Article by Shantanu K. Bansal
Even though the overall count of Armenian and Azerbaijan’s heavy weapons was more or less equal during the conflict, though Azerbaijan was having some qualitative edge over the Armenian Forces but at the end of the conflict, heavy war machines didn’t decide the victory. Rather drones or better to say Kamikaze drones, military innovation on ground and support by close ally like Turkey which even sent mercenary soldiers in support made the day for the Azeri military.
Using Drones As a Better Alternative to Conventional Fighters
Warplanes are expensive to buy, maintain and operate; that is why Armenia and Azerbaijan have just 52 between them. Turkish and Azeri tactics point to a new, more affordable type of air power that is the drones make an especially big difference for countries with small air forces. The Azerbaijan military deployed an array of drones, both for surveillance and Attack\Kamikaze UAVs.
“Drones offer small countries very cheap access to tactical aviation and precision guided weapons, enabling them to destroy an opponent’s much-costlier equipment such as tanks and air defense systems,” said Michael Kofman, military analyst and director of Russia studies at CNA, a US defense think tank.
Prior to this outbreak, researchers estimated Azerbaijan had fewer than 200 models.
Among those, according to the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College in the United States, are the Harpy and Harop vehicles, manufactured by Israel Aerospace Industries, and the Orbiter 1K, from Aeronautics Group. Other acquisitions include models known as Hermes, Heron, and SkyStriker.
For several years now, Azerbaijan has also had the ability to manufacture drones itself, under license from Israel’s Aeronautics Group. That’s given Baku more flexibility in how and where it can deploy the vehicles.
Experts said Armenia has a far smaller drone and UAV fleet; its armed forces announced in 2011 that the country had developed its own domestically built craft called the Krunk followed by two other models called the Baze and the Ptero-5.
All are designed for reconnaissance and surveillance, however, not for suicide missions. It was unclear to what extent the units were being used in the current fighting. Estimates put Armenia’s overall fleet at only a few dozen at most.
On October 2, Armenia’s Defense Ministry claimed that 107 Azerbaijani UAVs had been downed, though some may have been kamikaze drones that were crashed on purpose.
Strategic Purchase of Drones Before the Conflict
Speaking in a local TV broadcaster on the purchase of new weapons and military vehicles for the Azerbaijani armed forces, Defence Minister Zakir Hasanov Zakir Hasanov said his country sought to purchase Turkish-made combat drones.
Reuters reported Turkey’s military exports to its ally Azerbaijan have risen six-fold this year, with sales of drones and other military equipment rising to $77 million last month alone before fighting broke out over the Nagorno-Karabakh region, according to exports data.
RUSI notes that loitering munitions and medium-endurance strike capable UAVs are proliferating widely, with multiple competing exporters. Israel, Turkey and China export comparable platforms worldwide.
In comparison, Armenia didn’t enjoy such credible support from it’s ally Russia. As Russia’s defense industry has lagged in developing unmanned aerial vehicles compared to Israel and Turkey. It seems that Armenian forces were not able to understand the importance of attack drones in the conflict as Azerbaijan could.
Armenia underestimated the purchase of drones. “Russia does not produce anything of the kind. Of course, they should have turned to China or Iran. But it all comes down to money. They buy weapons from Russia with lucrative loans, and with China, it’s not so simple. As for American-made drones, which are talked about, we haven’t seen them yet,” military analyst Andrei Frolov told the Russian Air Force.
Read at IADN: The Threat of Swarm of Drones
Liotering Munitions (Aka. Kamikaze Attacks) Changed the Face of War
Azerbaijan used its drone fleet — purchased from Israel and Turkey — to stalk and destroy Armenia’s weapons systems in Nagorno-Karabakh, shattering its defenses and enabling a swift advance. Armenia found that air defense systems in Nagorno-Karabakh, many of them older Soviet systems, were impossible to defend against drone attacks, and losses quickly piled up.
Air breathing precision strike assets such as the Israeli Harop loitering munition have been utilised extensively by Azerbaijan. The most notable use of the Harop was its role in a strike against an Armenian S-300 surface-to-air missile (SAM) site in Shuskakend.
