Game-changing Drone Warfare

Jan 16, 2021

The six week conflict (27 Sept – 10 Nov 2020) between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the long-contested Nagorno-Karabakh region has again proved the immense value of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and drone technology in 21st century warfare.

It should be noted that Armenia is majority Christian while Azerbaijan is majority Muslim. Turkey has close ties to Azerbaijan, and while Russia is primarily allied with Armenia it also maintains good relations with Azerbaijan.

The long-standing conflict for control of Nagorno-Karabakh, dates to World War I (1914-1918) and reignited at the end of the Soviet-era and Cold War (1947-1991). In 1988, ethnic Armenians who were in the majority sought to secede from Azerbaijan, and this led to war as the Soviet Union imploded in 1991. Three years later, after an estimated 30,000 people were killed in brutal fighting that included ethnic cleansing, a Russian-brokered cease-fire ended the fighting in one of the many so-called ‘frozen wars’ on Russia’s frontier.  The cease-fire left the Russian-backed Armenians in control of Nagorno-Karabakh and several other provinces, amounting to almost nine percent of Azerbaijan’s territory and with more than one million people, mostly Azeris displaced from their homes. But this time round, the result over Nagorno-Karabakh ended differently at the time of cease-fire, with Turkish-backed Azerbaijan in control of the battlefield and Russian-backed Armenia in retreat.  The reportedly better-equipped Azeri military retook strategic portions of Nagorno-Karabakh and forced Armenian forces to withdraw from critical areas key to their control over and future defense of the region.

Azeri forces – armed with low-cost, high-tech Turkish and Israeli drones and accompanying AI – were able to win a series of land battles over Armenia’s aging Soviet-era army.  Small Azeri mobile groups of well-trained and motivated infantry, with light armour and some Israeli-modernized main battle tanks, were further enabled by Turkish Bayraktar TB2 attack drones, Israeli-developed loitering munitions or Kamikaze drones, and long-range artillery and missiles to defeat Armenia forces. Targeting information on Armenia forces was provided by Israeli- and Turkish-made drones and provided the Azeri military leadership with a real-time, accurate battlefield and situational awareness with lethal effect.

Sometimes called kamikaze drones, loitering munitions are lethally-sophisticated drones designed to engage beyond line-of-sight ground targets with an explosive warhead.

The Turkish-supplied, medium-altitude, long-range tactical TB2 drone has a flight time of 24 hours and a range of almost 100 miles and is armed with smart munitions. These TB2 have been particularly effective in destroying both moving targets, like tanks, and static targets such as air-defense units. The TB2 is being viewed as game changer in the Libyan Civil War in favour of Turkey’s side of the conflict.

The Israeli-supplied Heron tactical drone and the Orbiter 1K, Skystriker, and Harop loitering munitions can be used to target anti-aircraft defense and radar systems. The Heron medium-altitude long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicle is capable of Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) operations of up to 52 hours' duration at up to 10.5 kilometers and over an area of 1000 kilometers. The Harop appeared to have been first used by Azerbaijan’s military in 2016 to strike a bus full of Armenian soldiers with the evitable effect. Drones were employed by both Armenia and Azerbaijan in the 2016 April or Four Day War, and Russian analysts contend that Azerbaijan had employed drones to destroy an Armenian battalion headquarters unit. The Skystriker and Orbiter 1K are advanced loitering munitions using electric engines that enable them to fly virtually silent until they commence their attack dive.

During the six-week Nagorno-Karabakh war, artillery and drone attacks delivered much of the lethality and killing effect on the battlefield to the shock of Armenia forces that lacked effective low level air defense capability to counter Azerbaijan’s drone advantage. Armenian air-defense systems, consisted of Russian-made S-300, OSA and TOR surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems, which were proven extremely ineffective against Azerbaijan’s Israeli and Turkish supplied drones.

The most significant weakness reported in the Russian air defense systems appeared to be the inability of radars to track advanced drones. These Russian radar systems were developed in the 1980s with sensors designed to detect, identify and track fast-moving fighters, and cannot track smaller and much slower drones. These 1980s-era systems are also reportedly incapable of plot-fusion: accumulating and combining raw radar signatures from different radars into one aggregated situation report essential to detecting small and low-observable targets such as advanced drones or stealth aircraft.

The drones employed by Azerbaijan are small enough to avoid radar detection but large enough to carry devastating payloads against high-value targets deep in the enemy rear and they are surprisingly low cost compared to the cost of main battle tanks that they can easily destroy. The Azerbaijan military also demonstrated further degree of tactical sophistication and innovation when they used Soviet-era An-2 Colt transport bi-planes fitted with remote-control systems, to draw fire from Armenian air defenses before targeting them for destruction with attack drones and loitering munitions.

