Learning from the Armenia- Azerbaijan conflict Scholar Warrior Autumn 2021 Maj Gen Harsha Kakar


Learning from the Armenia- Azerbaijan conflict Scholar Warrior Autumn 2021


The 44 days Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, launched by Azerbaijan, concluded under a Russian brokered ceasefire on 10 Nov 2020. The end result was degrading for Armenia. It lost control over the disputed enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. In addition, Armenia was forced to guarantee a safe corridor to Azerbaijan for its Nakchivan Exclave, a piece of Azerbaijani territory to the west of Armenia. This is in vast contrast to the previous war in 1994, when Armenia was the superior force. Over the years Azerbaijan invested in enhancing its defence capabilities, building relations with Turkey, a sworn enemy of Armenia, all with an intention of extracting revenge for its 1994 loss. Armenia, on the contrary, basked in its past glory.

Azerbaijan restricted hostilities to the disputed Karabakh region thereby largely negating Armenian attempts to draw in Russia under Article 4 of the Moscow led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Armenia even targeted, Ganja, the second largest city of Azerbaijan, hoping to expand the conflict beyond the Karabakh region, but to no avail. The war took place when the world was battling the pandemic, leading to muted response from the globe. Indicators of increased hostilities were already evident when the two nations indulged in artillery duels and drone strikes in Jul last year.  

Preparing defence capabilities

Both nations invested in building defence capabilities prior to the conflict, however Azerbaijan invested wisely. Most Armenian missile and rocket artillery were of Russian origin, largely inherited from the time of the break-up of the Soviet Union. It procured Russian Iskander Missiles in 2016 and more recently the Chinese WM 80 Multi Barrel Rocket Launchers. It had also ordered Indian SWATHI weapon locating radars, delivery of which had already commenced. Armenia’s drone fleet consisted of smaller indigenous systems focused on reconnaissance missions.   

Apart from what it inherited from the erstwhile Soviet Union, Azerbaijan procured the Israeli LORA ballistic missiles and extended range artillery guided rockets. Prior to the war, launched at a time and place of its choosing, it also procured Turkish Bayraktar TB2, and Israel manufactured IAI Harop, kamikaze drones. They employed the Harop kamikaze drones to take out early warning and air defence radars of the Armenians. The Bayraktars were utilized to effectively engage Armenian tanks, artillery and missile systems. In numbers, Azerbaijan possessed over 200 drones as compared to a few dozen by Armenia.

The Armenians, rather than investing on defence, were satisfied with status quo and banked on their Moscow led CSTO defence treaty. They possessed a well-trained army, however lacked capabilities to challenge a technologically modernized Azerbaijanian army. Armenia ignored the fact that Azerbaijan, apart for possessing oil and gas resources, was the nodal point for movement of oil from the Caspian to Europe and thus its geostrategic importance would keep the Russians at bay and the EU subdued. Further, Azerbaijan possessed vast funds for enhancing military capabilities.

Azerbaijan’s relationship with Turkey was a major boost in its favour. Oil pipelines transiting through Azerbaijan move through Turkey to Europe, enhancing their ties. Apart from providing air support as also training for employing its purchased UAVs, there were reports that Turkey moved Syrian militia fighters into Azerbaijan to support it in this conflict. Turkey, which has faced global criticism for its 1920 Armenian genocide, recently endorsed by President Biden, does not have any diplomatic ties with Armenia.

This relationship tilted the military balance in favour of Azerbaijan. A lesson which flows is that a close ally, willing to risk criticism to ensure support can change scenarios in a conflict. Within our subcontinent, the proximity of Pakistan and China will ensure Pakistan has unstinted support, materially, diplomatically and also militarily.  

Politico- strategic lessons

          Russia, which is the backbone behind the CSTO, refused to intervene in the war. It also saw this as an opportunity to reduce the grip of the current Armenian Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan, who had seized power in 2018. Russia was aware that if Armenia lost, the resultant peace agreement would strengthen its strategic hold over the region. Russia had announced that it would not get involved unless Armenia was attacked. Azerbaijan confined the conflict to Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed region, considered by Moscow to belong to Azerbaijan, though occupied by Armenians. Hence, Armenia was at a disadvantage from the beginning, as its major alliance partner had a varying perception.

