Drone Warfare in Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict

Drone Warfare in Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict

Sat, 02/20/2021 - 22:52
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By Wg Cdr Bhupinder S Nijjar (Retd)

The armed ethnic conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region (Republic of Artsakh) amounting over 4,400 Km sq. Km (an area roughly approximating to that of Goa),[1] has been ongoing since the 1990s between Armenia and Azerbaijan, both constituents of the erstwhile USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics). The territory that calls itself “independent (Republic of Artsakh)” is internationally recognized as a part of Azerbaijan but has been under Armenia's de-facto control since 1994. The 1994 conflict had also resulted in an additional loss of seven Azeri districts surrounding the Nagorno-Karabakh region. The 1994 conflict had resulted in over 25,000 casualties. Additionally, over a million Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) and refugees were forced to leave their homes due to their ethnicity.


In the decades that followed, there have been continuous skirmishes alongside the peace efforts. The latest round of active hostilities lasting for 44 days ended in a ceasefire on November 10, 2019, with a Russian brokered a peace deal.[2] The Azeris had clearly won this round of conflict, which was also reflected in terms specified in the peace deal.


The images beamed across the world of the aerial attacks taking place using Remotely Piloted Combat systems sparked a debate about the efficacy of such systems in deciding the outcome of the battle. This paper intends to examine the role of such systems in Azeri victory and some implications and security challenges facing India.

Equipment Loss Summary[3]

In the current conflict, around 6000 people have reportedly died on both sides.[4] A cursory glance at the extent of the losses suffered by Armenian backed Separatist forces in Nagorno-Karabakh reveals the comprehensiveness of the Armenian loss:[5]












AD Systems



Towed Artillery



R-17 Scud “B”







One Su-25K

Nine An-2



One (Mi-8/17)








A detailed breakdown of the losses of the Loitering Munitions/Drones is even more revealing:





Orbiter 1K



Israeli Origin/Loiter-Munition, Fragmentation Warhead-3KG /Mini Electro-Optical/Infra-Red Payload, Range 100 Km, Endurance 2.5 Hrs, Net Recovery[6]

Aerostar Surveillance UAV



A Tactical UAV-Israeli Origin (Aeronautics Defence Systems),50 Kg Payload, Endurance 12 Hours, Range 200 KM, Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, Reconnaissance[7]

Sky-Striker Loitering Munition



Elbit Systems-Israel Fully Autonomous,5KG Warhead, Endurance 2Hours, 40 Km Range, Electric Motor, Recoverable[8]

IAI Harop



These were supplied to Azerbaijan in a $1.6 Billion Deal in 2012. Additional Manufacturing cum Servicing Arm was Opened in the Capital Baku by IAI in 2019[9], 23KG Warhead, Endurance 6Hrs, 1000 KM Range.




27 Hour Endurance




Armenian Manufactured, Range 320Km, Endurance Unknown

Quadcopter Drone (Type NK-Not Known)




Quadcopter Suicide Drone




Drones (NK)






The Winning Strategy

Azerbaijan has been acquiring Israeli Drones since 2012 and is said to have received military equipment worth $5 billion from Israeli companies. During one such acquisition process, it had even forced the Israeli company to test out the Orbiter-1K on live Armenian targets on July 7, 2017.[10]

Earlier in 2016, it had used the “Harop” to attack a bus carrying Armenian soldiers killing seven of them. In September 2019, it had evaluated the Israeli Sky-Striker loitering munition and had ordered it in late 2018.[11] This induction was followed up by the acquisition of the Turkish, Bayraktar TB2 in June 2020.[12]

The particular interest in the Turkish Drone was due to Turkey's operational utilization of the Drone in its fight against Kurdish insurgents along its borders with Iraq and Syria. An additional consideration would have been the requirement of extensive integration required with the ground forces to implement the battle plan.

The opportunity accorded by the world’s preoccupation with the pandemic was too good to pass. The support from Turkey was total and on generous terms. It included acting as a shield against any outside interference-including possibly by Russia. It is evidenced by Turkey deploying F-16s in Azerbaijan under cover of a joint exercise with Azerbaijan on July 31.[13]


This deployment continued right through the war. The significance of these developments was not assessed correctly by Armenia. As the hostilities broke out, it was clearly caught off guard. The Azeri plan aimed to achieve total air superiority over the battle-zone by neutralising the Armenian Air Defence (AD) elements by utilizing drones and loitering munitions.

