Both Armenia and Azerbaijan, traditional enemies, have been building up their armed forces over the last decade. They fought a bloody war that ended in 1994, in which tens of thousands of people were killed and hundreds of thousands were displaced on both sides.
Azerbaijan’s army collapsed and Armenia took control of several regions, including the key regions of Fuzuli and Jabrayil in the south, bordering Iran. President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan has been explicit in his desire to return these regions to Azerbaijan.
Kamikaze Drones of Israeli-origin
Russian-origin Armenian weapons are no match to Israeli high-tech super modern loitering munitions, sensors, reconnaissance and Kamikaze drones took control of the battle-space of Azerbaijan-Armenia.
Drone footage, released by Azerbaijan of a drone strike on an artillery position in the fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh, appears to show an Israeli drone in the frame.
Social media user AbraxasSpa, who documents defense related issues, posted a still from the video “Orbiter 1k confirmed in use.” Rob Lee, another social media user who posts about defense issues, also noted the same “Orbiter UAV” in the video of an Armenian D-30 howitzer being struck. The footage was apparently taken by one drone of an airstrike on the artillery position and the second drone flew in front of the video as the attack unfolded. That means several drones were being used at the same time over the same target.
The Orbiter 1K is an Israeli drone made by Aeronautics which the Drone Databook in the US asserts was sold to Azerbaijan in 2011. It is what is called a “loitering Munition,” which means it is designed more like a cruise missile to slam into a target and self-destruct on impact. Some media call these “kamikaze drones” or “suicide drones.”
In essence they are not different from cruise missiles, except that they can fly around in circles or return to base, or “loiter” over the target and wait to strike. The Orbiter 1K is a proven munition based on the Orbiter 2B, the company website says, and it has a fragmentation warhead that weighs 3kg. With a wingspan of only 3 meters and a range of 100km., it is not a very large weaponized drone. It is launched from a kind of catapult, like many similar drones.
The Orbiter 1K, whose image was posted online, is significantly smaller than the Turkish Bayrakter TB2, a drone that weighs 650kg. and forms the backbone of Ankara’s drone army that has now been used successfully in Syria, Iraq and Libya. It has a 12 meter wingspan.
The Bayraktar can launch a MAM-L munition, a guided bomb, that weighs 22kg. It can also carry the MAM-C munition, an 8.5kg. bomb that has a 2.5kg. warhead. In short, the MAM-C is basically similar to the warhead of the Orbiter 1K.
Why does this matter? On September 30, a video of Azerbaijani Presidential Foreign Policy Advisor Hikmet Hajiyev was posted by journalist Barak Ravid. He said that if Armenia is scared of the drones Azerbaijan is using, then Armenia should stop its occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh.Asked if the drones are Israeli, he said “some of them.” Asked how many Azerbaijan has, he said he didn’t know the exact amount but noted the strength of Baku’s drone arm.
Israeli “loitering munitions,” or what are called “kamikaze drones,” reportedly make up a portion of Azerbaijan’s arsenal. The Drone Data book in 2019 reported that Azerbaijan has the Aerostar, SkyStriker, Orbiter 1K, Orbiter 3, Harop, Heron TP, Hermes 450 and Hermes 900.
It said that the Aerostar, Orbiter 1K and Orbiter 3 were licensed for production by Azad systems.According to SUAS news, in 2011 the Azeris got “Israeli UAV’s built under license.” The report said that the “Israeli Aerostar and Orbiter 2M UAVs are being manufactured by Baku’s Azad Systems, a joint venture between Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry and Aeronautics Defense Systems in Israel.”
According to reports, the export licenses linked to some drone sales were suspended, but Defenseworld said that in February the company was allowed to export them again. In another controversy, linked to the license suspension, an Israeli drone was reportedly demonstrated to Azerbaijan in 2017 in an “alleged attack on Armenia,” according to EurasiaNet.
Radio Free Europe reported in October 2018 that Israel accused the dronemaker of “bombing Armenian soldiers at Baku’s request.”Another report notes that in 2016 Azerbaijan used an Israel Aerospace Industries Harop drone in an attack. Armenia complained to Israel at the time and a video appeared online of an alleged drone in an attack.
The overall picture is that Azerbaijan vastly expanded its drone arm in the last decade. The amount of drones it has is unknown. Flights from Azerbaijan to Israel have been documented by social media users, including an article from Haaretz noting that a Ministry of Defense plane from Azerbaijan landed twice in Israel after fighting broke out earlier this week.
Tyler Rogoway at The Drive, an automotive website, characterizes Israel’s Harop, made by IAI, as a small, maneuverable and nearly impossible to detect, inexpensive weapon. It has a 25kg. warhead. It was the successor to the smaller Harpy drone. In his article he says these kinds of weapons can strike at radar and help suppress enemy air defenses. He wrote that the Harop could go around 600 miles and fly up to six hours.
