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.