An article on Azerbaijan’s victory over Armenia in the recent conflict in the Caucasians by the author was published in the Strat News Global on November 19, 2020. This article pinpoints the reasons for the astounding victory of Azerbaijan forces through the use of Drones. The author dwells on the use of drones and what lessons can be drawn from the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict. The increasing role of drones in the modern battlefield is well illustrated.
It is essential to understand who stood where amidst the warring factions to understand the profile of the weapons. The two sides of the warring nations had strange bedfellows. Armenia, a Christian nation had the support of western Europe and the majority of the Christian world. However, its closest ally was Russia with whom it has a friendship treaty and a Russian military base on its soil. It also had the tacit support of Iran, a Shia nation. Whereas Azerbaijan being a Muslim Shia dominant nation, had Turkey a Sunni dominant nation as its principal ally.
Azerbaijan also had the support of Israel with whom it has old ties due to Israel’s dependence on its oil. Israel had been supplying them with military arsenal, like the IAI’s Harop, Kamikaze drones also called the ‘Harpy’. These are small suicide drones also called as ‘Loiter ammunition’ by some countries, which have explosives inbuilt in their frames.
Azerbaijan had purchased from Turkey a large arsenal of their most sophisticated drones; the TB2 Bayraktar. The TB2 is the same class as the US Predator and Chinese CH4 sans its communication and control range. In August 2020, Azerbaijani forces conducted an exercise with Turkish armed forces in which they fine-tuned their drill for the use of the drones. There are claims by the Armenians that Turkey brought into this war Syrian mercenaries to fight on the side of the Azerbaijanis, though Turkey denies it. The Turkish army used its experience of the conflict in Syria and Libya to significant effect in the war with Armenia. Russia, playing a double game, continued to supply arms to Azerbaijan as well.
It is still contentious, who started the war? Both sides accuse each other. The Azerbaijani motives to start the war seem to be more significant. Armenia had nothing to gain by starting a war. Armenian forces with the Artsakh militia (The military element of Nagorno Karabakh: NK) had taken up positional defence all along the border from North to South. The defensive system was laced with infantry in trenches, the early warning, surveillance and the air defence systems. The offensive began in the north of the NK area in the mountainous region. The early days of the war witnessed heavy exchanges of artillery, rockets and missiles. In the initial two weeks, the war was well balanced, with no one having the upper hand.
In the third week, the Azerbaijanis (Azeris) changed the front. They opened the South-eastern front with a conventional offensive of mechanised forces supported by artillery, drones and loitering ammunition. The offensive was met with resistance, and fierce fighting ensued in the South. The tide turned in the Azeri forces’ favour when they made two changes to their tactics in battle. First, they used drones as the primary means of destruction and second, they targeted the road leading from NK to Armenia from where the principal reserves and logistics were coming up to the front lines.
Both the changes proved disastrous for the Armenian army. The frontlines were thinning by accurate targeting and casualties to the fighting force. At the same time the bombing and destruction of critical bridges on the road from Armenia by loitering ammunition; the Harpy, was causing significant hindrance to reinforcements coming from Armenia.
As the war progressed the use of drones increased. An AN2 variant; an obsolete plane was converted into a drone and flown towards the enemy locations, alarming the Armenian defences and making them believe that a drone attack was coming. The decoy lulled the enemy into opening its surveillance and air defence (AD) radars to detect and track the enemy flying objects. Once the radars were active, the Harpy(s) which were loitering higher up swooped and destroyed the active radar systems, thus denuding the defences of an efficient radar cover. It allowed the bigger drones, the Turkish TB2 to unleash their lethal loads on other fighting elements like the tanks, AFVs (Armoured Fighting Vehicles), artillery guns and rocket launchers, and the missile sites.
The destruction of the more hardened targets was followed by the killing of the infantry soldiers sitting in trenches, with the Harpy. While all that may not be applicable all over, the tactics followed a sequence of destruction of Air Defence and Surveillance radars. The Armenians, aware of the presence of drones in the battlefields, were incapable of defeating them with their vintage soviet defensive systems of radars and AD guns.
