The war between Armenia and Azerbaijan has given rise to a new debate i.e. the decisive devastating effect of the armed drone in that war and many have tried to co-relate it with the Indian scenario. The arguments are being put forward on various social media forums, that like Azerbaijan used Turkish Bayraktar drones to destroy the Armenian army’s warfighting machinery which included tanks, IFVs, AD units and artillery units. Pakistan and China will also use this kind of drone to devastating effect against Indian forces in case of any conflict.  Though UCAV is a low cost, least risk solution which can deal a crippling blow, its effectiveness depends on case to case. We will try to explain how drone warfare works and why it was so effective in the case of Azerbaijan, how the scenario will unfold in case of use of such drones by India’s enemies and what’s the status of the Indian armed drones program in series of articles.

Understanding Azerbaijan VS Armenia

To start with, Azerbaijan invested more militarily than Armenia, thanks to oil and gas reserves in the country.  While Armenia invested an aggregate of merely $5.3 billion in the last 10 years, Azerbaijan invested a whopping $25 billion in the same time.  The difference could be seen in form of weapons fielded by both sides. The deeper pockets allowed Azerbaijan to field numerically as well as technologically more advanced weapons as compared to Armenia.

This can be seen with the fact that while Azerbaijan military featured BM-30 Smerch, Israeli LORA, Turkish T-300 Kasirga in form of long-range MBRLs along with a good number of short-range MBRLs like BM-21 Grad, TOS-1A, T-122, T-107, etc. The Armenian military featured more limited inventory, consisting of a few BM-30 Smerch and Chinese WM-80 along with BM-21 Grads and a few TOS-1A. Both sides featured a limited number of ballistic missiles and mostly used them in limited numbers during the war.

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In the air scenario, Armenia again was no match whatsoever against the combination of Azerbaijan and the Turkish Air Force (Satellite imagery of Turkish F-16 in Azeri bases are available as well as they are alleged to have shot down Armenian Su-25). Armenian Air Force had only 4 Su-30 and some 13 Su-25. They were not good in the Helicopter department too… with merely 12 old generation Mi-8 and a similar number of old generation MI-24 attack helicopters. These other than being technologically backward were also limited by availability due to old age. This hampers the logistic as well as close air support capability of Armenia.

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To be honest such capability was non-existent and whatever Armenia had could not be used effectively due to numerically superior Azerbaijan Air Force, with 12 Mig 29, few Mig 21, and some 25 SU24/25 aircraft. On the helicopter front too they had 65 MI-17 as well as 17 Mi-24. MI-17 ensured Logistics over large distances are maintained (a must for the aggressor).

Other than that Azeri featured a large fleet of UAV/UCAVs, including  Bayraktar TB-2, Harop, Heron, Hermes, Searcher, Orbiter etc,  which for the most part has been the highlight of war. The Bayraktar TB2 being the show stopper in this conflict. However, does TB-2 actually fits the fame it has been provided? Well maybe, but only because Armenia was not prepared against drone warfare and as a result, had no answer to the UAVs either in defensive or offensive posturing.

Another reason was it mostly targeted SAM systems that were outranged, the longer-range systems were targeted by loitering munitions like Harop. Also, Armenia as a matter of fact lacked:

1- Radar networks to actually detect and track activities of such drones over its territory. The best they had was S-300 tinshield radars. That too was not protected and was taken out by Harop drone. Basically, Armenia depended heavily on their Air Defence unit’s own radar and rarely had a surveillance radar coverage of the region which was well exploited by Azerbaijan.

2- Appropriate SAMs to take out these drones, the AD system of Armenia consisted massively of 9K33 OSA-AK with range of merely 10 km, Strela-10 with range of 5km,legacy Schilka SPAAG with range of 2.5km,  on the other hand munitions carried by TB-2 i.e. MAM-L and MAM-C have range of 8-14km.

As for 2K12 Kub and 2K11 Krug, other than being legacy SAM systems were kind of remained underutilized and mostly remained inactive during the war for reasons only known to Armenians, for example at least at  1 site which was hit, systems were not even loaded with missiles. The same was the case with S-300 systems, which were targeted with the use of Harop and Ballistic missiles, and to the utter dismay at most of the sites, the TEL was not even in deployment mode hence it was a easy target.

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3 – Adequate airpower to employ air superiority over the region and challenge these drones. Armenian Air Force barely took any part in the conflict. When skies are unchallenged, obviously you can fly freely anywhere.

Technically speaking, Armenia was never prepared for drone attacks nor did they have resources to counter-drone attacks. Another reason which contributed to such success of TB-2 was Armenians never properly utilized the urban setups to defend themselves. If you analyze most of the drone attack footage, almost all attacks happened around open fields against open pits and trenches. Had Armenian setup defenses in towns and villages, they could have held a little longer, obviously, the massive artillery edge of Azerbaijan had come into play there.

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The plan of Armenia involved setting up pits and trenches around the open fields waiting for the armor and infantry thrust of Azerbaijan, which never came, what came was Drones, loitering munitions, MBRLs barrage, and Ballistic missiles. Another massive flaw in the Armenian strategy was the non-utilization and misutilization of their long-range MBRLS, like smerch, WM-80 and Ballistic missile-like Tochka and Scud. Initially, they were not utilized and when in later stages they did utilize them, they were used to attack civilian cities with cluster munitions, instead of advancing Azerbaijani forces.

