Although the recently brokered Russian peace deal in Nagorno-Karabakh has led to the cessation of hostilities, the extensive use of drones has created some long lasting implications for the accessibility of airpower and future warfighting.

This opinion piece was submitted to the UK Defence Journal by Edward Davies. Edward is an MA graduate in International relations from the University of Leeds with special interests in Russia, China, AirPower and intelligence.

The most recent hostilities, which were originally sparked back in July, have seen drones taking on key roles as strike, ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) and fire control platforms on both sides. As the conflict escalated, graphic videos of drone strikes appeared online showing strikes on tanks, dug in position and soldiers of both sides. The cost of conflict has been high, although estimates of losses have been hard to confirm due to inflated claims from both Armenia and Azerbaijan. More accurate estimates place Armenian losses upwards of 185 tanks destroyed and Azerbaijan more than 30 with many of these losses inflicted by drones.

This impressive performance, coupled with the mass distribution of these shocking images online has led to some extensive debate surrounding the ‘unprecedented’ use of drones on this scale with some claiming they are set to transform the battlefields of the future. In particular, many have commented on the vulnerabilities of ground assets to attack from the air, especially tanks and armour, alongside the ability of drones to provide commanders with unparalleled battlefield awareness and improved targeting for artillery. This has led to some claims about the ‘end of the tank’ as an effective platform on the battlefield which has been accompanied by debate about the future of the main battle tank within the UK’s armed forces in anticipation of the now delayed Integrated Review.

However, these claims are misplaced. Not only because, as Robert Bateman points out, ‘bad training and terrain’ were key factors contributing toward the large number of losses of armour on both sides. But, more importantly, the effects drones were employed to deliver, attack and situational awareness, and the threat they pose to tanks and other assets is, in-fact, not new. 

Since its inception, airpower has proved to be an indispensible capability to warfighters and a threat to assets on the ground. From the first rudimentary bombing raids over the trenches of the First World War to mass air raids in the Second World War and onto the first use of precision munitions during the First Gulf War. Through all these developments, the functions of airpower, control of the air, attack, intelligence and situational awareness and air mobility have remained largely the same since those early days, it is the platforms and technology used to generate these which have evolved. The threat air power has posed to dug-in positions and armour has remained consistent.

Whilst the use of drones is a well established practice in warfighting, they have thus far mostly been used in a limited capacity in asymmetric warfare by advanced state actors. This is as a result of the benefits of using drones provided in these specific situations, allowing a longer time over the target and preventing the use of more costly manned platforms in potentially dangerous areas. Conversely, there have also been some examples of the use of drones by non-state groups who do not possess traditional air forces, such as ISIS. 

In this way, there are two novel factors about the use of drones in Nagorno-Karabakh; the heavy reliance on drones, as opposed to traditional air assets, to deliver a large proportion of airpower and their use in a peer on peer conflict against armour, not an asymmetric fight. 

The use of drones by both Armenia and Azerbaijan, which possess only a limited number of legacy aircraft, represents the removal of both technological and cost barriers that are normally associated with the traditional means of delivering airpower. In this way, drones have acted as an enabler, facilitating the use of airpower by actors who would otherwise be prevented from generating, or have limited access to it at scale.

21st century fighter, attack and ISR aircraft require advanced technical and training infrastructure and take years for a country to develop as an effective capability at substantial cost. As a result of this, advanced, modern air forces capable of delivering effective strike and ISR capabilities have traditionally only been possessed by large state actors with smaller states being restricted to a smaller number of platforms with a much more limited scope in capability, often possessing older aircraft. 

Therefore, the use of drones in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has demonstrated the ability to make some key components of airpower more accessible at scale to both state and non-state actors who lack the necessary financial and technical infrastructure to support advanced 21st century combat aircraft, or even older legacy aircraft in sufficient numbers. Platforms such as the Bayraktar TB2 acquired by Azerbijan from Turkey, and suicide drones such as the Harop, Skystriker and Orbiter 1K from Israel, have the ability to deliver payloads with devastating accuracy whilst requiring comparatively little training to traditional attack aircraft at a fraction of the cost. 