It was clear that while the Azeris had upgraded their weaponry, the Armenians forces saddled with old equipment were rendered helpless to the destructive firepower that hit them. The pinpoint accuracy of taking out the man in the trench, delivered the fatal blow for the Armenians, as their soldiers felt demotivated and helpless. The camouflage and concealment standards of the Armenian fighting formations left a lot to be desired and from the air, they were all sitting ducks. The plains of the southern part of NK gave the perfect killing grounds for the Azerbaijani to trap the Armenians.
The Azeris pushed their offensives from the South and reached the vital town of Shusha. The Armenians too employed Russian drones to inflict damage, but their effect was marginal in influencing the outcome of the battle. Once the Azeris were at Shusha, the Armenians catapulted, as only 15 miles remained between the Azeri forces and the capital city, with Azeris dominating the heights around Stepanakert.
Lessons from the War
The media has written volumes about this war, due to the dramatic collapse of Armenian forces. The equipment used and the tactics employed too have been debated. Everyone is asking: ‘is this a renaissance moment for modern-day warfare?’ Let us first list the lessons drawn and we can decide on the verdict later.
What did the Azerbaijani Forces do Right? There are many things the Azeri forces did right to win this war. Principal amongst them were:
- Since the 2016 four-day skirmish, the Azerbaijanis spent a couple of billion dollar each year to equip themselves. They bought the smart ammunition from Israel; the Harpys and they bought the TB2 Bayraktar drones from Turkey. They also conducted an exercise with the Turkish army in Aug-Sep, 2020 to learn the tactical use of the TB2s. Armenians have accused that Turkish army personnel were planning and manning the drone strikes during the conflict. No matter who was behind the drones, the Azeri forces used them to decisive effect.
- The Azeris realised early in the war that it would be challenging to win the contact battle until the distant battle is won. Consequently, the Azeris used the drones and loitering ammunition to interdict the supply routes and destroy the critical bridges, which were on the road to Armenia from NK. Once the distant battle was lost, the contacting formations of Armenia were starved for reserves and essential supplies.
- The synergy of using the sensors based on the ground and in the air and use of decoy drones enabled them to synergise their firepower for destruction. The point about AN 2 has been explained, also targeting infantry foot columns first by the Thermal Imaging devices of the TB2 and them employing the Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (MLRS) to bring down fire, had a deadly effect. The use of Harpy on infantry in the trenches had a tremendous demotivating effect on the ground soldier of the Armenian army.
What lessons can be learnt
What are the lessons that could bee learnt from the Azeri tactics? Lessons need be inferred or assessed with caution, as the battlefield conditions that prevailed between the Azeris and Armenians were typical of the south Caucasian area and might not be true to other areas. Also, both these nations did not have large armed forces. The fact that Armenia never used its air force is a telling statement. First, they had a small air force, and second, they lost a Su 25K, a fighter aircraft, early in the war which precluded their use of any more airpower. Also, the two sides were fighting with equipment at the two ends of technology spectrums. While the Azeris were fighting with modern 2020s weaponry, the Armenians were stuck with vintage 1970s and 1980s soviet equipment. Such a mismatch may not exist between two warring neighbours. However, some lessons inferred are listed below:
- The modern-day warfare would be lethal and devastating, and armies must have enough reserves to sustain casualties.
- There is no way any army can beat new weapons by the use of older technology weapon systems. It requires a technologically adept weapon system to match a new weapon. To explain this argument further; the drones have a tiny radar signature. Thus, it was challenging to catch them on the old vintage soviet style air defence radars. To intercept the Azeri drones Armenian forces required layered air defence systems. Air defence sensors deployed for varying distances would have ensured an intruding object would require to beat multiple layers before it hits its designated target. A single-layered defence, like the Armenians fielded, did not work.
- Couple the above with a possibility of a large-scale drone attack on a limited front to secure a bridgehead and effect a breakout. The Azerbaijan forces did the same in their offensive in the South. The number of drones employed was not in vast numbers as the situation did not warrant a swarm, but this possibility cannot be ruled out in a future scenario.
