24 November, 2020
By Jack Davies – Junior Fellow
There has been a tendency among researchers and policy-makers studying the evolution and deployment of unmanned aerial vehicles, referred to colloquially as drones, to discount their contemporary effectiveness in inter-state conflict. The majority of current-generation drones are non-stealthy, subsonic vehicles lacking in manoeuvrability and self-defence capabilities. Whilst recognised as highly valuable tools for protracted counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency conflicts where a technologically dominant state faces a less technologically-capable non-state force, they are often thought of as being too vulnerable to air defence systems and other countermeasures. Consequently, they have been perceived as being unlikely to play a major role in inter-state conflicts.
The recent conflict in and around the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, which reignited on 27 September 2020, has in some ways challenged that assumption, with Azerbaijan in particular deploying drones against another state. In the opening stages of the conflict, reports of highly successful drone strikes led to excited commentary speculating on the end of tanks and other ground-based armoured vehicles as useful military assets owing to their perceived vulnerability. However, a closer look at what drones are being used, how they’re being used and to what purpose, and the opposition facing them is needed to gain a more accurate perspective of just how effective these systems have been.
Before continuing, it is important to recognise that not all unmanned aerial systems being used in Nagorno-Karabakh are strictly speaking ‘drones’. Many models being deployed by Azeri forces are in fact ‘loitering munitions’, systems carrying an explosive payload intended to be flown or crashed into a target as a bomb. Additionally, the sizes, capabilities and uses of unmanned systems vary widely. For ease, this article uses ‘drones’ and ‘unmanned systems’ interchangeably to refer to all such systems, with clarification of loitering munitions where relevant.
Drones offer a number of key advantages over manned aircraft. For smaller states with limited conventional manned aerial capabilities, drones provide an affordable force-multiplier, boosting their aerial potential without incurring the prohibitive costs of acquiring manned fighters. Aerial warfare is not new, but unmanned systems offer the distinct advantage of negating the risk that a pilot might be killed or captured if their aircraft is shot down, reducing both the political and financial cost of their deployment. As such, they allow states to penetrate deep into an enemy’s territory, introducing vulnerability at greater depth. Drones can also remain in the air longer than manned aircraft, as crew fatigue is not a factor and the lack of a need to carry heavy life-support systems for the pilot allows for larger fuel loads.
In September 2019, the Centre for the study of the drone listed Azerbaijan as possessing 8 different drone types in its inventory, including: 50 Harop, 2 Heron TP, 10 Hermes 450, 2 Hermes 900, 100 Sky Striker, and an unknown number of Aerostar, Orbiter-1K and Orbiter-3 drones, all of Israeli origin. Some of these (the Heron TP, Hermes 450, Hermes 900 and Aerostar) are intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance (ISR) specific models, while others (Harop, Sky Striker, Orbiter-1K, Orbiter-3) are explosive-carrying loitering munitions. Additionally, reporting indicates that the Azeri military has converted a number of obsolete AN-2 biplanes into drones, using these as decoys to bait air defence systems and ground forces into revealing their positions.
Most significantly, open-source analysis and reporting indicates that Azeri forces have been supported by armed Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones, comparable to US Reapers or Predators in capability. TB2s, which have already seen use in both Syria and Libya, are not officially in Azeri possession, with a possible deal explored earlier in 2020 never having been finalised. However, footage of drone feeds shared by Azeri forces matches the TB2s format, and it is all but confirmed, including in comments by Azeri President Ilham Aliyev, that TB2s are present in the conflict, possibly being operated by Turkish crews.
Armenia by comparison has a much smaller fleet, possessing only four types of drone: the domestically produced Baze, Krunk 25-1 and 25-2 models and the Russian-made Ptero-5E. All of these are small ISR-only drones.
Clearly, Azerbaijan enjoys both a quantitative and qualitative advantage over Armenia in its drone capabilities. In comparison to Azerbaijan, which has been able to draw upon hundreds of millions of dollars in oil and gas revenue to purchase Israeli and Turkish systems, Armenia relies primarily on favourable loans to buy weapons from Russia. As Russia has not so far fielded significant armed drone systems, there is little that Armenia can buy from them to close the capability gap with Azerbaijan.
The question of why the Armenian government did not try to expand its drone fleet with outside purchases as Azerbaijan publicly did so is puzzling. However, it is possible that the Armenian government felt that its close relationship with Russia (including the hosting of a Russian military base and membership of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization), long considered the regional hegemon in the Caucuses, would protect it. Russia, for its part, positioned itself as a mediator in the conflict, in stark contrast to rising power Turkey, which pledged on 29 September to offer direct military support to Azerbaijan. Russia and Turkey have previously clashed in both Libya and Syria.
The use of drones
The use of unmanned systems is not new in Nagorno-Karabakh. When the worst violence since a 1994 Russian-brokered ceasefire erupted in 2016, Azeri forces used so-called ‘Kamikaze drones’, Israeli-made Harpy and Harop loitering munitions designed to hover high above battlefields, lying in wait to be assigned a target to crash their 15kg explosive payload into. However, in this latest round of conflict in the long-running dispute over the region, unmanned systems have played a far more prominent role. Both as ISR support for ground and manned air forces, and as loitering munitions targeting enemy armoured vehicles and other ground assets, drones quickly became the defining characteristic of the conflict.
An under-appreciated aspect of the use of drones is their value in producing propaganda. As drones usually carry sophisticated ISR technology, a drone is effectively a mobile airborne camera (a use not lost on Youtubers and film crews around the world). Any operation involving a drone captured video feed is effectively equivalent to bringing along a film crew, a fact that Azerbaijan in particular has been quick to exploit. Given the importance of social media as a battleground in modern conflict, it is perhaps unsurprising to see the Azeri defence ministry’s pages filled with clips of missile and loitering munition strikes, filmed in real time from unseen, unheard and unmanned cameras flying high above.
