A Bakraktar drone (Getty Images)

How Combat Drones Ended a Decades-Long War in 44 Days

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By Thomas Mutch

“Don’t worry if you hear an explosion,” our Armenian guide tells us as we creep along the bombed-out streets of Martuni. “By the time you hear it, it has already missed you. You should only really worry if you hear the hum of a drone. Which you will,” he adds with a dry grin. This small town is less than two miles from the front line of a bloody battle between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the long-disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh — an area about the size of Delaware that’s entirely within Azerbaijan and largely inhabited by ethnic Armenians.

The blast from a Bayraktar TB2 shelling that landed less than 100 meters from a group of journalists, October 27, near Martuni (photo Ezras Tellalian, with special permission)

The conflict dates back to 1988, flaring up with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. But now, in little more than a month, two unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) sent up by the Azeris — the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 and the Israeli-made Harop — have wiped out the Armenian defensive advantage and laid waste to billions of dollars of military hardware. The Bayraktar, often armed with laser-guided MAM warheads, strikes its targets in the same way a U.S. Predator would hit a terrorist camp in Afghanistan or Somalia. The Harop, by contrast, dives at its target like a kamikaze, exploding on impact.

A few minutes later, our guide takes a call and starts to look worried. “We’ve got reports of incoming drones,” he says, and points our convoy of journalists toward the nearest bomb shelter, which is a cellar repurposed for the town’s garrison of troops. Drone swarms have been targeting similar towns and military positions close to the front lines to soften up Armenian defenses before Azeri infantry and armor can charge their positions. It’s the modern version of the artillery barrage that preceded the storming of trenches in World War I.

To fortify their position in recent years, the Armenians purchased expensive anti-aircraft early warning systems from Russia. But in this war, those tools proved notoriously unreliable in detecting Azerbaijan’s lethal fleet of combat UAVs, which were much smaller and nimbler than the fighter jets the Russian systems were designed to help stop.

Our guide signals for us to stop and keep quiet; then he points to his ears and motions above. We hear a faint noise in the sky, a high-pitched whine that sounds like someone revving a dirt bike, followed by a series of much closer explosions. In the safety of the cellar, a dozen or so Armenian soldiers sit around smoking, sleeping, and playing cards as the shelling continues outside.

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After 20 minutes we get the all-clear and dash back to the press van, hoping to outrun the next wave of drones. The wreckage around us is grimly familiar to my colleagues, most of whom are veteran reporters who worked wars in Iraq, Syria, or Afghanistan. Townhouses have been blown to pieces; telephone lines and bricks are scattered over footpaths. The streets are pockmarked from explosions large and small. The red brick art deco town hall, an impressively imposing and beautiful structure for a town of just a few thousand people, is covered in shrapnel scars, its windows blown out. The square outside is littered with broken glass. The only sound, aside from the whirring in the air, is the endless barking of stray dogs fighting over garbage scraps from the soldiers.

But as we start driving back to the Armenian-controlled regional capital city of Stepanakert, the explosions in the background grow closer. We begin to see dust and smoke coming from nearby streets. Just after we clear the outskirts of the town, an explosion rocks the van. A massive plume of white smoke rises 40 meters to our left. It’s exactly what our minder had been so worried about. We’ve been spotted, and now we’re being targeted.

Munitions detonating roughly 50 meters uphill from the author’s vehicle (photo Ezras Tellalian, with special permission)

Our driver yells and hits the gas, swerving around potholes over the narrow road at what feels like 90 miles an hour. About a minute later, three smaller strikes explode on a small hill that we’d been driving toward. When we all arrive back to the relative safety of our hotel bunker, we feel shell-shocked and, frankly, a little exhilarated. But we know we were lucky.

Journalists are prohibited targets under international laws of war. Some of our group thought the Azeris’ targeting system had failed. Others suspected that this was a warning shot to scare reporters off from the fighting. But just weeks before, several journalists, including several from the French newspaper Le Monde, had been gravely injured in a rocket attack in the same town where we were targeted. Avetis Harutyunyan, a journalist with Armenia TV, was injured after being hit by shrapnel from a GRAD rocket close to where we’d been targeted. “I remember covering the 2016 April war when [the Azeris] barely hit near the targets,” he told me. “This time they targeted us with pinpoint accuracy.”

A young local officer who liked to visit the journalists in Stepanakert called this a “video game war.” These troops were the first generation of fighters whose notions of warfare came not from patriotic war films but from Call of Duty or Halo. And the main killers of their fellow troops were not their enemies on the front lines, but rather the UAV controllers sitting in comfortable chairs on Turkish military bases.

After our harrowing ride, we sat around a Stepanakert bomb shelter taking shots of a local spirit, an extremely strong vodka-like liquor made from mulberries. Former Armenian colonel Arshak Haryryan recalled the first conflict over the region after the Soviet Union dissolved. “In the first war, we fought in the hills with AK47s and tanks we captured from the enemy… now it is all drones, drones, drones. They don’t fight fair. Azerbaijan has a huge military budget, new technologies, and those horrible drones.”