          Azerbaijan and Turkey, possibly aware of Russian interests, acted accordingly. Turkey moved a number of F 16 fighters into Azerbaijan, as the conflict raged. Russia, which had deployed a few Su-30 interceptors in Armenia, refused to have them airborne claiming it was not seeking a direct confrontation with Turkey. This led to Azerbaijan being gifted air superiority by Russia. This opened doors for UAVs to dominate the air space and devastate Armenian forces.

          The first politico- strategic lesson which flowed from the conflict is that alliance partners cannot always be depended upon, especially when interests are not in consonance. This gets pronounced when the nation seeking assistance is neither, by itself, militarily capable nor possesses a strategic location. Russia discarded Armenia for its own strategic interests. Turkey, on the other hand, backed Azerbaijan and even participated in the war as it was advantageous for it in the long term.

For Turkey, proximity with Azerbaijan advances its strategic interests, while its enmity with Armenia is legendary. The EU, despite calls from members of the EU parliament refused to sanction Turkey for its direct participation in the conflict considering their own interests. The UN could not issue any statement but only give calls for a ceasefire as Russia vetoed any such attempts. Hence, as a rule, nations and global bodies will keep their own interests foremost and can be influenced by powerful nations.

Another lesson which flowed is that nations must invest in enhancing military capabilities, based on anticipated threats. Azerbaijan, flush with oil and gas income could outspend Armenia at a ratio of 5:1.

Linked to the above is a lesson on failure of strategic intelligence. Armenia should have been aware of defence procurements being undertaken by Azerbaijan, including training being imparted by Turkey. It may have not judged Azerbaijan’s intent but would have been aware of the growing capability gap between the two as also of Azerbaijan’s proximity with Turkey. It should have attempted to seek allies to counter this threat. While Armenia may not have been surprised by the Azerbaijan offensive, it had no answer to their employment of drones as offensive weapons of choice. India had faced similar strategic intelligence failures during Kargil and Ladakh intrusions. Unless we learn lessons from our failures, we will continue stumbling in the future.

Employment of UAVs as a battle winning factor

          Azerbaijan invested heavily in drones, missiles and artillery. Inputs on Armenian deployment were obtained from Turkish and other global commercial satellites, apart from their own UAVs. Subsequently, UAVs were employed to exploit accuracy and enhanced range of guns and missiles, interdicting Armenian defences, cutting of reinforcements and isolating defensive positions, enabling piecemeal destruction of forces. This was adopted as a policy, wherein Azerbaijan chipped away isolated Armenian positions individually. Inputs state that Azerbaijan employed its TB-2 UAVs to destroy a number of Armenian tanks, armoured fighting vehicles and guns. Turkey even had its personnel controlling its Bayraktar TB2 Drones, which made them effective. 

This implies that nations must seek to fight future wars in every domain, land, air, space and cyberspace. Integration of systems for enhancing battlefield efficiency and exploiting long ranges of missiles and guns is now a pre-requisite for success in operations.

Azerbaijan produced propaganda videos which gave it an advantage and were effective in impacting the morale of Armenian forces. The world is considering lessons from this war for future analysis largely based on these videos. Information warfare in the current age will play a major role in impacting local and global opinion as the battlefield enters the drawing rooms. This was also witnessed during the Kargil conflict.

Reports state that Azerbaijan flew slow moving, locally converted, old Soviet aircraft into UAVs, over the warzone, compelling Armenia to release its radar and air defence weapon signatures, which they subsequently targeted employing Israeli Harop loitering ammunition. Deception and innovation have always been major tools in warfare, and this was proved by Azerbaijan.

Armenian air defence systems were largely obsolete and of the Soviet era. These proved ineffective against slow moving drones. Simultaneously, lack of jammers enhanced the freedom enjoyed by drones. It was only during the last few days that Armenia employed the Russian polye-21 Russian electronic warfare system to effectively disrupt drone operations. Armenia’s Buk and Tor M2KM missile systems, also deployed at the fag end of the war, downed a few drones. Anti-drone measures, including jammers, are now an essential ingredient in future operations and must be enmeshed with forces deployed on the ground. 