At the forefront of the Turkish offensive were the Bayraktar-TB and Anka-S drone systems. These drones carry MAM-C and MAM-L high explosive, armour-penetrating rockets designed to strike targets illuminated by a laser.
The Turkish TB2 Drones were widely used by the Azeri forces. The Economist notes that the TB2 Turkish drone, costing a few million dollars. The TB2’s high-definition cameras give Azerbaijan an edge in that contest. Its tank-killing snuff movies are slicker affairs, set to Wagnerian music.
Following the Turkish drone warfare school’s footsteps, the Azerbaijani military has effectively used UAVs, especially Bayraktar TB-2, to hunt down the Armenian air defenses.
The Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 UAVs. With a reasonable loiter time and guided munitions, these have allowed Azeri forces to launch hunter-killer raids into the Armenian rear to find and interdict Armenian forces. Together with Harop, these destroyed over 100 Armenian T72 main battle tanks of varying vintages.
Azerbaijani-Armenian clashes showed is the vulnerability of traditional land units — armored, mechanized, and motorized formations.
Applying Tactical Mind to use Drones
Matthew Briza told Forbes magazine Azerbaijan, instead of taking risks and attacking well-fortified positions in the mountainous terrain, has relied on an exhausting war, during which it wants to destroy the enemy’s air defense system and his armored vehicles with targeted strikes.
Another highlight of the conflict has been the military tactic of converting a conventional aircraft into a Drone. The Washington Post notes that in the early stages of the war, Azerbaijan used 11 slow Soviet-era An-2 aircraft that had been converted into drones and sent them buzzing over Nagorno-Karabakh as bait to Armenian air defense systems — tempting them to fire and reveal their positions, after which they could be hit by drones.
The Azeri forces must found it to be lucky enough that Armenian forces were not armed with AD assets which can effectively take on the UAVs like the TB-2 which have many stealth characteristics like its small size which allows it to deceive the enemy AD assets.
Armenia though claims that it managed to shoot down several enemy drones with the Osa AKM and Strela-10 anti-aircraft missile systems but these are designed to counter larger targets like fighter aircrafts and helicopters not drones like TB-2.
Therefore, Armenia remains to defend itself primarily by camouflage, fake targets, and electronic warfare. “Some primitive methods turned out to be quite effective, and the Armenians managed to shoot down several drones with anti-aircraft guns. But for Russia, the bad news is that the Azerbaijani drone destroyed the Russian Repellent electronic warfare complex, which is intended specifically to destroy drones,” Lukas Vizingr, security expert explained.
Drone as a Propaganda Machine
The value of drones is not just their destructive potential, but also their ability to document their kills. Both sides in the conflict have released dramatic footage of drones and soldiers destroying enemy tanks.
The Azerbaijan Ministry of Defense has released daily updates utilizing drone footage on its YouTube and Twitter accounts. This was also the case for Turkey’s Operation Spring Shield.
But going beyond this, both sides have sought to document crashed drone wreckage, as a way to accuse their opponent of war crimes or targeting of civilians.
Using Turkey’s Experience in Drone Warfare
Azerbaijan probably benefited from Turkey’s experience of its recent use of drones in Syria as well as Libya, where its drones trounced the Russian-made Pantsir S1 air defense systems. They propogated it very widely. Before getting into the conflict, the Turks and Azeri militaries were invovled in various military excercises.
Azerbaijan’s technological advantage didn’t come only from the combat and surveillance drones it purchased. Crucially, Turkey also transferred “a complete robotic warfare doctrine and concept of operations” to Azerbaijan.
“Interestingly, the Azeri drone campaign strongly resembled Turkey’s Operation Spring Shield against the Syrian Arab Army back in early 2020,” Dr. Can Kasapoglu wrote in an analysis published by the Washington-based Jamestown Foundation.
About the Author
Shantanu K. Bansal is the founder of IADN. He has wide experience in research and analysis. He wrote for leading defence magazines and Think Tanks.