The Telegraph reported that the “suicide drone” was used for the “first time” in combat in 2016 by Azerbaijan against Armenia. It was unclear how they determined it was the first time that this drone was used.In January 2020, reports emerged that Elbit Systems had sold Azerbaijan the SkyStriker loitering munition.
SkyStriker is about the size of a person and can fly for two hours with a warhead that weighs between 5 and 10kg., according to FlightGlobal. It weighs 35kg. overall.Let us pause for a second now and look at the known Azeri drone arsenal. If we follow the Drone Databook data on their drones, we find the following details. Azerbaijan has a variety of Israeli surveillance drones. The medium-size Aerostar is a surveillance drone, a very traditional one with a twin-tail that has a wingspan of almost 9 meters. Then there is the Hermes 450 which weighs 450kg. and is meant for surveillance with a 6 meter wingspan.
It can fly for 20 hours. Azerbaijan reportedly has the Hermes 900 as well, with a weight of 970kg. and 15 meter wingspan, it is a strategic surveillance drone that can stay aloft for a full 24 hours.It’s unclear how many of these drones Azerbaijan has. A SUAS report in 2011 claimed one was shot down in 2008 by Armenia.
In fighting in July of this year, Armenia claimed to have shot down 21 Azeri drones. A website called Bulgarian Military claimed that one of these was the Hermes 900, an expensive strategic drone that Azerbaijan reportedly has in its roster. Many of these reports are impossible to verify.Looking at the loitering munitions, Azerbaijan appears to have acquired most of these types of drones that Israel has to offer, from Israel’s top companies. This is interesting because countries sometimes like to buy a line of systems from the same company and integrate them.
It is unclear how the Harop, Harpy, SkyStriker and Orbiter 1k work together. The Harpy and Harop have a larger warhead of some 25kg. The SkyStriker and Orbiter munitions are smaller. The Bayraktar Turkish armed drone has bombs that are similar to the smaller munitions. Those weapons have been shown to be effective against tanks and other armored vehicles.
Much of this drone warfare takes place in the shadows. This is because Israeli drone manufacturers often don’t release details about their sales, and because countries don’t reveal details about all their drone use. That is because these weapons systems are seen as both clandestine and also controversial.
It is not clear why drones are more controversial than using a manned aircraft for surveillance or using a cruise missile against a target. However, the number of articles implying that there is something controversial about their use make countries and makers of drones reticent to discuss them. That doesn’t mean they don’t show off their capabilities.Drone makers, usually part of larger defense companies, show their drones at arms expos and explain their capabilities.
Drones have gone from targeting radar and suppressing air defense to being used in targeted precision strikes. They now run the gamut of capabilities, a kind of instant air force. That makes them ideal for countries like Azerbaijan that have the resources to acquire sophisticated drones but don’t have pilots for F-16s.
Drones can be flown by operators who are not pilots and they generally can be based at small runways or launched from trucks or other methods. Much of how they fly is now done by their own computers, meaning the user can point and click to make them work, without having to fly a “plane.” Loitering munitions can attack targets and be called off at the last moment.
Israel’s role in arming Azerbaijan has several dilemmas associated with it.
Because of the controversies from 2016 and 2017, the overall picture of Israel-Azerbaijan relations has sometimes been clouded by foreign media reports. However, interviews indicate Azerbaijan is appreciative of Israel’s technology and drones. Having Israeli and Turkish drones operated by the same country is interesting because Ankara’s ruling party has become very hostile to Israel in the last years. It is unclear if there is competition for this drone market since the Bayraktar’s capabilities are very different from the line of Israeli drones Azerbaijan reportedly has.
The Bayraktar is supposed to be an Turkish version of the US Predator. If it is similar at all to an Israeli drone it is more like the IAI Searcher series. But the Bayraktar is an armed drone. Israel officials do not have or sell armed drones, which means drones that carry missiles or bombs. Israel does manufacture loitering munitions. Some of these munitions are seen as more similar to anti-tank guided missiles, than a drone.
Questions remain from the recent conflicts between Azerbaijan and Armenia about whether the Israeli systems are effective. Videos appear to show they are. However much of the conflicts are shrouded in mystery about which video is from the camera of which munition.
Only in the rare case, mentioned at the start of this article, does one drone happen to catch a second drone on film, and a more complex picture emerges as to how these systems work together. That complex picture may offer lessons for militaries on the best way to use multiple layers of drones, including surveillance drones, and armed drones and loitering munitions.
