The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is ushering in a new age of warfare

Drones, sensors and long-range weapons have given one side a clear edge in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan.

A military helicopter approaches a landing zone during a comprehensive joint military exercise of the air and land forces of Turkey and Azerbaijan in Baku, Azerbaijan on August 9, 2020 [Azerbaijan Defense Ministry/Handout/Anadolou]

Both Armenia and Azerbaijan, traditional enemies, have been building up their armed forces over the last decade. They fought a bloody war that ended in 1994, in which tens of thousands of people were killed and hundreds of thousands were displaced on both sides. Azerbaijan’s army collapsed and Armenia took control of several regions, including the key regions of Fuzuli and Jabrayil in the south, bordering Iran. President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan has been explicit in his desire to return these regions to Azerbaijan.

The country has a defence and mutual assistance pact with its neighbour and ally Turkey. Extensive joint exercises were held in late July and early August with, according to Azerbaijan, as many as 11,000 Turkish troops taking part, with units training alongside each other. Turkish Air Force fighter jets, armed drones and long range-artillery trained alongside the Azerbaijani armed forces.

The exercises were run just after a bloody clash between the two enemies in early July lasting several days in which drone warfare was prominent.

Tanks and armoured vehicles take part in a comprehensive joint military exercise between Turkey and Azerbaijan in Baku, Azerbaijan on August 6, 2020 [Azerbaijan Defense Ministry/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images]

Drones and more drones

The use of drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) has been increasing in battlefields across the world and the current conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia is no exception. Images of armoured vehicles being destroyed, regardless of attempts at camouflage, flooded Western media outlets as Armenian tanks were swiftly targeted by armed drones. Azerbaijan has been steadily building up its force of UAVs.

Israel, a major drone exporter, has been supplying the Azeri armed forces with loitering munitions like the Harop, which were used to great effect in the previous major skirmish in 2016, dubbed the “Four Day War”. This is a new class of munition which is essentially a Kamikaze or suicide UAV. A combination of bomb and drone, it loiters over the battlefield, its remote operator searching for targets. Once found, the drone is flown into the target, destroying both itself and the target.

The Harop, or Harpy, could be heard due to its engine but newer models of Kamikaze UAV like the Skystriker and Orbiter 1K, recently supplied by Israel to Azerbaijan, use electric motors and are virtually silent until they start their attack dive.

The explosion of a downed Azerbaijani drone in the contested Nagorno-Karabakh region in April 2016 [Vahram Baghdasaryan/Photolure via AP]

More recently, Azerbaijan has bought the operationally successful Bayraktar TB2 from Turkey and has used them with great success. Cheap and effective, they have more advanced optics, sensors and can return to base, swiftly refuel, rearm and be back in the air again, hovering over the battlefield looking for fresh targets.

Drones have one more important effect. Their cameras, filming the destruction of a target in clear, unwavering high definition video, allow a country to dominate the propaganda narrative. Media outlets were saturated with images of Armenian armour and artillery being effortlessly destroyed, not the other way round. Despite Azerbaijani losses, the Armenian armed forces, for the most part, did not have cameras trained on their intended target. These images have enhanced Azerbaijan’s sense of success on the battlefield, presenting an image of near-total Azerbaijani victory.

Sensors: Eyes over the battlefield

It is not just the use of drones that has been so decisive. The modern battlespace is filling up with sensors, making it far easier to spot an adversary from far off. Drones, armed or not, are effectively sensor platforms, feeding vital information about the enemies’ movements back to command centres.

This, coupled with ground detection radar – which is able to pick up moving or concealed tanks and armoured vehicles, day or night – means that it is now increasingly hard to hide on the battlefield.

With movement, and therefore tactics, detected, long-range artillery and air raids are brought to bear, often with devastating results. Turkey used this successfully in northern Syria and these lessons have clearly been passed on to the Azerbaijanis in their recent joint exercises.

In video released by Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry on October 1, 2020, an unmanned aerial vehicle flies over a site where Azerbaijan’s forces attack the Armenian army’s artillery during fighting in the contested Nagorno-Karabakh region [Azerbaijan Defense Ministry via AP]

These tactics have been so effective that many commentators have openly talked about the demise of the tank as an effective instrument of warfare. There is no doubt that tactics will have to change in order for it to survive. Electronic jamming of radar and drone signals – to counter the enemy’s sensors, effectively blinding them – and sending in tanks with adequate air defence are two potential changes.

The basic fact remains that the tank is still an extremely useful and flexible tool in the taking and holding of ground alongside troops, which is the basic premise of industrial-level ground warfare. Still, this has not stopped larger militaries from reconsidering how effective their large fleets of tanks, with their operational roots in World War Two, would be in a future war.

The US Marines Corp is downsizing its number of heavy tanks and the British army is also considering the same, preferring nimbler, more enabled, net-centric forces that would not only survive but prevail in the conflicts of the future. The preference for sensors, drones and long-range attack weapons is what will end up defining success on the modern battlefield.

Long-range attacks

While long-range artillery and air attacks have been around for over a century, their increasing accuracy is something that militaries are only now coming to grips with.

Combined with the clouds of sensors saturating the battlefield, these new systems have the ability to travel further with pinpoint accuracy, no longer needing to blanket an area with warheads in order to guarantee destruction of a target. They are now able to find and destroy a target sometimes hundreds of kilometres away.

Azerbaijan’s special forces are seen during comprehensive military exercises of air and land forces in Baku, Azerbaijan on September 24, 2020 [Azerbaijan Defense Ministry/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images]

Azerbaijan, despite falling oil revenues, has invested heavily in these systems, buying Israeli LORA ballistic missiles that have a range of up to 400km (about 250 miles) and an accuracy of 10 metres (about 33 feet). These, as well as other long-range attack weapons, were part of a $5bn military and security equipment deal signed between the two countries in 2016. Azerbaijan is considered a strategic partner of Israel, supplying it with nearly 40 percent of its oil.

With allies such as Israel, Turkey and to a certain extent Russia, Azerbaijan has had no problem buying modern weapons in order to settle the score with its neighbour and bitter rival Armenia. Russia is in an awkward position, as it has a base in Armenia but has supplied weapons to both countries, both ex-Soviet republics.

Azerbaijan’s larger military, now heavily armed and trained by Turkey in the effective use of these systems, has given it an edge which it seeks to use to secure victory on the battlefield and leverage the return of areas it sees as Azerbaijani, lost in the last war.

Training is key, as it is the fusion of these systems – sensors to give them unblinking eyes across the entire battlespace, long-range weapons to give them serious reach once targets have been detected and drones to accomplish both and destroy targets near-instantly – have given the Azerbaijani armed forces a clear edge in this current conflict.

Source: Al Jazeera