The use of drones in the ongoing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict

As the hostilities between and Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region reach their worst levels since the end of the 1992-94 war, daily reports of drones and loitering munitions being used in strikes or shot down pile up on social media, and the truth and extent are hard to clarify. This post takes a long view and looks at the protagonist’s acquisitions and use of drones and loitering munitions in the last few years and what their introduction means for peace and security in the region. 

It is important to note that in news reporting the term ‘drone’ is being used to cover a wider array of different systems, both large and small, armed and unarmed.  News reports of the use of ‘drones’ can sometimes be mis-interpreted to mean use of larger armed systems when this is not necessarily so.  In addition, loitering munitions are sometimes described as drones in news reports but are in fact significantly different.

Azerbaijan began to acquire small drones as early as 2008 and their military use over Nagorno-Karabakh was first confirmed in 2014, although alleged military reconnaissance missions and downings have been reported since 2011. In 2014 there was a significant increase in breaches of the cease-fire along the Line of Contact (LoC), the non-militarised area between opposing forces, that were in part attributed to the use of drones, as well as heavy weaponry, since both were used in “probes testing the porosity of the LoC [resulting in] more casualties.” Two years later, drones and loitering munitions were a distinct feature of the Four-Day War in 2016, and it has been said that this was the first armed inter-state conflict in which drones were deployed on specific combat missions: both for surveillance and as targeting support for ground attacks. It was also the first time loitering munitions were used in combat in an inter-state conflict, notably when Azerbaijan used a Harop to kill a bus-load of Armenian volunteers en route to the LoC. During the Four-Day War, Azerbaijan claimed to have shot down one Armenian drone and two in the following weeks, while Armenia claimed it shot down 10 Azeri drones during the Four-Day War, although only 2 of these cases were confirmed.

Buildings destroyed in Ganja. Photo: Azerbaijan Defence Ministry

The use of drones and loitering munitions has been a major component of the renewed fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan since July 2020, with some commentators dubbing it the “South Caucasus Drone War.” Armenia claimed that drones – properly, loitering munitions – were used by Azerbaijan to attack civilian targets in its border town of Berd and to have shot down at least 13 of Azerbaijan’s drones and loitering munitions. The Armenian military displayed these wreckages at a press conference on 21 July. However, observers on social media have noted that a photo released by the Armenian authorities is identical to a 2014 image of a downed US drone in Afghanistan and say that Armenia’s claims are “fake news.” Azerbaijan also released footage of what it says is its army downing an Armenian drone but this is hard to corroborate.

Although the situation calmed down in August, violence escalated quickly towards the end of September and is currently ongoing. By 28 September, Azerbaijan claimed to have shot down 18 Armenian drones, and Armenia 27 Azeri drones, among other claims of losses inflicted. These seems like very inflated claims for 3 days of fighting. The online propaganda battles make deciphering what exactly is happening a challenge.

During the renewed fighting, Turkey – a growing drone power – has publicly backed Azerbaijan and in July, reports began to circulate that Turkish military assistance to Azerbaijan included Bayraktar TB-2 armed drones. This may have originated from defence press reports of the potential sale of Bayraktar TB-2 drones earlier in the summer. These reports in turn, led Armenia and Russia to begin joint military exercises, including plans for a joint air defence system aimed at “counter-attacking reconnaissance-attacking UAVs.” In response, Turkey and Azerbaijan announced their own joint military exercises. However, no conclusion to the possible Bayraktar deal floated earlier in the year has been announced, and the situation remains unclear. Many commentators assume the TB-2 is in use but there is no confirmation from the Azeri Ministry of Defence.

Azerbaijan have recently stated that they are thankful for “advanced Turkish drones owned by the Azerbaijan military” that have seen their casualties on the front line “shrink.” However, ‘advanced drones’ used for targeting and troop support do not necessarily equate to the armed TB-2s since Turkey produces an array of drones that could be available to Azerbaijan. That said, footage recently released by the Azeri MoD has the same video feed as a Bayraktar TB-2. Yet, if Azerbaijan is operating TB-2s, this would seem an exceedingly quick turnaround from a possible deal to fully operational systems within the Azeri military. Thus, it would seem more likely – if TB-2 is indeed active over Nagorno-Karabakh – that Turkey would be operating the drones for Azerbaijan, although this carries huge political risks for Turkey and the possibility of extending the conflict to full-scale regional war. Moreover, to add to uncertainty, Turkey and Azerbaijan recently struck a credit deal for 200m Turkish lira that the Azeri MoD can spend on purchasing Turkish military equipment, and it was reported that this will primarily go towards acquisition of the Baykar Makina Akinci armed drone. Therefore, it is not certain what armed UAV Azerbaijan will purchase, nor when.

IAI Harop

Current speculation about acquisitions aside, Azerbaijan also has a close military-industrial relationships with Israel, from whom they have purchased numerous drones and loitering munitions. In 2008 a contract was signed with Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) for the Aerostar, amongst other missile and defence systems. This relationship continued apace with the sale of surface-to-air missile systems, loitering munitions and larger surveillance drones between 2011 – 2017. However, it took a set back in August 2017 in a well publicised incident when the Orbiter 1k loitering munition was being tested in Azerbaijan in August 2017 and was fired towards an Armenian military position. An investigation carried out in Israel found the company (IAI) in breach of regulations and sales to Azerbaijan were banned until January 2019. Ultimately, this does not seem to have dented the military-industrial relationship between Israel and Azerbaijan, since Azerbaijan’s 2018 defence budget included costs for developing an indigenous version of the Aeronautics’ Orbiter 1K loitering munition, the Zarba-1K, as well as indigenous drones. According to the Drone Databook and SPIRI database of military transfers, Azerbaijan has in its arsenal: Orbiter 3, Aerostar, Heron TP, Hermes 450 and 900, as well as the Orbiter 1K, Sky Striker and Harop loitering munitions.

Armenia, on the other hand, remains almost wholly dependent on Russia for arms imports. It is not listed as having any other significant suppliers in the SIPRI arms transfer database and the Drone Databook lists them as having indigenous Krunk and Baze drones, and the Ptero-5E from Russia. However, a press release from ArmHiTech, the Armenian international defence exhibition, suggest that some European and Chinese firms are making inroads in to the Armenian market. ArmHiTech also claims that Armenia is self sufficient in light weapons, optoelectrics and drones. The press release for the arms fair says a loitering munition, among other models of small drones, were on display at the exhibition in 2018. This loitering munition, part of the ‘Krunk’ series of Armenian drones, is likely what has been referred to when commentators have said Armenia has used a “strike drone” in the recent violence.

Moreover, the Nogorno-Karabakh (called the Artsakh Republic by Armenia), says Armenian Radio, are producing their own loitering munition. A report says “trials have been successfully completed” and the loitering munitions will be ready for mass production in the “coming months.” Whether this is the case or not, remains to be seen.

As a renewed ceasefire crumbles, there is still a lot to understand and decipher about the use of drones by both countries, but what is clear is that they play an important part in increasing the targeting capabilities of Azerbaijan in particular. However, Armenia’s claims to be regularly shooting down drones/loitering munitions boosts their narrative also. Footage released by both sides aims to create the impression of strategic advantage over the enemy and reports of downings a dent in any new capabilities. The danger is, of course, that this kind of propaganda can push popular governments towards a more belligerent stands, making a climb down more difficult. This is particularly so as outside actors get involved.

  • This article is part of a forthcoming report on the use of drones in Eurasia to be published later this autumn.

Leave a Reply