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Well to be honest if anyone thinks Armenia could have defended itself, it certainly could not have due to a huge gap between the capabilities of both sides along with the support of turkey and relocation of battle-hardened Syrian mercenaries to support Azerbaijan forces. The only reason drone warfare came into the spotlight was, because Azerbaijan massively used footage of drone attacks in their propaganda videos, and also Armenian handled the drone attacks bizarrely.

Actually, it was a combination of constant artillery barrage plus drone attacks along with aggressive advances by Azerbaijan forces along mostly flat terrain bordering Iran, which allowed them to gain control over overly defensive Armenian forces sitting out in open pits and trenches, waiting for the enemy to come. The approach from the Iran border side gave another advantage to Azerbaijan forces, i.e. limiting the flanking positions of Armenian forces, basically securing two counter-attacking directions. Another disadvantage was limiting the war to the Nagorno-Karabakh region only, which allowed full Azeri pressure on that region, for example in 1965 India opened the Lahore-Sialkot front to release Pakistani pressure on Kashmir, which eventually turned the tide of that war.

However even with serious disadvantages, Armenia did show us some classic warfare destroying hundreds of Azeri vehicles, including tanks, IFVs etc using ATGMs, but that too dried down during later stages as Azerbaijan after destroying most of SAM cover deployed massive reconnaissance activity, which helped in neutralizing or pushing back advance ATGM parties of Armenia. But what most analysis has missed is that, even though Armenia lost some 20-25% of territories to the hands of superior forces, they were able to inflict similar causalities to Azeri forces.

The Armenians suffered 3439 causalities, while Azerbaijan suffered 2854 causalities along with losing some 541 Syrian mercenaries (claims by both sides of their own troops). On the equipment front, Armenia suffered quite heavily, of which, mostly to unchallenged TB-2, but was still able to deal considerable damage to Azerbaijan. I will not go much into the types and numbers as those are not accurate but to give some insight, Armenia lost 250+ tanks compared to 100+ of Azerbaijan. Armenia also lost multiple OSA-AK, Strela-10, Shilka, Kub and few S-300 but was also able to shot down many Azerbaijan UAVs but mostly converted AN-2 aircrafts, along with atleast 3 Mi-24 and 4 Su-25.

Azerbaijan was able to massively destroy Armenian Artillery systems including 2S1 Gvozdika, D-30, BM-21 Gard, BM-30 Smerch, while Armenia was able to hit a few Smerch, TOS-1A etc. However the sudden surrender was no surprise, the reason being that most equipment of Armenian forces were destroyed and resupply from Russia was seriously hindered with Georgia not allowing overflights to landlocked Armenia and route through Iran was quite long.

The last nail was the capture of Shusha, after which Stepanakert was sitting just below Azerbaijan forces with no route to counter-attack Shusha. By accepting the terms of surrender Armenia was at least able to keep hold of Stepanakert.

Credit : BBC

Drones in other Regions.

Drones have become a constant feature in most of the conflicts being going on around the world, from rudimentary drones used by ISIS to highly sophisticated top-of-the-line drones used by the USA. Though they have been quite successful, in none of the conflict drones can be said to have achieved what we call a decisive victory. Their effectiveness is just like any other weapon platform being used in the war with lots of combat losses.

Libya, Syria, and Iran have shown us that drones too are vulnerable just like any other combat asset. In both Syria and Libya UCAVs provided Initial success but once the counter strategy was put in place, they were bought down on regular basis. Systems like Buk, Pechora, Tor have been quite effective against these drones. In Syria alone, around 20 TB-2 have been shot down, the same is the case in Libya with them shooting down multiple TB-2 and CH-4 Wing loon drones.

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Iran went a step ahead and showed even highly sophisticated drones like RQ-170 Sentinel can be hacked and brought down, they also shot down RQ-4A Global Hawk of the USA. Russia too has shown the capability of their EW systems by bringing down multiple TB-2 using Krasukha EW systems. So there are lots of options to counter the UCAV threat, but at the same time UCAV does have destructive capability with their loitering capability and long endurance, as well no human loss makes them a cheap resource to venture into enemy territory.

In the end, we will just reiterate that Armenians lacked the equipment to counter-drone warfare, and even worse was their handling of these attacks. It seemed like Armenian tactics were of the cold war era against modern ISR based activities of the Azerbaijani force. In other conflicts, countries quickly adapted to drone warfare and were able to limit the damage drones can deal. However, we will end by saying that drones are really a deadly platform, especially because they are cheap as well as don’t have human risk involved while venturing into hostile territories. In the next 2 parts, we will discuss how India will fare against drone offensive and how Indian combat drone capability is taking shape through being at its infancy.

Kunal Varshney

Defense Observer


By Alpha Defense

Alpha Defense initially a solo venture but now a defense group by people from various demographics of India covering defense news and updates. We believe in unbiased analysis of every subject in hand. Our mission is to provide simplfiied defense information to the public.

2 thoughts on “Understanding UCAV Warfare”
  1. Most of the Armenians target what we saw were hit when they were very much stable and not moving and also did not see any stelth Or any steps taken by Armenia to hide their strategic asstes like their artillery guns and airdefence systems. It’s very important to that.

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