Conversely, the use of drones in this way and on this scale has highlighted a new challenge for NATO. Whilst NATO air forces possess the relevant aircraft and weapons to shoot drones out of the sky, using advanced, combat aircraft to continuously project a protective bubble above ground forces that would be required to counter the threat posed by cheap, low flying drones is not only of questionable effectiveness but is also resource intense and unsustainable. In this way, the conflict has acutely illustrated the requirement for NATO forces to possess effective, integrated point air defence systems capable of countering the threats posed by drones. These must be capable of taking on a range of threats from loitering kamikaze and more advanced high flying drones to smaller low flying reconnaissance and grenade dropping quad-copters and suicide drones like the Chinese Parus S1

However, within NATO and Western forces, the focus still very much remains on generating drone capabilities rather than counterting them. Recent developments which illustrate this are the use of drones by the Royal Navy in Cyprus and more advanced programmes such as the development of helicopter controlled drones by the US Army, recent trials of swarming drones by the RAF and the development of Boeing’s ‘loyal wingman’ in Australia. In order for this novel method of drone usage to be countered effectively, NATO forces will need to double down on their efforts to develop and integrate effective countermeasures at tactical level as they once again move towards large scale combined arms operations.

Whilst the vulnerability of ground forces to attack from the air is nothing new, the conflict has demonstrated how barriers to delivering attack and ISR capabilities at scale can be removed through the employment of drones, which represent a cheaper, more accessible medium as opposed to traditional platforms. In addition, it has also highlighted the need for new countermeasures to be integrated on a tactical level within NATO forces to effectively mitigate the employment of drones against large scale ground formations as witnessed in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

4.5 10 votes
Article Rating
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
46 Comments
oldest
newest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Captain P Wash

It’s the future, I believe that people are awake to this growing threat, Talk of reductions in Tanks might just become real. ( Only 6 Adverts on this thread ! ).

Pacman27

I do think the UK should adopt drones and have long thought that each boxer should have 4 (quadcopter type drones) on the roof that take it in turns to provide advanced situational awareness.

It doesn’t have to be too fancy, we just need to get used to using them and start building them into our plans and inventory.

no doubt that drones are the future and the UK needs to become as innovative as Israel with some of its solutions.

RobW

Indeed, and have them in numbers as it will become a war of attrition. Turkey has over a hundred Bayraktar TB2.

No armoured formation or indeed strike brigades will be able to deploy without significant anti air/drone capabilities.

Ben Wallace’s comments on this area make me believe we will see significant investment in drones and anti-drone capabilities.

Pacman27

For Strike I think this just goes to show that each Strike Battalion will need a layered AAD element. A strike force will need to be able to operate within its own bubble and to do that will need its own embedded AAD. the other big thing about strike is I believe it needs 4 combat units instead of the usual 3 as it will need to provide 360 degree coverage with its support and HQ facilities in the centre. We can no longer assume that there our rear is defended, each brigade should be able to fight its way… Read more »

Drew

Personally I think both our boxer and Ajax fleets should each have the Oerlikon Skyranger air defence system gun turret module option to provide air defence against drones, helicopters, etc! A far cheaper option and more useful agains swarmed drones than a missile system!

I’ve also thought we need other modules for both these platforms to enable overmatch with the AMOS mortar system and the spike NLOS system! Just my opinion

Callum

“as a minimum our boxers should all have CT40’s, six ATW’s and 4 drones” That’s both grossly excessive and most likely ineffective. Turning all of our future APCs into light tanks isn’t going to counter the drone threat, what it’ll do is drive up costs and take away from their primary troop carrying role. I’m all for having some of Boxers configured this way, as Ajax lacks the strategic mobility to really support the strike brigades, but certainly not as a minimum spec for everything. We already have the answer to small drones: active protection systems. They’ll need to be… Read more »

pkcasimir

The latest US Abrams tanks are equipped with the Israeli Trophy APS system but the US Army considers it ineffective against the threat from small drones. This is how the US Army is approaching that problem.
Army to Use AI to Defeat Small Drones (nationaldefensemagazine.org)