It is important to note that Azeri forces also employed highly effective Israeli air-defense systems like the Barak-8 and Iron Dome to prevent missile bombardments of strategic sites in its territory, and deployed the highly-accurate long-range ballistic missile system (LORA) to attack strategic Armenian sites.

By way of contrast, Armenia used a small number of Russian-supplied drones for real-time targeting based on current Russian tactics teamed with artillery – but without the overwhelming Russian advantage of massed barreled and rocket artillery and without the effect of the deadly Turkish and Israeli attack and kamikaze drones.  Armenia also possessed no jamming capability to shut down Azeri drones and lacked the fighter-based ground-attack force that Russia would employ in battle. Tanks and other armored fighting vehicles on both sides proved vulnerable in the mountainous and complex topography to the other’s drone, artillery, and air power. Worse Russia refused Armenia use of eight recently supplied Su-30 interceptors for fear out of a wider conflict with Turkey and thus, Armenia refused to contest the Azeri drones and Turkish F-16s giving them air superiority over the battlefield a decisive advantage in modern war.

In the end, what should have been great defensive positions for the Armenian Army were, in fact, vulnerable – a single mountain road linked the front line to rear-echelon reinforcements and was easily interdicted by air power and drones. Armenian forces were reportedly left on the ground to hide from an enemy that they could sometimes hear but often could not see until it was too late.

Air superiority and the use of drones allowed Azerbaijan to reconnoiter the Armenian frontline positions and then the Armenia deployments of reserve forces. The Armenian front line could then be suppressed with conventional artillery, weakening their Regular forces while drones then led the fight against the Reserves, with artillery, multiple-rocket systems with cluster munitions, and the Israeli-made LORA ballistic missiles to destroy support bridges or roads.

Without the ability to call on its reserves, frontline Armenian units were isolated and destroyed by the Azeri army. Armenian forces reportedly suffered significant losses, including 241 battle tanks, 4 S-300s and 2 Scud (Elbrus) tactical missile systems, and Azeri troops captured 39 tanks and 24 BMPs. Azerbaijan has not transparently reported on its military losses, but it is believed to have lost at least around 24 drones, and 26 tanks. The losses on both sides are likely inflated and inaccurate, but Russian President Vladimir Putin stated “there are more than 2,000 dead” on both sides of the fighting, and 5000 killed is essentially the agreed total.  

In conclusion, Azerbaijan’s use of drones and AI, when coupled with air superiority, proved successful in this recent fighting against what had previously been considered the better military power of Armenia.

Azerbaijan’s employment of drone warfare mirrored both Western and Russian doctrine and tactics, but they were able to employ more drones and use them more aggressively, and freely, than their opponent. The Azeris combined technology with more innovative tactics in a complex strategic environment aided by new and other advanced weapon systems. One can only imagine the future use of mass drone swarms in conventional war on massed ground units.

This Azeri victory should not be taken as superiority of the Western application of evolving doctrine of drone use on the battlefield over Russian doctrine. Russia’s use of drones and AI comes with a substantial superiority in barreled and rocket artillery, potential air superiority, jamming capability, superior air, and defences that Armenia did not possess in its battle with the Azeris. Nor would it be fair to generalize and say that the main battle tank has had its day, as some are inclined to. This is reminiscent to people saying the main battle tank had its day in 1973 when it suffered heavy losses to cheap Soviet-era anti-tank weapons in the Yom Kippur War.

No doubt drone warfare will increase in lethality as it gathers steam and presents new threats to existing systems on land, sea and in the air. No doubt, our strategic competitors Russia and China and our regional opponents, such as Iran and North Korea, are studying the lessons of Nagorno-Karabakh and the employment of drones in modern warfare – just as we are, and just as we are attempting to develop a view of future conflict.

We have witnessed the use of drones in the Syrian Civil War and other insurgencies around the globe, and sometimes by states and by insurgents like ISIS, but this is the first use of drones in state-on-state conventional war. But it would seem that, at bare bones, drones in the air, and likely on land and sea are here to stay when coupled with AI, and need further study.

Nagorno-Karabakh would seemingly demonstrate that the U.S. approach to network centric warfare is the way of the future, and that system of systems and global engagement has never been more important in the West than it is now in maintaining Western military supremacy.

Joe Varner is the author of Canada's Asia-Pacific Security Dilemma, and a visiting scholar at West Point's Modern War Institute.