Turkey led the world in innovative military tactics this year when it came to the use of armed drones.
Drones have been used for assassination and ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) for decades, but 2020 marked the first time that armed drones were used in operational conflicts between two clearly defined sides.
As the producer of the popular and effective Bayraktar TB2 combat drone, the Turkish military looked to maximise its potential.
Not especially fast, only lightly armed and with a mediocre range, the TB2 nevertheless became extremely effective when used to spot targets for long-range artillery, its own firepower providing on-the-spot pinpoint accuracy.
This was used with great success in Idlib in March when Turkish forces routed Syrian government military formations moving against them. Scores of vehicles were destroyed and hundreds of regime soldiers were killed in the operation.
Another combination tactic trialled in Idlib was the use of electronic jamming suites like Koral along with armed drones. These systems are designed to deceive and jam an enemy’s radar so it cannot see what is happening in the battlespace, rendering it useless.
Syria’s Pantsir air defence systems – portable, anti-aircraft missile launchers equipped with their own radar – are normally very capable. But they were blinded by Koral and made helpless, with the drone then finishing off the Pantsir with a single missile.
This combination was used to great effect in Libya when Ankara poured men and military equipment into the capital of Tripoli to stop it from falling into the hands of the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) which was laying siege to the Government of National Accord (GNA).
The beleaguered UN-recognised government was not only able to break the siege but its forces, with significant Turkish military help, also drove the LNA and mercenary groups out of western Libya.
The offensive culminated in the recapture of al-Watiya airbase, allowing drones to operate from there, giving them even greater range as transport planes loaded with vital equipment poured in, supplying the GNA.
Several Pantsir air defence vehicles were hunted down and destroyed the same way they had been in Idlib in March. The GNA could now fly its drones relatively unmolested, its ground forces able to advance under the drones’ protective shield.
Drones had been flown by both sides of the war in Libya for several years. The Turkish TB2 was being regularly shot down and the LNA’s Chinese-made Wing Loongs had a greater range and packed more firepower, but 2020 marked the year when tactics were refined into winning combinations with Turkish drones used along with electronic jamming to turn the tide of the conflict.
These new tactics culminated in the short, sharp war fought between Armenia and Azerbaijan in late September, as the two rivals clashed in a dispute over territory lost by Azerbaijan to Armenia in their last war, fought in the 1990s.
Extensive Turkish military support and training of Azeri forces resulted in major losses for Armenian troops as formations of tanks and armoured vehicles were destroyed in the opening days of the war.
The fusion of long-range artillery and armed drones – able to provide perpetual “eyes” over the battlefield – gave the Azerbaijanis a decisive advantage. So much so, the Bayraktar drone was displayed along with Azeri and Turkish military units during the victory parade in Baku in December.
Managing the message
Not only was the armed drone victorious on the battlefield, it was also instrumental in winning the propaganda war.
Propaganda during and after a war is as old as warfare itself. From the sending of messengers to rival cities with false news of victory or defeats to the chiselling of one’s victories on stone columns for everyone to read, the message has always been massaged.
In 2020, drones provided the evidence that one side was winning. Primarily a sensor platform, drones were able to film their own successful exploits, the mistakes and misses conveniently forgotten, as images flooded social media sites.
Pictures of tanks, air defence units, radars and convoys neatly destroyed – in clear high definition video – left very little room for doubt. Not only was this effective in supporting claims of victory by one side, but it also demoralised opposing forces who worried increasingly about their own safety and the ability of their side to win.
Why are Armenia and Azerbaijan fighting over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region? pic.twitter.com/b0ohLU7hUB
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) October 10, 2020
Social media helped spread these images and a host of others, including alleged war crimes, as combatants and civilians alike all carried phones able to record their experiences.
This led to another major first in 2020 – the total media blackout of a combat zone during the era of social media, when the Ethiopian Army fought Tigrayan military groups to bring the restive region back under government control.
No journalists were allowed into Tigray as tens of thousands of government forces, backed by hundreds of tanks, poured into the region.