- Any weapon system would work the best in a networked environment and not in a stand-alone mode. It is not a discovery, but this was tested and proved in this war. The use of a set of drones as eyes and ears and another set for destruction were decisive. An interesting fact which is less known is the Azeri forces knocked out all communication links emerging out of NK region to Armenia at the beginning of the offensive in the Southeast. It resulted in shutting every Armenian command and control system and deprived them of communications with their HQs outside NK in the critical phase of the battle, which proved fatal. That the loss of command and control in a battle can be a decisive factor was proven beyond a doubt.
- In the modern-day battlefield, there will never be any darkness. The night is the new day. Drones can have very effective night vision cameras. They can detect and fire, and hence when humans by instinct feel being shielded by darkness, in reality, they are more vulnerable. In war, infantry (often, troops in the open) are the most vulnerable lot in the battlefield. Thus, there is no substitute for good battle discipline – camouflage, concealment and dispersal. Concealment at all times is one of the biggest takeaways from this war.
- Last but not the least there is always an ever-increasing requirement for the armies to continue to train and upgrade their prevailing tactics and cater for the change in the enemy’s design of battle. The Armenians failed to see the change in the Azerbaijan forces and never trained for the new reality. It cost them the war.
Are Drones a Revolution in Military Affairs?
Has the use of drones, as was seen in this conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, changed the way warfare will be conducted in future? The answer to this question has elements of both the affirmative and negative.
On the affirmative side, one can argue that the use of drones in an innovative manner could enhance the gains for a force in an exponential manner. It could penetrate a typical air defence system without being detected and hit a pinpoint target. A drone could save tons of explosives used in the erstwhile wars where the accuracy of hitting the target was based on the probability theory. Its usage en masse can pulverise enemy defences and prove to be a battle-winning factor and yet cost a fraction of what was the cost of maintaining a plethora of weapon systems to achieve the same effect earlier.
On the negative side, it can be argued; drone warfare is not a revolution in military affairs any more than what smart ammunitions had brought about. Thus, to that extent, it’s an extension of the smart ammunition family. It enhances the efficacy as it has loiter time and a control unit which can act as its handler. Drones are at best force multipliers as they have the following limitations:
- They cannot capture territory or hold ground; thus, they can enable victory, but not be able to guarantee it without the ground forces swinging in action.
- The TB2 was ineffective in the North of NK in the mountainous terrain; thus, it would be fair to conclude that their efficacy in the mountains is suspect. Thus the efficacy of an armed drone in high altitude would be further suspect owing to the skewed temperature pressure and relative humidity conditions.
- Drones – like the Predator and TB2 are expensive weaponry which regular armies of developing nations can ill afford. Also, manufacturing parts cannot be by a single nation. Thus, their manufacture would always to be subject to international scrutiny. Post the war in NK, Canada, the chief supplier of control and targeting systems of the TB2 drone, has banned its export to Turkey.
The use of drones in the Azerbaijan-Armenian conflict has opened up a new chapter for the use of aerial weapons in tactical battlefields. It will put militaries across the world in overdrives to go back to the drawing boards and revisit their defence mechanisms against an aerial enemy. It has opened the eyes to potentially many more weapon systems which exist but has not been tested on battlefields. The Israeli Quasi ballistic missile: LORA, being one of them. Its limited use in this war has raised the possibility of its employment in the future tactical battlefield with innovating newer tactics to win exponential gains.
For India, there is a major takeaway. Both its neighbours on the east and west have access to drones. China has reached the levels of the US with its CH4 & CH5 drones. The CH5 is in the same class as the US Reaper. China has also developed the Kamikaze drone – CH 901. India’s current standoff in the Eastern Ladakh has been sans any discussion on the use of the drones by the PLA. India has yet to acquire any worthwhile drone arsenal. India has lot many takeaways from this war; perhaps more than anyone else!
Maj Gen Nitin Gadkari (Retd)
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of BharatShakti.in)