Observers have pointed out that the relative Azeri dominance in drone capabilities has enabled them to enhance the perception of Azerbaijan’s success online, bombarding audiences with thousands of images of Armenian vehicles and defence systems being effortlessly destroyed. In effect, Azerbaijan’s embracing of drones has enabled them to present a narrative of Azeri dominance in the conflict across social media.
The use of drone footage in this way was previously pioneered by Daesh which, aside from using images of US drone strike aftermaths to incense sympathetic audiences and boost recruitment, made extensive use of drone-captured footage to spread clips of targeted strikes and car bombs. These clips were part of Daesh’s so-called ‘murder porn’, intended to spread shock into the public consciousness. Azerbaijan seems to have embraced these methods – weaponizing drone-captured footage as propaganda to inspire their domestic publics, project victory and dominance and to demoralise the enemy.
How effective have drones been?
Just how effective have unmanned systems actually been in Nagorno-Karabakh? In some ways, staggeringly.
OSINT investigations by conflict tracking blog ‘oryxspioenkop’ confirm that Azeri Bayraktar TB2s alone had destroyed 89 T-72 tanks, 29 armoured vehicles, 131 artillery pieces, 61 rocket launchers, 143 trucks, 9 radar systems and 15 surface-to-air (SAM) systems at the loss of just two drones. Loitering munitions have been similarly effective, with Azeri Harop drones destroying at least three S-300 anti-air missile systems, possibly many more. Even newly built anti-drone systems such as the Russian electronic warfare system ‘Repellent’ fell prey to drones.
Armenian forces tried to counter this with a mix of camouflage, decoy targets and electronic warfare. However, a number of factors limited how effective these counter-measures were. Armenian air-defence systems, mostly Russian-made S-300, 9K33 OSA and 9K33 Strela-10 SAM systems designed in the 1980s have been ineffective, being unable to track Azerbaijan’s modern drones on their radars. The weakness of Armenian legacy air defence has left Azeri drones able to operate relatively freely, a vulnerability that has in turn been exacerbated by poor tactical control of ground forces, for example deploying tanks in stationary open positions with no cover.
Unmanned systems have been extraordinarily successful in destroying ground-based assets in targeted strikes. However, such success does not necessarily translate into victory. While destroying air defence systems and armoured vehicles placed Armenia on the wrong side of the attrition curve, Azeri ground forces were still needed to seize territorial control of well-fortified mountain positions, such as the strategically crucial city of Shusha. Ultimately, it was the capture of these strategic positions which forced Armenia to sign a Russian-brokered peace deal ceding control of much of Nagorno-Karabakh and its surrounding territory to Azerbaijan. While the initial weeks of the conflict were certainly dominated by drones, a late shift in focus away from attrition and toward invasion and occupation reduced their impact in the later stages.
Finally, it is important to recognise that although Nagorno-Karabakh has offered policy-makers, researchers and strategists a shocking early look at how effective unmanned systems can be in inter-state warfare, there are limits to how far lessons can be extrapolated into other scenarios and we should be wary of excited proclamations of paradigm shifts in warfare.
For example, the Armenian tanks being destroyed are older models lacking in overhead protection. Modern tanks built by the US, UK, Russia and China are now (often) built with additional protection including active defence systems and reactive armour, and it remains to be seen just how effective drones strikes will be against these better protected models. Such vehicles also tend to be crewed by well-trained personnel adept in the art of concealment. The real threat to tanks is not becoming strategically obsolete, but instead that their high cost compared to inexpensive drones may force commanders to use them more conservatively in future conflicts, limiting their exposure and thereby their role in warfare.
In a conflict between major powers with more sophisticated manned aerial capabilities, more effective air defence systems and the resources to develop new counter-drone systems, it is far from clear that contemporary unmanned systems would enjoy the same relative dominance they have in Nagorno-Karabakh. In particular, while the relatively weak Armenian air defence systems were ineffective at countering drones, newer, purpose-built air defences may deny drones the ability to operate above, target and destroy ground assets at all. Countering this would likely require the use of unmanned systems with a level of resilience and autonomy approaching that of a crewed fighter – concepts for which are currently in development.
Ultimately, drones played a major and undeniable role in Nagorno-Karabakh, destroying large numbers of Armenian ground-based assets and degrading the Armenian force’s ability to continue to fight. However, analysts must recognise that Azerbaijan was extremely well-prepared, having earlier this year conducted large-scale military exercises; extremely well-supported, with a powerful regional ally quick to offer and provide military assistance; and extremely well-equipped, with modern drone assets far outmatching the limited legacy air defence systems and armoured-vehicles of its adversary. Drones played a major role in this conflict, but it was one role among multiple in deciding the outcome.
Perhaps the most striking lesson to be learned is that the ability to project dominance online using propaganda captured from a fleet of unmanned cameras flying high above the battlefield will likely be a key capability in any future wars. The psychological impact of such destruction should not be underestimated by future planners.
Note: Due to both Armenian and Azerbaijani officials publishing misleading or incomplete data, this article relies in places on information gathered and analysed by individuals proficient in OSINT analysis. Data has been taken from sources which ensure information meets rigorous visual verification standards. For more information see: https://www.oryxspioenkop.com/2020/09/the-fight-for-nagorno-karabakh.html
Image: a Bayraktar TB2 (Author: Bayhaluk via CC BY-SA 4.0)