It achieved this by sending the unmanned AN-2s and forcing the Air Defence radars to radiate and reveal their location. These were then destroyed nearly simultaneously using the loitering munitions. This is also reflected in the loss figures quoted above.

For the loss of nine unmanned AN-2s, Azeri's plan caused many missiles to be expended and pinpointed the Radars and allied Air Defence units' location. The radars were targeted using the Harop while the Bayraktar was used to target artillery equipment and support infrastructure.

The images and video footage of the destruction caused were released almost immediately by Azerbaijan and acted as a part of its information and propaganda effort. The land battle, however, still had to be fought.

Having achieved air dominance over the battle zone, Azeris then used the surveillance drones to coordinate and direct the land battle. The Bayraktar TB2 was extensively used in a close support role and proved to be a useful tool defining the outcome of many battles. The Armenian anti-drone measures proved to be woefully inadequate and were easily countered at very low cost.

The battle-zone was limited to the Nagorno-Karabakh region, which was the reason for non-interference by Russia, even though it has an active airbase (102nd Military Base) in Gyumri, Armenia. Both Armenia and Russia are a part of a military pact called the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). However, the arrangement does not cover the conflict region. Towards the end of this conflict, Azeri forces did shoot down a Russian helicopter; however, it was quick enough to apologise immediately to Russia.[14]


The Geo-Political Context

The South Caucasus is an apt example of why International relations are never a zero-sum game. Azerbaijan has utilised its natural resources, mainly offshore oilfields to effectively form a basis of its foreign policy and financing the military build-up. Israel was only too keen to provide the equipment as besides the financial gain. Traditionally, Turkey has been its unequivocal supporter since 1990s.

In 1993, Turkey had facilitated the Azeri crude to reach the Mediterranean bypassing Armenia. Over the decades, the US-backed Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) oil pipeline project which bypasses Armenia and delivers Azeri oil to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan before its onward supply to European Markets, was also completed and operationalised. Both Armenia and Azerbaijan have been contributing their troops to the NATO mission in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, the dependence of both Armenia and Azerbaijan on Russia continues in some form, as it is home to significant Armenian and Azerbaijani populations. Russia has also sold the S-400 missile defence system to Turkey in a $2.5 billion deal. Russia, Israel and Turkey are also closely coordinating their efforts in the ongoing conflict in Syria.

Under such complexities the Armenians found it extremely difficult to find any kind of support for their efforts in countering the Azeri aggression in the Nagorno region, having been caught off guard both militarily and diplomatically.


Implications for India: A Perspective

Indian armed force truly realised the need for a UAV/Drone only after the 1999 Kargil conflict. The domestic developmental effort can at best be described to be at a nascent stage. In contrast, China has developed a robust manufacturing ecosystem, well supported by a substantial investment in the Research & Development (R&D) effort. The result is the Chinese dominance in the world civil drone market. It has been offering its armed UAV variants to various countries including Pakistan since 2011. It is presently undertaking extensive research into drone swarms and Manned-unmanned Teaming (MUM-T) concepts. The Chinese technology transfer has resulted in Pakistan developing the Burraq as early as in 2016.[15] While Operational utilisation by Chinese is not seen, however, the deployment of its drones has been actively monitored by it in countries like Pakistan (against insurgents), Nigeria (Boko-Haram) and Saudi Arabia.

India has had to rely extensively mainly on imported systems from Israel. Besides the Heron (Medium Altitude Long Endurance-MALE) and Searcher (Tactical) UAVs India also imported around 100 plus HAROP, loitering munitions of the similar kind operated by Azerbaijan and Turkey. In order to manufacture the Hermes 900 (Medium Altitude Long Endurance) UAV, a joint India-Israel (Adani-Elbit) manufacturing venture was inaugurated at Hyderabad in December 2018.[16]

India’s own efforts in terms of Rustom are still work in progress. The additional challenges involves developing an effective Air Defence Control and Management system that effectively integrates the radars and the multi-tiered missile defence system and provides system redundancy. The absence of an effective anti-drone system is also conspicuous. However, a rifle mounted SMASH 2000 plus anti-drone system has recently been ordered by the Indian Navy.[17]

The Nagorno-Karabakh war has demonstrated the effectiveness of drones in aiding the swift achievement of military aims in a conflict. But more important was the cost-effectiveness of the entire effort in both equipment and manpower terms—the key to such a measure being the effective integration of such systems through training and strategic intent. Many components in the Bayraktar- TB2 were of western origin,[18]however, despite the ‘PR element’ on display by the respective manufacturers promoting their respective products, the Drone's effectiveness in defining the result is indisputable.