He showed me a photo of him and his rifle-wielding platoon, all crowded onto an armored personnel carrier from 1993 that had helped with the capture of the strategic Nagorno-Karabakh town of Shushi. Now, he explained, anything like this would be quickly blown to bits.

For Armenia, there is a dour irony that its defeat in this war was built on Armenian victories in previous engagements. Azerbaijan had tested out many of its new drone tactics, albeit with less advanced equipment, in a brief “four-day war” in 2016, during which Armenia immediately repulsed the attacks. According to Jack Watling, a fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, the U.K.’s leading defense think tank, “They learned the wrong lessons from their victory in 2016. Drones may not make a huge difference in small tactical engagements, but used at scale, they can radically transform the battlefield.”

The dispute over this bleak, beautiful mountain land is the most enduring conflict to emerge from the Soviet Union’s collapse. More than 20,000 people died in fighting over the region in the early 1990s, and some 7,000 were killed in this recent war, which lasted just 44 days. Azerbaijan used its oil money to build the superior arsenal of modern military technology and was able to crush its underequipped opponent as a result. While the Azeris had been fighting a determined Armenian force on the front line, their drones had been able to roam the rear, causing extensive human and munitions losses. When the destruction of the Armenians’ supply lines caught up to the losses on the front lines, the Armenian position collapsed. Once Azerbaijan had conquered the high ground above Stepanakert, the Armenian government was forced into a surrender.

Military strategists have long noted the potential of drones to revolutionize modern warfare in state-on-state warfare, and now we’ve finally seen it play out. If the U.S. or NATO were ever drawn into a war with Russia, China, or Iran, they would face similar capabilities. According to the Teal Group, an industry-leading aerospace analyst, worldwide procurement spending on drones will increase 30 percent over the next decade. The Pentagon has invested heavily in drone warfare, and this trend is expected to continue. Between 2018 and 2019, Department of Defense allocations for unmanned systems rose from $7.5 billion to $9.39 billion.

Not all details of the Armenian-Azeri conflict apply: Armenia’s air defenses were almost entirely sourced from outdated Russian technology, optimized to face fast jets and helicopters. Typically, there is an imbalance between the cost of the air defense systems and the cost of the aircraft — it’s a lot cheaper to shoot down a jet than to build a jet. But when it came to drones, their defense systems could not engage something that small and that maneuverable. “Azerbaijan has a military budget of only $2 billion a year,” says Watling. “The idea that you can make a campaign like that for so little cost is a genuine change. What we are witnessing is the democratization of the use of very sophisticated technology that allows one party to control the skies.”

Yet analysts are still more concerned about a shortfall in the United States’ SHORAD (short-range air defense) capabilities than they are impressed by the offensive capabilities they possess. The Department of Defense has experimented with a variety of sci-fi-sounding technologies, such as concentrated laser beams and sonic guns, but its experts have yet to find a workable and reliable solution to SHORAD. Russia and China, meanwhile, have been taking their short-range air defense extremely seriously.

Still, Watling says, it is possible to blow the value of drones out of proportion. “There are ways of dealing with combat drones, and it has been proved in Syria. There are ways to stop these systems, and the best-equipped militaries are investing heavily in them.” The Bayraktar TB2, for example, is fairly easy to defeat with modern electronic warfare tactics, he notes. “You can deny the link between the drone and the ground control station. You can also locate the ground control station, which can then be struck.” Armenia simply lacked these capabilities.

Producing hardened electronics that can evade these advanced anti-drone defense systems are expensive and require robust command links and complicated support infrastructure. In a way, it is just another factor in the arms race.

And in Nagorno-Karabakh, the Azeris’ advantage in owning the skies extended only to the flat, open terrain in the south of Karabakh. They made much less progress in the heavily forested area north of the region. They also did not attempt to capture Stepanakert, the regional capital, as drones are much less effective against an adversary that is dug into a city and can hide in deep, well-concealed bomb shelters.

The terrain parallels with U.S. deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq are striking. When NATO was in Afghanistan, the uneasy balance between it and the Taliban was largely based on the terrain in which they fought. Overwhelming U.S. air power — increasingly from drones — kept the Taliban from approaching major population centers. But the Taliban retained strength in areas such as the valleys of Helmand or the Hindu Kush mountains near the Pakistan border, where air superiority meant very little.

In the first Gulf War, the U.S.-led coalition exploited the incipient GPS system in order to navigate its forces and target its air strikes against Iraqi forces. The aerial advantage contributed to the rapid destruction of Saddam Hussein’s once-mighty army. Now, 30 years later, Azerbaijan used a similar revolution in aerial technology to reverse a decades-long stalemate in just 44 days. The defensive advantage of Armenian forces meant nothing against an opponent that owned the skies. While drones will not completely revolutionize state-on-state warfare, they can quickly turn the balance of combat in the favor of those who possess them and can mobilize them. It is a development that America’s enemies are closely watching.

(This article initially appeared in the magazine Arts on October 29.)

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