The internet was shut down, making it impossible for anyone to send any images of the conflict out to the wider world.
Allegations by both sides of war crimes and foreign involvement went unsubstantiated as both sides sought to seal out the world.
The Ethiopian government only later allowed some journalists into areas already retaken by the army and nowhere near the front line, closing off the region entirely even after the Tigrayan Peoples’ Liberation Front (TPLF) had been defeated.
This sort of total ban on all internet traffic has been tried with varying degrees of success in the past by regimes during security crackdowns, in a bid to stop harrowing images reaching the world’s media and, more importantly, their own citizens. In the Age of Social Media, the Ethiopian-Tigrayan conflict was the first time this tactic was used in war.
The year ahead
And what of 2021? Which flashpoints are likely to flare up into actual wars?
First, some longstanding wars have not gone away. The conflicts in Syria, Afghanistan and Yemen, while dialling down in intensity, are still claiming lives and displacing untold thousands as people move to escape the violence.
Foreign intervention, car bombs, air raids, roaming militias and revenge killings all still help to keep populations polarised and peace at bay.
The potential for new flashpoints igniting into conflicts are many and have roots in 2020.
Military action against Iran, even in a limited way against military installations, is very much a possibility. A vast amount of US firepower, especially ships specialising in land-attack, has been moved to the Gulf opposite Iran, forming an arsenal with an increasingly sensitive hair-trigger, all aimed at Iran.
Regional militias under Iran’s control, despite many warnings from Tehran, still act semi-independently. Each, with its own agenda, could easily trigger a military response from the US if the militias target American interests and military sites in the region. This is especially likely if Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure is targeted by missile and drone strikes again.
The India-China standoff, already threatening to trigger a war in the high, arid plains of Ladakh in 2020, could reignite as both sides face each other, now having moved significant military assets into the region.
A war between India and China would likely draw in Pakistan as China and Pakistan fight India on two fronts. India, with its under-strength air force, would struggle to prevail as its powerful neighbour to the north could pour in troops and supplies on its more sophisticated network of roads and railways, its own air force several times the size of India’s.
Staying with China, the possibility of conflict over some aspect of the South China Sea is growing as the militarisation of China’s man-made islands increases unchecked as it lays claim to the vast majority of the Sea and its rich fishing grounds.
Overlapping claims by China’s neighbours and an almost continuous presence by naval vessels from the US and Australia have helped deter any conflict for the time being. However, China is undergoing a crash shipbuilding programme and its coastguard fleet is the largest in the world and increasingly active, chasing away the fishing fleets of rival regional powers.
Add to this an ongoing regional arms race by all of China’s neighbours and the forging of defence ties as they band together, protecting themselves from China’s increasing domination. Beijing sees these ties as aggression, spurred on by fear of its legitimate rise. Despite American protection, a nervous Taiwan prepares for a possible invasion by Xi Jinping’s new, motivated armed forces.
Resource and mineral wealth are growing motives for conflict as an increasingly populous world needs more to eat and more energy to consume.
The Eastern Mediterranean became a flashpoint for war in the summer of 2020 as traditional rivals Greece and Turkey both conducted military drills in territorial waters claimed by the other.
Egypt and the Republic of Cyprus threatened to get involved as the countries surrounding the eastern part of the Mediterranean all vied for the vast natural gas deposits recently discovered below the sea. International pressure and diplomacy stopped the two countries from going to war but the potential for conflict remains as long as no mutually satisfactory peace settlement has been reached.
To sum up, in addition to the chaos brought by a global viral epidemic, 2021 could very well be a dangerous year with the potential for existing simmering conflicts such as those in Libya, Yemen, Syria and Afghanistan to flare-up into hot war.
Added to that is the enmity created by unresolved territorial disputes around the world, all of which have the potential to ignite conflicts, dragging in neighbouring states.
Oh, and North Korea paraded a new, long-range Intercontinental Ballistic Missile at a military parade in October and is actively designing a nuclear-missile-carrying submarine.
Happy New Year everyone.