Drones and more drones
The use of drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) has been increasing in battlefields across the world and the current conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia is no exception. Images of armoured vehicles being destroyed, regardless of attempts at camouflage, flooded Western media outlets as Armenian tanks were swiftly targeted by armed drones. Azerbaijan has been steadily building up its force of UAVs.
Israel, a major drone exporter, has been supplying the Azeri armed forces with loitering munitions like the Harop, which were used to great effect in the previous major skirmish in 2016, dubbed the “Four Day War”. This is a new class of munition which is essentially a Kamikaze or suicide UAV. A combination of bomb and drone, it loiters over the battlefield, its remote operator searching for targets. Once found, the drone is flown into the target, destroying both itself and the target.
The Harop, or Harpy, could be heard due to its engine but newer models of Kamikaze UAV like the Skystriker and Orbiter 1K, recently supplied by Israel to Azerbaijan, use electric motors and are virtually silent until they start their attack dive.
More recently, Azerbaijan has bought the operationally successful Bayraktar TB2 from Turkey and has used them with great success. Cheap and effective, they have more advanced optics, sensors and can return to base, swiftly refuel, rearm and be back in the air again, hovering over the battlefield looking for fresh targets.
Drones have one more important effect. Their cameras, filming the destruction of a target in clear, unwavering high definition video, allow a country to dominate the propaganda narrative. Media outlets were saturated with images of Armenian armour and artillery being effortlessly destroyed, not the other way round. Despite Azerbaijani losses, the Armenian armed forces, for the most part, did not have cameras trained on their intended target. These images have enhanced Azerbaijan’s sense of success on the battlefield, presenting an image of near-total Azerbaijani victory.
Sensors: Eyes over the battlefield
It is not just the use of drones that has been so decisive. The modern battlespace is filling up with sensors, making it far easier to spot an adversary from far off. Drones, armed or not, are effectively sensor platforms, feeding vital information about the enemies’ movements back to command centres.
This, coupled with ground detection radar – which is able to pick up moving or concealed tanks and armored vehicles, day or night – means that it is now increasingly hard to hide on the battlefield.
With movement, and therefore tactics, detected, long-range artillery and air raids are brought to bear, often with devastating results. Turkey used this successfully in northern Syria and these lessons have clearly been passed on to the Azerbaijanis in their recent joint exercises.
These tactics have been so effective that many commentators have openly talked about the demise of the tank as an effective instrument of warfare. There is no doubt that tactics will have to change in order for it to survive. Electronic jamming of radar and drone signals – to counter the enemy’s sensors, effectively blinding them – and sending in tanks with adequate air defence are two potential changes.
The basic fact remains that the tank is still an extremely useful and flexible tool in the taking and holding of ground alongside troops, which is the basic premise of industrial-level ground warfare. Still, this has not stopped larger militaries from reconsidering how effective their large fleets of tanks, with their operational roots in World War Two, would be in a future war.
The US Marines Corp is downsizing its number of heavy tanks and the British army is also considering the same, preferring nimbler, more enabled, net-centric forces that would not only survive but prevail in the conflicts of the future. The preference for sensors, drones and long-range attack weapons is what will end up defining success on the modern battlefield.
While long-range artillery and air attacks have been around for over a century, their increasing accuracy is something that militaries are only now coming to grips with.
Combined with the clouds of sensors saturating the battlefield, these new systems have the ability to travel further with pinpoint accuracy, no longer needing to blanket an area with warheads in order to guarantee destruction of a target. They are now able to find and destroy a target sometimes hundreds of kilometres away.
Azerbaijan, despite falling oil revenues, has invested heavily in these systems, buying Israeli LORA ballistic missiles that have a range of up to 400km (about 250 miles) and an accuracy of 10 metres (about 33 feet). These, as well as other long-range attack weapons, were part of a $5bn military and security equipment deal signed between the two countries in 2016. Azerbaijan is considered a strategic partner of Israel, supplying it with nearly 40 percent of its oil.
With allies such as Israel, Turkey and to a certain extent Russia, Azerbaijan has had no problem buying modern weapons in order to settle the score with its neighbour and bitter rival Armenia. Russia is in an awkward position, as it has a base in Armenia but has supplied weapons to both countries, both ex-Soviet republics.
Azerbaijan’s larger military, now heavily armed and trained by Turkey in the effective use of these systems, has given it an edge which it seeks to use to secure victory on the battlefield and leverage the return of areas it sees as Azerbaijani, lost in the last war.
Training is key, as it is the fusion of these systems – sensors to give them unblinking eyes across the entire battlespace, long-range weapons to give them serious reach once targets have been detected and drones to accomplish both and destroy targets near-instantly – have given the Azerbaijani armed forces a clear edge in this current conflict.
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