ANALYSIS – Five key military takeaways from Azerbaijani-Armenian war

The ongoing war shows that traditional military-geostrategic calculus is still relevant, with conventional warfighting capabilities to clean, hold, and deny territory remaining crucial

Dr. Can Kasapoglu   |30.10.2020

The writer is the director of the Security and Defense Research Program at the Istanbul-based think-tank EDAM


As the Azerbaijani military progresses to regain Armenian-occupied national territories, the ongoing war offers invaluable lessons for global strategic and military community. Below, I listed five main observations to grasp the future of warfare against the backdrop of the unfolding Upper Karabakh, also known as Nagorno Karabakh, conflict.

Lesson 1: Without adequate sensors, electronic warfare cover, and counter-drone weaponry, traditional ground units are in Trouble

The first lesson that the Azerbaijani–Armenian clashes showed is the vulnerability of traditional land units –armored, mechanized, and motorized formations– in the face of advanced drone warfare weaponry and concepts. At the time of writing, open-source intelligence [1] publications documented some 175 main battle losses for the Armenian occupation forces in Nagorno Karabakh.

The ongoing clashes showed that while the era of tanks is still not over, main battle tanks, along with other traditional land warfare platforms, would make easy targets for unmanned aerial systems (UAS) unless they are accompanied by an organic composition of mobile short-range air defenses, electronic warfare assets, and counter-UAS systems.

Lesson 2: Integration of land-based fire-support and drones looms large in modern warfare

Syria has functioned as a warfare laboratory of the 21st century. All the involved actors, ranging from the US-led anti-Daesh coalition to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the Lebanese Hezbollah, have demonstrated, tested, and learned about novel military capabilities in the Syrian battleground. Turkey and Russia are the two nations that developed ‘drone – artillery complexes’ during their Syria expeditions.

The Turkish military, especially during Operation Spring Shield targeting the northern deployments of the Syrian Arab Army in early 2020, has used its drones to execute intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance (ISTAR) missions for the 155mm-class Firtina howitzer and multiple-launch rocket systems. Besides, the Turkish drones were also used for battle damage assessment duties to monitor the effects of the artillery and rocket salvos. Likewise, having digested the lessons from the Syrian battleground, the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation now integrates Orlan-10 drones [2] to the 152mm-class artillery.

The Azerbaijani Armed Forces showed yet another example of the drone & land-based fire-support complexes. In many clashes, including night fighting, the Azerbaijani artillery and rocket systems fought in close coordination [3] with drone wOverall, we are witnessing an increasing tendency in combining unmanned aerial systems with indirect fires in contemporary wars.

Lesson 3: Intra-war deterrence gain importance

Overwhelmed by the Azerbaijani offensive, the Armenian side has resorted to targeting Azerbaijan’s population centers and critical national infrastructure with ballistic missiles. In my previous writings for Anadolu Agency [4], I have analyzed the international legal aspect of Armenian missile campaign which is tantamount to a textbook war crime. 

Apart from the legal aspect, the military-strategic dimension of the Armenian forces’ ballistic missile and heavy rocket use during the war deserves attention, highlighting the vital concept of “intra-war deterrence”.

Intra-war deterrence is, briefly, about controlling the escalation patterns [5] within an ongoing conflict. It incorporates tacit or explicit bargaining with respect to thresholds and limits of an ongoing conflict. Unlike traditional deterrence theories, intra-war deterrence functions within an ongoing war.

Overwhelmed by Azerbaijan’s technological superiority in the battlefield, the Armenia has resorted to ballistic missile and heavy multiple-launch rocket systems (MLRS) salvos, targeting Azerbaijan’s major population centers. More importantly, the Russian-manufactured SS-26 Iskander ballistic missiles in the Armenian arsenal [6] makes the situation even more dangerous. Overall, the ongoing war showed that intra-war deterrence, and strategic weapons pertaining to this crucial concept, will keep dominating battlefields in the coming years.

Lastly, on a separate but important note, during the conflict, Azerbaijan used its drones to hunt down Armenia’s Scud-B mobile ballistic missile TELARs (transporter-erector-launcher) in at least one skirmish. If Azerbaijan can extend this concept to a more systematic approach, then one can assume that UAS now have a new battlefield task, destroying road-mobile ballistic missiles before the boost phase. 

Lesson 4: Drones make good SEAD assets against low-to-mid-range air defenses

In the Syrian and Libyan battlegrounds, Turkey’s Bayraktar TB-2 drone has made a name for itself –the “Pantsir-hunter”– due to the successful kill scorecard of the Russian-manufactured Pantsir short-to-medium range mobile air defense systems. Following the Turkish drone warfare school’s footsteps, the Azerbaijani military has effectively used UAS, especially Bayraktar TB-2, to hunt down the Armenian air defenses. Of course, Roketsan-made smart munitions, predominantly MAM-L, played a chief role in the suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD) campaign. Only within the first two weeks of the ongoing clashes, the Azerbaijani Armed Forces destroyed [7] some 60 pieces of air defenses, mostly 9K33 OSA and 9K35 Strela systems.

Apart from the game-changer Turkish weaponry, Azerbaijan’s another important source for such arms is Israel. In this respect, the Israeli Harop loitering munitions –kamikaze drone– come into the forefront. Differently from other unmanned aerial systems baselines, ‘kamikaze drones’ carry a warhead tipped on the platform. Therefore, instead of weapons release, loitering munitions dive onto their targets. The Israeli Harop line deserves attention due to two key features. First, it enjoys great autonomy, enabling human on the loop and even human out of the loop operations. Second, it has anti-radiation capabilities which means the drone can detect and autonomously home onto radar emissions. The latter characteristic has been sensationally manifested in Azerbaijan’s targeting [8] of the Armenian air defense forces’ Russian-manufactured S-300 strategic SAM (surface-to-air missile) system.

Overall, in the absence of a robust network-centric air defense architecture, and in relatively permissive airspaces, drones proved to be effective SEAD assets. Without a doubt, most UAS are still easy to shoot down compared to manned aircraft. Thus, one cannot claim that against a robust adversary, fielding a complex A2 / AD (anti-access / area-denial) capacity backed by electronic warfare and counter-drone echelons, solely relying on unmanned systems could offer adequate solutions. Drone-based SEAD operations are ideal against adversaries lacking network-centric air defenses and a complete air-picture.

Lesson 5: Despite the drone age, military-geostrategic calculus still matters

While Azerbaijan’s technological edge and drone warfare have, so far, demonstrated a robust warfighting capability, the offensive campaign has had to utilize traditional concepts and weaponry to clear and hold the occupied territories. As the Azerbaijani push developed, Baku’s military planning transformed from a drone-driven, overwhelming war of attrition into a more combined arms warfare effort, pursuing a more balanced approach.

In fact, some mid-October writings, in a premature fashion, claimed that [9] although the Azerbaijani military showcased a good drone warfare performance, its territorial gains remained limited. Well, at present, the Azerbaijani territorial gains have a very different outlook than mid-October. The Azerbaijani military captured critical positions, such as the Iranian frontier of its occupied territories, and, at the time of writing, has been advancing for the geostrategically invaluable Lachin corridor.

All in all, the ongoing war shows that the traditional military-geostrategic calculus is still relevant. Conventional warfighting capabilities to clean, hold, and deny territory remains crucial. However, considering the aforementioned ‘lesson-1’ and ‘lesson-2’ as to the Armenia – Azerbaijan conflict, one can safely assume that drones are now an integral part of modern combined arms warfare operational art. 

* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.