Callum

Hence why I suggested existing systems would need to be scaled up. Trophy has proven incredibly effective against anti-tank missiles, I imagine the reason the US Army considers it insufficient to counter drones is because they can have a significantly different attack profile and signature than a missile. Still, I haven’t seen any evidence to suggest Trophy isn’t capable of stopping suicide drones. That article doesn’t really provide anything substantial. All it really says is the US Army has identified a whole load of requirements for various air defence systems, and that they want to use AI to improve automated… Read more »

Pacman27

I disagree on this one Callum I think a Boxer should provide covering fire for its dismounts, as well as be far more effective in its ISR role. Like most things now, every asset has to offer more than its intended role and for me Boxer is the perfect vehicle with appropriate offensive and defensive capabilities added to provide that. We have to realise we don’t have the bodies, so we need to make up with other equipment. The British Army has chosen CTA not me – I would be happy with a bushmaster on each of these, but we… Read more »

Callum

Critical mass is also more important than a few shiny toys. The more kit we want to stick on each vehicle, the fewer vehicles we’ll be able to afford. Given that Boxer is meant to be modular and it undoubtedly need to fill many different roles, having the base spec be far more heavily armed seems a poor choice. In any case, how do any of your proposed upgrades help counter drones? The CTA is for ground effect, it’s not a an anti-aircraft gun unless we want to invest in adapting the naval mount, which could very well be unfeasible.… Read more »

Glass Half Full

I agree we don’t need to arm every Boxer with CTA 40. However CTA 40 is very much designed to counter UAS/UAV, using anti-aerial airburst rounds per link below. Just need to add appropriate sensors if Boxer is not already fitted with them. IIRC Ajax and Warrior CSP turrets both support something like 70 degree barrel elevation as well which would help in targeting air threats.

https://www.cta-international.com/the-40-ctas/40-mm-ammunition/a3b-t/

Daniele Mandelli

Pac.

Under current plans they will have 4 “combat units”

2 battalions on Boxer and 2 Regiments on Ajax, 1 of which is meant to be in a “Medium Armour” role.

Replacing Tanks on the cheap in other words.

Captain P Wash

I’d not want to be in any of them personally…… I’ve seen my Son knock out entire Army’s on PS 5 from his Bedroom……

Geoffrey Roach

Dangerous place…a boy’s bedroom!

AlexS

Every combat vehicle need to have anti drone capability with SAM manpads propose build with increased altitude ceiling to reach +20000ft.
Every vehicle with a cannon need to have the cannon able to fire in anti air capacity.
Land drones need to be build for most of logistics.

But the most important thing is to be able to detect the drones, either by other drones in fighter mission or by land mobile radars.

john melling

It would be great if we had an update from the powers that be on the future armed forces structure regarding drones We need to see what the RN, RAF and Army have decided on type , role and numbers required. It’s yet another area of defence that’s dragging its feet! We dont need super fit bionic soldiers to fly drones. Its a gamers world like my self as someone who spends some times all day on a game Use the gamers to create a Drone Network Times are changing and certain the armed forces silly boundries much like recently… Read more »

Captain P Wash

I was referring to the above report about the Tank losses though…….

James

Ben Wallace twice mentioned the game changing drone warfare Turkey has used in Syria Libya and Karabakh and took out Russian made air defence systems. They used drones to scout air defence systems then shared that data with artillery forces for precision strikes . Then used electronic warfare to blind the air defence and took them out using the the TB2 drones in swarm formation . . The EU warned most EU countries would be helpless against such drones other than Germany and France as most lack credible air defence systems Turkey is developing the Akinci drone which has a… Read more »

Daveyb

OK, spoiler alert the Turkish TB2 drone was co-developed by Ukraine. It has seen a lot of action in the last four years, operating over Syria, Libya and Ukraine. It has had its issues, but by and large is quite a successful drone. It is about the same size as the Army’s Watchkeeper drone. But unlike Watchkeeper, it can be armed. The three Israeli drones Harop, Skystriker and the Orbitor are all loitering munition types, though they can also be used for reconnaissance and target assessment. What is perhaps most telling is that the Armenians had “direct” support from Russia,… Read more »

Glass Half Full

Seems like we could designate some CTA 40 equipped vehicles (including Boxer) as SHORAD focused, while also equipped with SAM of choice for larger/more distant threats. Other vehicles can stay ground effect focused, with ATGM of choice.

