UAV’s are increasingly becoming the system-of-choice for militaries. This makes complete sense. They are redundant, cheaper than manned alternatives, can endure flight regimes that are too complex for humans, and they have proven time and again to be force multipliers, asymmetric weapons, and allow escalation dominance. The 44-day Karabakh conflict put them at the top-table of military capabilities.
Whilst the US led the way in drone warfare, the rest of the world has dramatically expanded the utility of drones. The versatility of UAV/UCAV in the grey-zone conflict was established in Ukraine when Ukrainian battalions were decimated by long-range Russian artillery. Russian drones did the hard part, providing accurate location data in real-time, utilising SIGINT/ELINT payloads. Drones have remained crucial low-cost force multipliers in proxy wars, as seen in Syria and Libya. The Karabakh conflict is the first true State-on State armed conflict dominated by drone warfare. The conflict has been a showcase for Israeli and Turkish drone technology, and tactical experience (and to some degree, US technology). Turkey’s use of drones in Syria and Libya provided crucial doctrinal guidance to Azerbaijani forces, and Israel’s UAV-derived tech (also via Turkish drones), provided an array of capabilities that enabled the destruction of Armenia’s ability to conduct warfare. Complete dominance.
The novel use by Azerbaijan early in the conflict of cheap Soviet AN-2 bi-plane ‘drones’, baited Armenian air defence systems, including advanced Russian supplied TOR and S-300 complexes. More than 30 Armenian air defence systems were destroyed by Turkish TB2 drones armed with anti-radiation and Hellfire-equivalent AGM’s (MAM), as well as Israeli Harop loitering munition drones and Orbiter-1 loitering kamikaze drones, backed up by Turkish Kargu kamikaze drones. The skies belonged to Azerbaijan. These systems steadily broke the back of Armenian ground forces, whilst YouTube was the vehicle of choice for Azerbaijani videos of drone strikes, causing global humiliation and huge PSYOPS impact on Armenia’s will to fight. Domination, and humiliation.
Armenia had long prepared for an attack from Azerbaijan to retake land lost in the 1994 conflict but had expected frontal attack maneuvre warfare. Instead, it was like fighting a boxer that had extended reach, taking carefully aimed strikes and conducting attrition warfare, taking the battle inch by inch at arms-length. Armenia’s ability to marshall resources was attrited by high altitude drones providing targeting data for long-range Azerbaijani MLRS systems. There was simply no safe place for Armenian forces to prepare or repulse Azerbaijani forces. At the heart of Armenia’s failure was its lack of counter-drone forces, training, and experience.
The final analysis of losses of equipment for both protagonists in the Karabakh conflict will show high numbers of UAV/UCAV’s lost for Azerbaijan, but many of these are cheap, underlining a point made in Northern Syria and Gaza, where drones costing as little as a few hundred dollars were being shot down by missiles costing 10-50x the attacking system. The budgetary asymmetry of current drone and counter-drone warfare is a factor that is having a dramatic effect on global war planners.
Cheap counter-UAV capabilities are even more urgently required outside the warzone. Gatwick Airport was a wake-up call. US forces in Guam and even Hawaii are witnessing Chinese submarine-launched surveillance drones at night, with no current means of countering or capturing these assets. It goes on. Counter-drone capabilities, CONOPS, and training now sit alongside cyber at the top of ‘must-do’ actions for all armed and civil protection forces.