Hannah Fuchs discusses the role of modern technologies in the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, and what this means for the future of warfare.
Tensions between Azerbaijan and Armenia, two neighbouring countries in the Caucasus region, go back to at least the beginning of the twentieth century, when the Armenians were expelled from the Ottoman Empire. In 1991, the ethnic Armenian enclave in Azerbaijan declared its independence as the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. However, it has never been recognized by the international community, including Armenia. As a result, a local war broke out that ended with a ceasefire in 1994. The Armenian military captured parts of Azerbaijan, forcing 600,000 Azerbaijanis to flee and lose their homes. It was just a matter of time before this frozen conflict erupted again.
This past spring, the self-declared Armenian government in Karabakh organised an election that provoked Azerbaijan and drew international criticism. As a result, clashes flared in the region, killing more than a dozen people. In July, further skirmishes broke out between the Armenian and Azerbaijani armed forces, killing another 17. Even though the definitive catalyst for the border clashes is still unclear, in response, thousands of Azerbaijanis called for war with Armenia. By September, a full-scale war had broken out between the two over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. To make matters worse, any renewed Armenian-Azerbaijani confrontation carried the possibility of sparking a wider war because of the long-running Russia-Turkey proxy conflict in the region. And tensions between Russia and Turkey have grown increasingly hostile this year. Following a Russian airstrike in Syria that killed Turkish soldiers earlier this year, “Turkey soon appeared on the battlefields where Russia was vulnerable”. Turkey later deployed military advisers, armed drones, and Syrian proxy fighters to Libya to counter a Russian-supported opposition group there. Both Turkey and Russia did eventually get involved with their smaller neighbours. Turkey sent troops to Azerbaijan for military exercises this past summer. Armenia later claimed a Turkish F-16 fighter shot down an Armenian jet until Russia brokered a peace deal on 9 November after Azerbaijan conquered large swathes of territory.
A conflict that has been simmering for decades was this time decided within weeks. Nobody was surprised that the conflict broke out again. What is surprising though is the extent to which advanced technologies impacted the conflict. Although Armenia bought $40 million worth of radar systems from India in March, they did little to counteract Azerbaijan’s armed drone fleet. Armenia’s outdated 1980s-era air-defence system also was helpless in fighting off Azerbaijan’s drones. Although military experts claim the Armenian armed forces are well-trained, generally capable and possess agile leadership, none of this mattered much when the other side’s technology was much more advanced.
Azerbaijan won the war because its drones roamed freely without any interruption, easily gaining significant intelligence on Armenian positions. “Azerbaijan was able to purchase weapons from Israel, Russia and Turkey to attain a substantial military edge”, said Michael Kofman, director of the Russia Studies Program at CNA, a US-based national security research organisation. The drones allowed them to detect Armenia’s forward positions as well as the location of their support units. With Israeli-made LORA ballistic missiles, for example, Azerbaijan was able to sever Armenia’s front lines from their reserves by destroying the critical infrastructure connecting them, like roads and bridges. Day after day, the Azerbaijanis isolated the Armenian front until they were completely cut off.
This hybrid use of drones coupled with effective military strategy enabled Azerbaijan to clearly control the battlefield. This tactic has typically been employed by Turkey, Azerbaijan’s patron, in the past. “Having high-tech military equipment is not the same as using it properly. Given the competence that they are showing, it’s obvious that they have received significant levels of advice from Turkey,” said Jack Watling, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a UK-based defence think tank.
However, the quarrel between Azerbaijan and Armenia is not the only regional conflict that has existed for decades. Closer to Europe, Ukraine and Cyprus are both home to long-simmering tensions, where we don’t know when or how hostilities could boil over in the future. And we shouldn’t believe Europe is better equipped to counter potential assaults made by armed drones. According to Gustav Gressel, Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, no European army has an armoured air-defence system that could protect its own forces, and most EU armies would have performed just as badly as Armenia in a similar situation.
The development of drones has occurred at an extremely rapid pace, and their use is increasingly manifold. The war between Armenia and Azerbaijan shows that with some help from regional allies, fighting can end surprisingly quickly, with unforeseen consequences. Western countries need to level-up their skills, knowledge, and equipment in emerging technologies to not only prepare but catch up to fight twenty-first-century conflicts. The questions now are who decides how we will fight in the future and who controls the multidimensional battlefield. The war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, being heavily influenced by Russia and Turkey, demonstrates the most recent example of how drones offer a significant advantage the largest artillery pieces cannot offer: intelligence that puts you one step ahead.
Hannah Fuchs graduated with a MSc in EU Politics from The London School of Economics. She has contributed to two Young Fabians pamphlets with chapters on AI in global competition and foreign policy, and why the UK should implement a four-day working week. She is the Policy and Public Affairs Officer at ‘I have a voice’ and the Communications Officer at the charity Lifelites. She tweets at @hannahlrf_.