Azerbaijan achieved a stunning victory over Armenian forces during the recent war in Nagorno-Karabakh, its military strategy proving exceptionally effective in difficult mountainous terrain.
Azerbaijan utilised its highly professionalised special forces and technological superiority to comprehensively overwhelm Armenian forces.
This article was submitted to the UK Defence Journal by Sir Richard Ottaway, Member of Parliament for Croydon South (1992-2015) and Chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee (2010-2015).
For the United Kingdom, in the midst of the largest root-and-branch review of its foreign and defence policies in decades, the latter developments in drone technology offer important lessons for its Global Britain vision.
To be clear, the origins of Azerbaijan’s victory lie in many years of shrewd policymaking, since its painful defeat to Armenia during the first Karabakh war in 1992-1994. Baku steadily modernised its military and deepened its strategic partnership with NATO member Turkey, while Armenia’s political leadership sat on its laurels.
The occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh has long been a shibboleth of Armenian nationalist politics and a cudgel with which successive Armenian prime ministers have bashed Azerbaijan. Yet the propagandising around an enclave within its neighbour’s territory – one that is internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan – was not accompanied by the necessary military investments to sustain its occupation.
When tensions boiled over in September, the outcome was a vastly one-sided war. Up to the very last days of the conflict, Armenia’s political leaders did little to prepare the public for the humiliating defeat that was coming their way. The shock and anger felt by ordinary Armenians remains palpable in Yerevan, where mass protests calling for Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan’s resignation continue and several senior ministers have already departed.
But whatever the Armenian missteps – and they were many – the conflict is instructive for the UK in where to invest militarily. Azerbaijan’s special forces are a highly professional outfit, who played a key role in claiming Armenian strongholds, including the strategically important town of Shusha. However, it is Azerbaijan’s technological prowess, particularly its use of Turkish-made TB2 drones to destroy Armenian armour, that is most revelatory.
These smaller drones are capable of loitering over enemy positions for extended periods and their relatively cheap cost means military commanders can withstand more attrition – a tactical advantage that proved pivotal in Azerbaijani assaults on deeply embedded defensive fortifications.
It was an encouraging first step that the UK’s most recent Strategic Defence & Security Review (SDSR) in 2015 recommended an upgrade to the UK’s drone fleet to counter emerging threats, notably from IS. Keeping pace with the latest advances in drone technology and other military hardware is, of course, essential if we are to maintain our military edge and meet our strategic objectives in the years to come.
If recent reports are to be believed, the Ministry of Defence is eager to expand its own drone programme in the wake of Azerbaijan’s highly successful deployment of TB2 drones to include smaller UAVs as a complement the UK’s existing Predator fleet. This would be a welcome decision, made significantly easier by the recent announcement of a more generous defence budget over the next four years.
But as Britain embarks on its future outside of the EU, I believe there is also a deeper lesson to be learned from Turkey’s development of highly effective drone systems in a relatively short space of time. After the US Congress refused to export drones to Turkey, for fear that they would be used against Kurdish forces, Ankara instead turned to domestic manufacturers to develop its own programme.
The Bayraktar TB2 is the result.
Britain is already a world-leading defence manufacturing hub – one of the few areas where we maintain a competitive edge in manufacturing on the global market. Every effort must be made to ensure we continue to be so. Launching a new high-tech drone development programme to rival the Turkish system would send a clear signal that government intends to follow through on its vision of Global Britain and kick-start a new era of British industrial production.
The upcoming Integrated Review of Britain’s security, defence, development and foreign policy will be an ambitious effort to define the United Kingdom’s role in the world for the coming decades. Maintaining Britain’s place as a leading military power and manufacturing powerhouse must be at its heart – high-tech drone systems would be a good place to start.