I like the idea of utilising RWS with 0.50″ MG as it might be an affordable solution to enable a significant number of platforms but it may not be sufficient to counter swarm attacks versus using airburst rounds? I’m thinking of drone weapons like the Chinese launcher linked below.

https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidhambling/2020/10/14/china-releases-video-of-new-barrage-swarm-drone-launcher/?sh=55cf705f2ad7

Daveyb

As much as I’d prefer every infantry carrier version of boxer to be equipped with a CTA40, its’s not going to happen due to costs. The majority of Boxers will be getting a RWS with either a 7.62mm GPMG, 40mm GMG or a 0.50″ MG. The GMPG although an effective suppressing weapon, is not really suited to counter small UAVs/drones, whilst the 40mm GMG and 50 CAL are, as they either have a greater effective range or a greater terminal effect. The 40mm x 53mm grenade comes in a programmable fragmentary flavour, it unfortunately does not have a proximity fuse.… Read more »

Glass Half Full

Agree that cost probably prevents fitting CTA40 everywhere we’d like. The key requirement IMO for an alternative UAS/UAV defence is in rapid and accurate targeting for alternatives like the 50 cal, since there may not be time in swarm attacks for the equivalent of spray and pray for direct hits for each threat. This gets a tougher proposition the faster drones fly and some can fly very fast.

Daniele Mandelli

“The UK has a requirement for a loitering munition drone.”

Could Fireshadow be resurrected?

farouk

Haven’t heard much, but at 200kg its a little large for the FEBA, the Yanks and the Israelis appear to have a multi layered approach and are investing in small handheld LM for grunts to carry and launch into battle
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YjFvYqJwaFA

Daniele Mandelli

I see what you mean.

We are clearly miles behind on this.

Daveyb

It’s funny but reading through thge comments made in the “Think Defence” forum about fire Shadow is abit haunting. The majority of people who made comments back in 2016 saw little purpose of a loitering munition, especially when we have GMLRS and Exactor. The main focus of the gripes was what if the munition doesn’t find a target, what then? The Isreali Harop has a return to base function, where it can land on a rough strip of land.

see this attached link for Think Defence Fire Shadow:

Fire Shadow Loitering Munition – Think Defence

Peter Wegrzyn

Poland has been developing a licensed Oerlikon 35mm+Grom missile air defense weapon for many years. I presume this will be integrated into the Northrop Grumman Battle management system they have purchased (IBCS). Plan is to have it as a towed trailer, mounted on tracked or wheeled APC’s they have developed,
https://www.defence24.com/polish-35-mm-artillery-system-configuration-potential

farouk

The Dec issue of Airforces Monthly has a 6 page article on the above bunfight Titled: NAGORNO – KARABAKH Remote controlled warfare has arrived. Here is a small section from it: First strikes The Turkish made Baykar Defence Bairaktar TB2 armed medium altitude long endurance (MALE) drone played a key role in the early days of the offensive . Azerbaijani forces used it to deliver precise strikes against a significant number of Nagorno Karabakh defence forces (NKDF) mobile SAM systems on the front line. The principle weapon in these attacks was the Roketsan MAM-L 22kg laser guided bomb which has… Read more »

Spyinthesky

Very interesting take. If a Russian backed force can be so easily defeated with all the active service experience that Russia could lend its ally not to mention one might have thought considerable intelligence about what the Turks were supplying and supporting on the other side then this has perhaps been a vital wake up call to NATO and I suspect UK in particular. I am not aware of anything certainly in the initial stages that we would have or could do to have defended such a assault any or much better than the Armenians who after all have always… Read more »

Daveyb

I think our Starstreak LML and Stormers would do reasonably well against loitering munitions and small drones. As the Air Defence Alerting Device (ADAD) has a very good resolution against small low thermal signature targets. The issue we would face is do we have enough replacement Starstreaks available at short notice that could replenish the ones fired? The use of the An2s is genius. I believe, something like that was used in a WW3 novel. Whereby those dastardly Russians fooled NATO into using up all of its air to air missiles in the first couple of days. It was done… Read more »

farouk

Davey, I agree fully, I kept an eye on troop movements in Libya and noticed that the LNA Chinese Wingloon UAVs kept well away from where the Turks positioned their frigates. On the other side of the coin 2 Pantsir in use by the LNA managed to down 23 Turkish drones this year from January to August. (Including one of their latest Anka UAV) that thorn in their side lead the Turks to hunt those systems and they did, in one case a social media of a photo from inside a building was recognised and the Turks bombed the building.… Read more »

AlexS

“The use of the An2s is genius.”