Permanent fortifications, locations of which are well mapped, even in peacetime, will always be susceptible to drone strikes. These exist all along Indian borders. Thus, there is a need for theatre-based air defence systems, as also local anti-UAV systems to be part of holding formations.

Theatre based integrated Air defence systems, comprising of short, medium and long-range weapons, linked with jammers and specialized counter-unmanned aircraft systems to render drones ineffective must be deployed as far forward as possible. Mechanised forces will continue to operate, though would remain susceptible to drone strikes. Their employment needs to be integrated with electronic warfare systems, short range missiles and counter-UAV systems.

Air war

In the war, both nations employed limited airpower. Armenia is estimated to possess about 18-20 aircraft mainly of SU 25 and MIG 29 categories, apart from a few Mi 24 attack helicopters. Azerbaijan possesses approximately 30 aircraft of mostly Russian origin as also some Mi 24 attack helicopters. It is rumoured that the only Armenian SU 25 brought down during the conflict was by a Turkish F 16. Had airpower been employed, success achieved by UAVs would have been far more restricted.

Drones are not a permanent success story

Drones have always not been successful. In Libya, Turkey lost a fairly large number of TB-2 UAVs. Drones have also been employed by terrorists including Yemen’s Houthi forces, backed by Iran, to target Saudi Arabian oil facilities. In some instances, Houthi’s have employed drones in conjunction with missiles. Most Houthi drone strikes have failed, details of which are rarely brought out. Failures are due to active air defence systems deployed by Saudi Arabia. Of those that hit their targets, few have resulted in casualties or major structural damage. A major success was the drone attack in Sept 2019 which impacted almost 5% of global oil production.

Houthi rebels also claimed to have launched a drone attack on Abu Dhabi Airport back in July 2018 using three armed drones, which has been denied by the UAE. No inputs of success or failure is available. Turkey and Israel have effectively employed drones to target their adversaries in Syria and Lebanon, both of which possess no counter drone measures. Where drone strikes have succeeded, the opponent has either lacked viable air defence capabilities or effective air power. Where the adversary possesses either, drones have had limited to no success. Turkey applied lessons learnt from its Syrian campaign to enhance chances of success for Azerbaijan.

Technology as a game changer

          This conflict displayed the power of technology on the battlefield, though in a limited manner. While Azerbaijan with support from Turkey exploited it, Armenia failed. Grey Zone or Hybrid warfare was possibly the only realm of battle, which was not evident on a large scale, though information warfare was visible.

This is possibly a precursor to future battles where military power and technology will be fused seamlessly to ensure success. Hybrid warfare will be effectively employed to break key enemy systems, impacting all spheres of activity. There is no doubt that modern armies must invest as much in harnessing technology to exploit every domain of the battlefield as they invest in upgrading weapon systems. Static defences and mobile elements of battle would remain essential in the future too, as they do currently. However, they would need to be integrated with systems which enhance their survivability as also their effectiveness.   

In India, Bharat Electronics Limited is the lead agency for developing anti-drone systems for the armed forces. An indigenously developed anti-drone system is currently deployed at the PM’s residence and a portable one as part of his cavalcade. This system was also deployed during last year’s Republic and Independence Days. It has a range of 2-3 kms with radar capability to pick up drones and then employs frequencies to jam them.

A similar system developed by the private sector has been successfully tested on the LoC. Electronics and Radar Development Establishment is developing multiple radar systems which can detect drones and be linked to existing air defence weaponry to effectively engage them. The air force is producing a drone policy and integrating anti-drone measures into its air defence plans. These need to be pursued and implemented at the earlies.


          There is no doubt that the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict produced lessons for the world on enmeshing technology to enhance battle-effectiveness. It also projected lessons of politico-military strategy including over-dependence on alliances. Strategic intelligence, where Armenia failed has also been the bane of India, where we have been repeatedly surprised, most notable being Kargil and Ladakh. 

          Future wars will involve the man behind the gun as much as the man behind a computer, sitting in a plush office, supporting the soldier on the ground with technology-based inputs to ensure his success. Seamless integration of technology with weapon systems is the need for the future.