They assess targets with greater precision, divide up tasks and execute them with minimal human interaction. A technology of the 21st century that was first used by the United States after the 9/11 bombings. They are called drones, and they are changing the face of modern warfare. Drones have helped win numerous wars in recent times; the latest being the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict where they proved tremendously effective against armour and artillery.
The modern drone strikes were first seen when the US cracked down hard upon insurgents and terrorists soon after the 9/11 bombings. The last four years saw several countries using drones in their battles; Nigeria used drones against Boko Haram, Turkey used them in Syrian raids, the UK in Iraq and Syria, and the US in Libya.
Fast forward to September-end 2020. Azerbaijan used its drone fleet to destroy Armenia’s weapons systems in Nagorno-Karabakh, enabling a swift advance. The six-week war left Armenia thinking of its air defense systems, many of them older Soviet systems, that failed to stand the new-age drones. A Russia-brokered peace deal was signed between Armenia and Azerbaijan on November 10.
It is clear that the genie is out of the bottle, and every nation wants to own it. Prior to 2011, only three countries had armed drones: the US, the United Kingdom and Israel. Now, the armed drones are proliferating rapidly, with China becoming a major supplier.
This leaves India to focus on revamping its military with this niche technology as it has two enemies to deal with Pakistan and China. Here we take a quick look at the Azerbaijan-Armenia battle that was completely won with the help of drones.
The Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict & its history
The conflict surrounding the mountainous region of Nagorno-Karabakh dates to World War I but escalated in the final years before the split of Soviet Union. In 1988, ethnic Armenians forming the majority of this territory sought to disaffiliate and split from Azerbaijan which was a Soviet republic back then. Little initial skirmishes between Armenians and Azerbaijanis resulted in an all-out war as the USSR collapsed in 1991.
In 1994, after some 30,000 people were killed in fighting and pogroms conducted by both the nations, a ceasefire was called. The Armenians retained control of Nagorno-Karabakh (7,000 sq km), along with several other provinces, amounting to almost 9 per cent of Azerbaijan’s territory. More than 1 million people, mostly on the Azerbaijani side, were displaced from their homes, while Nagorno-Karabakh has taken on an iconic significance for both sides.
Back to 2020, Azerbaijan, now backed by far superior military equipment and an airborne fleet of Israeli and Turkish drones, has taken control of the land surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh previously occupied by Armenian forces.
The Armenians have been caught off guard and their weaponry is from the 1980s.
Azerbaijan has had the most success in the south, between Nagorno-Karabakh, the border with Iran and Armenian sovereign territory. Its troops had advanced rapidly across the flat, sparsely populated region where its air superiority made the difference.
Drones upped the game
Experts opine that this was a factor of invincibility that Armenia banked upon all these years. But, their reliance on old military doctrines, old weaponry like tanks and heavy artillery have been undone severely by the influx of drones and Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs) in Azerbaijan’s repertoire.
Fueled by billions of dollars in oil and gas sales, Azerbaijan’s military spending over the past decade totaled $24bn, according to data from the Stockholm International and Peace Research Institute. Armenia during the same time has spent $4.7bn and its reliance on Russia as its main weapons supplier means that its unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, capabilities are relatively lacking because Moscow has not focused its defense development on drones.
Armed drones, or UCAVs, have upped the ante in long-simmering regional conflicts that until now have been low-level in nature. That has predominantly been owing to the limitations faced by these smaller countries with regards to carrying out precision strikes. Technology has now changed this altogether.
Before the latest fight broke out on September 27, Azerbaijan had in its possession twice as many military aircraft as Armenia, double the number of artillery launchers, and a plethora of advanced armed drones. Armenia continued to use Soviet-era air defence systems that were not integrated with modern radar to identify and track drones.
It was almost like a handicap matchup (WWE terminology) between the nations as Azerbaijan was backed by its purchases made from Israel, Russia and Turkey, enabling them to attain a substantial military edge.
For instance, Open Source investigations and Azerbaijan’s military sources claim that Israeli Harop drones destroyed many S-300 air missile batteries belonging to Armenia. Azerbaijan also extensively used its armed TB2 drones sold by Baykar, a defence company owned by Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s son-in-law Selcuk Bayraktar and his family, to destroy scores of Armenian tanks.
How does drone warfare impact India’s preparedness?
With neighbours such as Pakistan and China, threat lies for India at any given point of time. Bolstering its military with the latest technology is the need of the hour, for which India has already been making moves in the combat drone/UCAV spectrum. The Indian Army is in possession of around 90 Heron Surveillance drones and the Harop loitering munition. Additionally, the army is planning to acquire more of these from Israel.
In August this year, the defence approved the upgrade of Heron UAVs. The upgrade will include arming some of these drones, sources in Indian security establishment said. The decision comes amid the India-China standoff as the Indian military is preparing to enhance its surveillance capabilities at the Line of Actual Control (LAC). The Heron UAVs are already being used in the forward areas of Ladakh.