There is nothing new about that. Israeli Delilah, several US systems were employed in combat in Iran either in 1991 and 2003.

“I think our Starstreak LML and Stormers would do reasonably well against loitering munitions and small drones.”

What is the ceiling of those. TB2 goes at 16000ft.

AlexS

Apologies, i meant Iraq, not Iran.

Daveyb

That’s around the published ceiling for Starstreak.

The reason I said it was genius is that they had a large number of An2s basically doing nothing. So rather than let them sit around gathering dust, they turned them into unmanned drones. Because it has a large radar signature, it won’t be ignored by the older Russian air defence radars.

AlexS

Ok, i would call it smart not at genius level.

Daveyb

Fair one!

AlexS

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operation_Mole_Cricket_19

Use of drones in an anti air defense mission, but only for reconnaissance and decoy. At the time they were called RPV’s. Note how the drones could survey the missiles sites and airfields without being downed.

Pete

Can imagine that Greece and Greek Cyprus will be considering a range of urgent operational enhancements.

Wonder to what extent wedgetail can track the spectrum of drones involved.

farouk

Pete, Between 1997-1998 Turkey went up the wall after Cyprus purchased a S300 battery in response to Turkish fighter aircraft entering Cypriot air space. They started stopping and searching ships heading to Cyprus, they sent planes to Israel to be trained on how to take out the S300, They threatened war. Russia and Greek stated they would back Cyprus if they did, In the end a compromise was made Cyprus offloaded the S300 to Greece who placed it on Crete (Still there) and in return they handed over 6 TOR AAA systems to Cyprus. From what I can gather whilst… Read more »

Last edited 3 months ago by farouk
Pete

Indeed farouk. Somehow its the ability to get giraffe integrated into a network of alternate munitions from LRLM to camm such that it can select the right kill solution for the threat identified.

Having a range of modular kill solutions spread through the Boxer and Ajax fleets will also be critical.

Daveyb

The Starstreak’s Air Defence Alerting Device (ADAD) is based upon the Typhoon’s PIRATE Infrared Search and Track (FLIR/IRST) made by the consortium Eurofist (Leonardo. Thales UK and Technobit). Pirate is due an upgrade in the next year or so. Both the ADA and Pirate have a very high contrast ratio. Against a fighter sized target it is supposed to have a range greater than 50nm (depending on the weather). Against a much smaller target it will be closer. So long as the detection range is better than the Starstreak’s maximum effective range, means targets can be engaged at the edge… Read more »

farouk

Davey,
Thanks for the info. Answered a raft of questions for me.

James

The Turks took on the Russians in Syria and blocked their agenda to allow Assad to take full control. They took on Russia In Libya southern Europe backyard to support the UN backed government and stopped the renegade General backed and armed by Russia to take control of the capital and west of the country . And now are in Russian backyard in Azerbaijan defeating Russian military gear again. I can’t think of any NATO member that took on the Russians like this since the cold war even . The TB2 drone is now most battle proven drone and cheap… Read more »

Paul.P

The delays in upgrading Warrior and C2 might be a blessing in disguise. We now have time to feed our appraisal of the Turkish use of drones in Syria and Azerbaijan into the defence review. As they say, every cloud has a silver lining.

john melling

With all the money wasted so far I can’t see us going back to the drawing board and redesigning the Warrior and Challenger upgrades so they will be carried on as normal I reckon!

However Integrating anti-drone on to the Boxer, AJAX or other vehicle types will have to be considered if not implemented in the near future for the strike brigades

It will be interesting to see what influence the recent use of drones has!