Very few people would argue against the importance of air superiority in modern conventional warfare. From the bocage of Normandy in 1944 to Kuwait’s so-called highway of death in 1991, the use of air power to physically – and psychologically – destroy an enemy’s ability or determination to fight has been central to most war plans. However in the age of militarised drones such power is no longer the reserve of the world’s wealthiest nation-states. To reword an old analogy, if a car-bomb could be described as the air force of the working-classes, the UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) is its middle-class equivalent.
This has become most obvious in the renewed conflict taking place between the Republic of Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan over the self-styled Republic of Artsakh, the majority ethnic Armenian area just inside Azerbaijani territory. With Armenia enjoying the support of the Russian Federation and Azerbaijan enjoying the support of the Republic of Turkey, along with political, diplomatic and military contributions good, bad and indifferent from regional and international parties, what would have been another minor skirmish in a protracted cold war has heated up into something far more terrible.
According to a study of open source information by Forbes the relatively poorly equipped Armed Forces of Armenia have suffered catastrophic losses due to air strikes. And not by conventional aircraft.
Hundreds of videos released by Azerbaijan show drones blasting Armenian fighting vehicles and heavy weapons, as well as destroying resupply and reinforcement convoys.
Azerbaijan’s primary aerial combat system in the conflict are an unknown number of Turkish-built Bayraktar TB2 drones, which can deliver precision strikes from a relatively safe altitude using small laser-guided micro-missiles, or help guide deadly artillery barrages.
However, Azerbaijan is also using its fleet of Israeli Harop and smaller Orbiter-1K loitering munitions, which can both surveil targets and kamikaze into choice targets like a missile.
On the first day of hostilities Azerbaijani drone strikes focused heavily on short range air defense vehicles in Nagorno-Karabakh. These 1970 and 1980-era Soviet systems designed for use against airplanes may have lacked resolution to consistently detect and engage drones at long range and higher altitude. Later, more powerful S-300 and 2K12 air missile batteries and long-range air defense radars were also struck.
After the first few days, drone strikes were primarily directed at vehicles, facilities and artillery behind or approaching the frontline.
Armenian artillery losses appear equally staggering as of Oct. 22, equivalent to the destruction of six or seven artillery battalions in aggregate…
While richer nations will continue to have the upper hand in quasi-autonomous killing machines, whether in the sky or on the ground (and the future deployment of orbital weapon platforms seems inevitable given the parlous state of international law) that will be balanced out by less wealthy countries and non-state actors using cheaper commercial or improvised drones of their own. And just wait until drone-like assault and fire-support vehicles become the norm on the battlefield. With truly autonomous weapon systems not far behind.