India is also looking to expedite its testing of the indigenous surveillance drones ‘Rustom-2’ before inducting them into service.
During the defence expo in Lucknow in February this year, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) from Israel and Dynnamatic Technologies Limited signed an agreement for manufacturing of drones.
The Indian Army also opted for the SpyLite mini-UAV for high-altitude aerial surveillance. This is built by Cyient Solutions & Systems (CSS), a joint venture between Cyient Ltd (India) and BlueBird Aero Systems (Israel).
With the opening of the American drone market, India is also exploring the possibility of acquiring several GA-ASI MQ-9 Reapers from the US subject to approval.
Talking about threats from neighbours, Pakistan has a plethora of options to choose from if it decides to expand its already existing combat drone options. Both Turkey and China design and manufacture high-end drone equipment. On the other hand, India will hope to bank upon Israel and the US.
With regards to the use of combat drones in our part of the world (read India’s border with Pakistan and China) drone warfare may not be as successful as it was in the Armenian context. This is because both India and Pakistan have heavy air defence systems.
Unless India completely dominates the air warfare, drones may not be as successful when it comes to combat operations. The induction of Rafale may help India with this regard.
China is the bigger player when it comes to drones and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). It has invested a lot of effort in developing civilian drones and the same has been translated into them developing combat drones. China is one of the leading countries when it comes to R&D concerning drone technology.
China also possesses anti-drone technology used to jam signals that disrupt drones or shoot incoming drones in order to divert or destroy them.
With China’s growing dominance in global drone market and Pakistan’s proximity with Beijing, India needs to quickly adapt to the changing game of drone warfare as it is likely to become even more prevalent in coming years.
Modern drone wars
The US has the most advanced drones in the world and it is the pioneer of the technology. The Predator drones were wielded by the US against insurgents and terrorists such as the Taliban and al Qaeda soon after the 9/11 bombings.
Now, the same technology has proliferated into the armories of smaller countries in conflict hotspots from Libya to the Caucasus Mountains. Drones may see more such wars being fought amongst small countries with long-standing territorial disputes.
The reasons that we are only now seeing drones so extensively used since its debut in 2001 must be owed to the US as it tightly restricted the export of its expensive Predator and Reaper UCAVs to close allies. The drone technology outside of the US only took off around 2010 and now has seen highly advanced innovations from countries like China, Israel and Turkey who have developed their own UCAVs, and have widely exported them to other partner nations.
The UAE deployed Chinese-built Wing Loong drones last year to support the Libyan National Army faction inside Libya, resulting in deadly strikes using laser-guided Blue Arrow missiles. When Turkey intervened in behalf of the opposing side, it deployed a fleet of domestically built Bayraktar TB2 drones, the same used by Azerbaijan, which eventually overwhelmed and destroyed most of the Libyan National Army’s Russian-built air defence systems, forcing the army to end its siege and withdraw.
Turkish drones also pounced down on Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria’s Idlib province, destroying over 100s of armored vehicles thereby bringing Assad to his knees.
Open-source analysis of videos captured in the conflict at Nagorno-Karabakh indicate that the drones have impacted a devastating toll, incapacitating around 128 tanks, 26 surface-to-air missile systems including a Tor system, around 70 multiple rocket launchers, five S-300s, 14 radars or jammers and one SU-25 war plane.
The same analysis shows that Azerbaijan has lost 22 tanks, 41 armored forced vehicles, one helicopter, 28 drones and 24 vehicles.
Drone cameras are a key aspect of warfare. They can film the destruction of a target in clear, unwavering high definition videos, allow countries that use them to dominate the narratives. Imagine HD videos of the Balakot strikes? That would have settled the matter altogether.
Another aspect is the use of sensors on drones. They make it easier to spot an adversary from distance. Drones, irrespective of whether they are armed or not, help feed vital information about the enemies’ movements. This coupled with ground-based radar can pick up movement of tanks and armored vehicles, day or night.
With such highly precisive detection, long range missiles and air raids can be used with devastating results. An example of this kind of strategy is when Turkey successfully navigated the northern Syria regions and similar strategy has been used by Azerbaijan now.
Combat drone capabilities & cost-effectiveness
Advanced drone UCAV capabilities are highly lethal and precise, and the best part is that they come at a relatively low cost. Comparing drones and UCAV to fighter jets may not be a like to like comparison, but in battles likes these in the Nagorno-Karabakh region costs both financially as well as in terms of manpower makes a great case for use of drones.
A jet fighter costs tens of millions of dollars to procure and tens of thousands of dollars per flight hour to operate and maintain, plus has added risks of losing highly trained, nonexpendable pilots on board during the war. Risking the loss of manned jets and its pilots are often seen as a great loss of face both militarily and politically. Now, these combat drones procured from countries like China, Israel and Turkey change this predicament altogether. These combat drones are priced in the low millions of dollars, are cheaper to fly per hour and the most important thing is that it has no pilots on board.
