Battlefields in 2020 Were Testing Grounds for New Drone Warfare

The technology played a decisive role in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, with some experts suggesting the "age of the tank" could be coming to an end.
December 23, 2020, 9:15am
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Photo: imageBROKER / Alamy Stock Photo

Many of the young Armenian soldiers in the trenches of Nagorno-Karabakh didn’t fear the enemy they could see. It was the sky above them that made them anxious, as death often struck suddenly, heralded by a buzzing sound, a high pitched screech and an explosion. 

Over the last three decades, the disputed area of Nagorno-Karabakh – located between Armenia and Azerbaijan – has faced multiple wars and violent clashes. The region has a majority of ethnic Armenians, who sought independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but it is an official part of Azerbaijan. In 1994, following the First Nagorno-Karabakh War, Armenia managed to gain unrecognised control of the region, but it remained a volatile hotspot waiting to erupt. 

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In late September of 2020, kamikaze drones (essentially remote-controlled bombs) and missiles fired by drones started to rain down on Armenian troops. The results were devastating, turning Armenia’s tanks, armoured vehicles and air-defence systems into smouldering piles of metal, demonstrating the lethality of air dominance. 

Massive use of remote-controlled violence has epitomised warfare in 2020.

Earlier this year, Turkey fought the Syrian army with a combination of special forces, piloted jet fighters and both its ANKA-S and Bayraktar TB-2 drone fleet in Idlib, north-west Syria.

This escalation of force was the consequence of a deadly combined Syrian and Russian airstrike at a military outpost, which killed at least 36 Turkish soldiers. In the ensuing air and artillery strikes, Turkey killed over 3,000 troops, taking out over 100 military vehicles and dozens of artillery guns, including the feared Pantsir missile system. This was specifically designed to counter incoming missiles and low altitude attacks, but couldn’t stop the slow, low-flying Turkish drones – an inability that was likely the result of the deployment of the Turkish KORAL electronic warfare system, which effectively jammed Syrian radar, signals and communications.

At the same time, Turkey ramped up its drone use in Libya’s civil war, where it is supporting the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in its fight against the Libyan National Army (LNA). In 2019, a UN spokesperson called Libya the largest “theatre of drone warfare in the world”, while a UN report published later that year showed the diversity of commercial and military drones used in the conflict.

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Another analysis, published by PAX in October of 2019, looked at how the battlefields in Yemen and Ukraine have been shaped by homemade, commercial and military drones over the last six years – a defining trend of modern warfare that shows no sign of slowing down.

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A civilian-manufactured surveillance drone used by Ukrainian forces during the war in Donbass. Photo: Henry Langston

While official figures are closely guarded, it is well established that drone strikes can be inaccurate. In 2015, the US admitted that, from 2009, up to 116 civilians had been killed in 473 air strikes outside of Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq – both from drones and airplanes (the figures are not separated) – but independent researchers say that figure is much higher.

In a 2016 report, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism estimated that between 380 to 801 civilians had been killed by US strikes in Yemen, Pakistan, Libya and Somalia between 2009 and 2015. In 2014, research by human rights nonprofit Reprieve found that “in attempts to kill 41 individuals, the US killed as many as 1,147 other people”.

Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) found evidence of war crimes during the six-week war in Nagorno-Karabakh. HRW’s investigation noted that Azerbaijani forces carried out “apparently indiscriminate attacks […] in violation of the rules of law”, using “inherently indiscriminate cluster munitions and artillery rockets or other weapons that did not distinguish between military targets and civilian objects”. In an interview with Middle East Eye, Artak Beglaryan, the ombudsman of Nagorno-Karabakh, said, “We know that many of these war crimes are committed by […] drones.”

Still, despite the high number of civilian casualties and the clear ethical issues around their use, drones remain an attractive prospect to governments waging war. Conflict is both costly and deadly, and the technology is relatively cheap – in terms of defence spending, at least – yet capable of striking with precision from a safe distance.

The United States’ clandestine targeted killing programme in the Middle East – and later their use of drones for counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria – was what first made much of the world aware of the technology. Since then, other states and non-state actors have noticeably stepped up their investment in drones, with currently over 100 states operating military drones, and armed groups ranging from the Islamic State to Mexican drug cartels deploying commercial drones equipped with explosives in their operations. 

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Drones are clearly here to stay, and current battlefields have become testing grounds for novel drone tactics, technologies and counter-drone measures. 

While Azerbaijan might have claimed victory in Nagorno-Karabakh, Turkish and Israeli defence industries also gained from the short and brutal war. Next to the Turkish-supplied TB-2s, kamikaze drones (also known as loitering munitions) produced by Israeli aerospace companies Harop, Elbit and Aeronautics wreaked havoc on Armenian tanks, trucks and troops. These types of weapons are often small or medium-sized drones, fitted with an explosive warhead designed for a one-way mission, to search and destroy.

At the smaller end of the scale, kamikaze drones the size of a large bird are able to fly for ten minutes, having been carried close to the battlefield by troops on the ground. At the larger end are drones which can loiter in the air for up to seven hours before diving down on their targets. The future will likely see smaller models which can be deployed in swarms of tens to hundreds – or even thousands – of drones.

Some experts proclaimed that the dominance of drones during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict marked the end of the tank – but while the technology was undoubtedly prevalent, this doesn’t tell the full story. Power in the sky ultimately depends on the ability to dominate your enemy’s air defences.

Armenia, a country with 3 million inhabitants and a fairly small defence budget, was already at a disadvantage. Its airforce consists of just over a dozen Russian-origin fighter jets, plus outdated Russian air defence systems developed to track and target large planes, not small drones with a low radar signature. The small Turkish drones were even more difficult for radar systems to spot, as they were flying between mountains at relatively low altitude. Armenia also claimed that Turkey was involved in jamming their radars, effectively blinding them to enemy aircraft, though no clear public evidence has been given.

The Azeris also picked up an old tactic in their deployment of old, remote-controlled post-WWII era air planes, which they used to lure out Armenian air defences. Once the latter activated their radars, an Azerbaijani drone flying behind the old airplanes locked on to the Armenian location, immediately destroying the air defences. 

Another lesson learned in Nagorno-Karabakh was the sinister propaganda value of drones. Every day, social media accounts linked with Turkish armed forces and the Azerbaijani Ministry of Defence pushed out long showreels of deadly strikes against a range of targets (which were also broadcast on large public billboards). Armenian soldiers and their families witnessed this drone butchery, severely impacting troop morale. Drones also subjected those same troops to a new element of battlefield terror, with their continuous overhead buzzing only ending as they crashed into their targets.

Despite their advantages, Azerbaijan also suffered heavy losses, with at least 1,200 soldiers killed. Azerbaijani forces had to fight hard to retake well-defended ground from motivated opponents, and then hold it from counter-attacks. The difference was that there were hardly any Armenian drones to film this, putting Armenia at as much of a disadvantage in the propaganda war as in the actual conflict itself.

This year’s Nagorno-Karabakh War was yet another tragic and bloody demonstration of the effectiveness of drone warfare. For the families of those who lost their lives, it will be the last they hope to see of the deadly technology. For states with expansionist aspirations, it was proof not just of drones’ efficacy, but the clear and coldblooded propaganda value they offer.