated over the fact of military cooperation between Baku and Tel Aviv. However, it is clear that the recent behavior of Turkey in the region makes it possible that at the top of list of Israel’s concerns will be Turkey rather than Iran. Already voices in Israel are calling for a more sober attitude towards the conflict and the avoidance of any alliances with Azerbaijan and Turkey.
Drone Warfare in Mountainous Areas and General Lessons
From the point of view of military geography, the Nagorno-Karabakh and some other areas which are under control of the Republic of Artsakh is the highly mountainous area with the small portions of flat areas. Two mountain ranges create zones that are isolated from Armenia and Azerbaijan. One is known as the Murovdag range (the Northern part of Nagorno-Karabakh), which is about 70 km with the highest peak Gamish Mountain 3,724 meters. In 1993 this range was the military scene of bloody battles between the two armies which ended in an Armenian victory. Baku claims that it now controls the range and Gamish Mountain which permits it to reach the strategically important road which ensures control of the military supply lines from Armenia to the cities of Kelbajar and Aghdere. The second range is the Artsakh Range, which mostly lies on the south-east of Karabakh. The highest peak is Mount Kirs at 2725 meters. Finally, the Karabakh Plateau (the highest point 3616 meters) makes the region geographically sophisticated and from the military point of view and requires completely different military strategies and tactics which are able to integrate into the geographical specificities with those of weapons and military technologies. As has been demonstrated on the real-live battlefield, tanks are useless in the mountains when there are UAVs and combat-drones in the air.
Drones are able to fly over the massive hills and mountains and control entire valleys. For ground forces such terrain is almost unsurmountable, especially for those forces which are attacking. The mountains are perfect terrain for guerilla warfare and long-lasting defense, but the domination of drones in the air significantly undermines such important advantages for those who use the mountains as a natural defense line. UAVs are assisting howitzers and other types of artillery and Multiple rocket launchers (MRLs). They are the perfect instrument to allow the artillery and unguided missiles, mortars, in its indirect fire of targets of the enemy. While previously calling and adjusting indirect artillery fire on a target was a big challenge to any army or in recent decades only advanced armies could allow the use of satellites, the drones are making a true revolution in modern warfare.
Kamikaze-drones are ideal for countering enemy air defenses, since the small size of the drone makes it possible to avoid detection by ground-based radars. This was the biggest challenge for the air-defense forces of Syria and Russia in Idlib and now in Karabakh. The Bayraktar TB2 and other combat drones contributed to the revolution of warfare because one of the most important conclusions that drones are winning is the war against tanks in the areas where the traditional air forces have not been engaged.
The experience of the drones in Idlib, Libya and now in Nagorno-Karabakh shows that it is better to lose in drones than in manpower. This gives Baku a great advantage over the Armenian forces. The likelihood is that the role of the human pilot will be decreasing within the upcoming decade and the issue of integration of AI into drone operational warfare will be determined by the factor of time, who and which power will be able faster integrate such technologies and techniques into the military doctrines of their own countries. Turkey has already made significant steps forward.
Drones’ contribution to the Network-Centric Warfare and Limited War doctrines
In February 2020 in Syrian Idlib happened historical event when Turkey became on the edge of new generation warfare: the drone warfare. This time everything is telling that the conflict in the Nagorno-Karabakh as already Idlib, is going to contribute decisively to the theory and practice of the drone warfare. From the theoretical point of view the “dronization” of war leads to the perfectionism of the theory of Network-Centric Warfare.
It is sophisticated warfare which is corresponding with the requirements of the Network-Centric Warfare (NCW). Theoretically speaking it was undeniable the United States who developed the concept of the NCW and used it in the real-time war, but only Turkey demonstrated the tangible example how to use the drones and other types of UAVs against the regular army (Syrian Army) and some other non-state military actors. The Libyan war theater was next area were the drones monopolized the airspace of the country. The drone-war it is one of the main characteristics of the Libyan civil war, where mostly fighting Turkish and Chinese drones. As writes Manjeet Singh Pardesi the UAVs (armed and unarmed) “are playing a crucial role in the revolution, as they provide the military with new platform and at the same time are integral to the network-centric warfare concept.” In order to understand the performance metrics of the drones in new generation warfare Dombrowski and Gholz presented following metrics:
- Force Protection – it provides the protection to the pilots, and only equipment will be lost.;
- Affordability - in perfect conditions pilot inside the jet and pilot who controlling the unmanned aircraft from the military base are able to do the same operational tasks. Plus, the prices are matters and it seems that this stage is already achieved, because for middle size powers the drones are much more affordable that modern aircrafts;
- Battlespace Integration – it is about the integration of every friendly platform or node into the comprehensive network and the UAVs contribute the most to the process of integration.
- End-User Control – it allows timely “online” decision-making procedures and allows to de-bureaucratize this process. It is real revolution in the Command and Control and enabling see the theater of war and the theater of operation on real time and allows to see the battlefield in its entire complex;
The rise of the UAVs systems as crucial factor in the real battlefield triggers the process of the development of electronic jamming systems and air-defense systems which are capable to strike the drones of the different size and nature. Thus, the development of the drone warfare is immediately pushing for creation of effective and capable systems of electronic jamming and eventually the independent system of satellites on the Earth orbit. Truly successful use of drone is only possible, the country is able to impose: effective counter electronic jamming; independent satellites systems or to have on own side the great power which has such satellite systems and in the near future the AI would play additional important role in determination of character of the battlefield.
Ridvan Bari Urcosta is a Senior Analyst in the Polish think tank the Strategy & Future and works an analyst for the Geopolitical Futures. His professional interests in the Black Sea region, Russia and the Middle East, Ukraine and Crimea as a geopolitical region and Eastern Europe. He is a PhD Candidate at the Centre for Strategic Studies; University of Warsaw and he also teaches an independent ERASMUS course: “Russia and the Middle East: Geopolitics and Diplomacy.” He was born in Abkhazia, Georgia where he lived until the onset of the Civil War. In
the early 1990’s he moved to Crimea where he lived until its annexation by Russia. Previously Mr. Urcosta has provided insights to different analytical centers including the European Council on Foreign Relations, Jamestown Foundation, War Room (U.S. War College), The US Air Force Magazine, The Proceedings (U.S. Naval Institute), Jerusalem Post, and others.
 Barbara Opall-Rome, “Israel Bolsters Strategic Ties with Azerbaijan,” Defense News, September 10, 2014.
 Pardesi Singh Manjeet, ” Unmanned Aerial Vehicles: Missions, Challenges and Strategic Implication for Small and Medium Powers,” in Bernard Loo (Edit.), “Military Transformation and Strategy: Revolutions in Military”, Affairs and Small States, Routledge, 2008
 Dombrowski Peter, Gholz Eugene, ” Buying Military Transformation: Technological Innovation and Defense Industry” Columbian University Press, New York, 2006 pp. 67-77