Modern ‘Kamikaze-drones’ are best-suited for countering enemy air defenses, since the small size of the drone makes it possible to avoid detection by ground-based radars.
UCAVs also have a less carrying capacity compared to fighter jets. Hence, they are used in small but precise attacks rather than air-based raids that jets usually engage in. Azerbaijan used a new method of precision warfare that best compliments the use of such drones. This was only possible for rich and well-established militaries before, but now technology has made this more accessible to countries like Azerbaijan.
To name a few, countries with outstanding border conflicts include India, Pakistan, Serbia, Ukraine and many others. All these nations have already started purchasing attack drones and UCAVs.
The combat drone market can further explode by the Trump administration’s push to deregulate their armed drone sales in a bid to allow the US manufacturers to compete in an export market dominated by China, Israel and Turkey.
Drones that sealed the deal for Azerbaijan
Azerbaijan primarily used drone and UCAV systems procured from Israel and Turkey.
Harop Loitering Munitions UCAV System:
One of those was the Harop a “loitering munition” that combines the remote control and long endurance attributes of a drone with the deadly strike capabilities of a guided missile. It is an anti-radiation drone that can autonomously home in on radio emissions. The drone loiters over the battlefield and attacks the targets by self-destructing into them. The Harop has been developed to perform suppression of enemy air defence (SEAD) operations. The munition system measures 2m in length and has a wingspan of 3m.
The Harop system consists of the munition units, transportable launchers and a mission control shelter, which provides real-time access to control the Harop by a man-in-the-loop. Unlike other UCAVs that carry explosive warheads, the Harop itself is the main munition.
The Harop missiles can be launched from various transportable platforms including sea and ground-based canisters or air launched to navigate towards the potential target area. It can be launched at any angle, at a horizontal or vertical trajectory. The sealed container ensures it copes with harsh battlefield conditions. The launcher has a fueling system to provide all-time readiness.
The Harop attacks the enemy targets with an onboard explosive of 23kg (51lb). It can be controlled using a remote when it is in flight. It also offers hemispherical 360° coverage. The relay of video imagery will aid the operator in assessment of the battlefield through a satcom data link.
Bayraktar TB2 Tactical UAV:
Bayraktar TB-2 drones are supplied by Turkey. Though only about one-eighth the weight of a US MQ-9 Reaper and cruising at just 80 mph, the TB2 carries four MAM (Turkish for Smart Micro Munition) laser-guided missiles and proved highly effective in combat. The TB2 has a flight time of 24 hours and a communication range of almost 100 miles and comes armed with smart munitions. Additionally, some of these drones create a disturbing sound when approaching their targets, which can be psychologically unsettling.
The UAV is equipped with a triple redundant avionics system. It also features a Pitot static sensor, laser altimeter and alpha beta sensor modules, as well as speed, temperature and fuel level sensors.
Bayraktar TB2 UAV can carry a maximum payload of more than 55kg. The standard payload configuration includes an electro-optical camera module, an infrared camera module, a laser designator, a laser range finder and a laser pointer.
Reports also indicate that Azerbaijan also used newer models of Kamikaze UAV like the Skystriker and Orbiter 1K, recently supplied by Israel. These models use electric motors and are virtually silent until they start their attack dive. There are images obtained from on ground sources that also show the use of Israeli LORA ballistic missiles which have a range of up to 400km and an accuracy of 10 metres.
I suppose this would be first documented use of Israel’s LORA missile system by Azerbaijan. pic.twitter.com/Mm5J80fdAP
— FJ (@Natsecjeff) October 2, 2020
Were these drones a complete gamechanger?
While it is easy to be euphoric about these combat drones and suggest that this is the end of the tanks and armored vehicles, it may not really be the case.
Robert Bateman, writing in Foreign Policy, suggests that the problem here was one of competence. Many of the drone videos showed Armenian tanks grouped together with no real dispersal, camouflage or cover. This made them very easy targets for these drones. Bateman opines that the problem is not tanks but “incompetently trained and equipped military forces that left themselves clumsily open.”
Azerbaijani military sources also attribute this success to good old-fashioned mechanised infantry operations that took control of the territory while the drones did their jobs in the air.
Drones are also not as effectively tested in harsh winter conditions. This may make a case to stick to conventional infantry operations.
But what is certain is that the role of human pilots will be decreasing in the upcoming decade and the integration of AI technology into drone operational warfare may soon become a norm.
The US Marines Corp has already started downsizing the number of heavy tanks and the same is being done by the British army in order to turn nimbler and more enabled. The use of sensors, drones and long-range attack weapons may well end up defining success on the modern battlefield.
The advantageous metrics that support the view to induct combat drones and UCAVs as part of mainstream warfare could be force protection, affordability, battlespace integration and end-user control.
(The writer is a Singapore-based Open-Source Intelligence analyst)