Till such time India develops a robust indigenous drone manufacturing ecosystem, it would have to continue relying upon imported systems. However, it must factor in the use of drones and decoys in a similar manner by Pakistan and China in case of a conflict and plan for a suitable response, which is another topic in itself.

*Author is an Indian Air Force veteran. Views expressed here are personal.


[1] Eliot C. McLaughlin, CNN, “Deep-Seated animosity paves way for Armenia, Azerbaijan violence”,https://edition.cnn.com/2016/04/03/asia/armenia-azerbaiajan-nagorno-karabakh-explainer/index.html accessed January 3,2021

[2] BBC, “Armenia, Azerbaijan and Russia sign Nagorno-Karabakh peace Deal”, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-54882564, accessed on Jan 8,2021

[3] The Cyber Shafarat-Tradstone71.com, “Armenia-Azerbaijan casualty Report 10292020”, https://cybershafarat.com/2020/10/29/armenia-azerbaihan-casualty-report-10292020/ , accessed on January 3,2021


[4] Gareth Browne, “From the ruins of Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan begins the battle for peace, https://www.thenationalnews.com/world/europe/from-the-ruins-of-nagorno-karabakh-azerbaijan-begins-the-battle-for-peace-1.1142332 accessed January 7,2021

[5]Ibid n.2

[7] Airforce Technology, “Aerostar Tactical Unmanned Aerial Vehicle”, https://www.airforce-technology.com/projects/aerostaruav/, accessed on January 7,2020

[8]Paolo Valpolini, “New Strike and Surveillance Syatems from Elbit Syatems”, https://www.edrmagazine.eu/new-strike-and-surveillance-systems-from-elbit-systems, accessed January 7,2020

[9] Asbarez, “Israel’s State-Run Aerospace Giant Contributed to Azerbaijani Laundromat,Leaks Reveal”, https://asbarez.com/196967/israels-state-run-aerospace-giant-contributed-to-azerbaijani-laundromat-leaks-reveal/

[10] Jacob Majid, Times of Israel, Aug 29,2018, “Israeli dronemaker said to have bombed Armenians for Azerbaijan faces charges “https://www.timesofisrael.com/israeli-dronemaker-said-to-have-bombed-armenians-for-azerbaijan-faces-charges/ accessed on Jan 7,2021

[12] Burak Ege Bekdil, Defense News, June 25,2020, “Azebaijan to buy armed drones from Turkey”, “https://www.defensenews.com/unmanned/2020/06/25/azerbaijan-to-buy-armed-drones-from-turkey/ accessed on Jan 7,2021

[13] Joseph Trevithick, “Turkey’s Forward Deployed F-16s in Azerbaijan Have Moved to a New Base”, The Warzone, October 26, 2020, https://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/37278/turkeys-forward-deployed-f-16s-in-azerbaijan-have-moved-to-a-different-airport accessed on Jan 8, 2021

[14]Andrew E. Kramer, NY Times, Nov 9,2020, “Azerbaijan Apologizes for Downing Russian Helicopter, Killing Two”,  https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/09/world/europe/russian-helicopter-azerbaijan-armenia.html accessed on Jan 8,2021

[15]Franz-Stefan Gady, The Diplomat, June 22,2016, “Is Pakistan Secretly Testing a New Chinese Killer Drone?”, https://thediplomat.com/2016/06/is-pakistan-secretly-testing-a-new-chinese-killer-drone/ accessed on Jan 09,2021

[16] Harsh  V Pant, Ambuj Sahu, “Israel’s Arms Sales to India: Bedrock of a Strategic Partnership”, Issue Brief September 2019 Issue No. 311, https://www.orfonline.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/ORF_Issue_Brief_311_India-Israel.pdf accessed on Jan9,2021

[17] Times Now digital, Dec 09,2020, “ What are the anti-drone Israeli SMASH 2000 Plus systems Navy has ordered?”,  https://www.timesnownews.com/india/article/what-are-the-anti-drone-israeli-smash-2000-plus-systems-navy-has-ordered/692472 accessed Jan 9,2021

[18] Dan Sabbagh, “UK Wants new drones in wake of Azerbaijan military success”, The Guardian, Dec 9,2020 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/dec/29/uk-defence-secretary-hails-azerbaijans-use-of-drones-in-conflict accessed on Jan 9,2021