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A forgotten war is gaining new momentum in the Caucasus, as opponents arm themselves with increasingly advanced drone technology for spying and strikes. The alarming implications stretch far beyond a small corner of Eurasia.
After the breakup of the Soviet Union, conflict between the newly independent states of Armenia and Azerbaijan flared up over Nagorno-Karabakh, an ethnic Armenian enclave that’s legally part of Azerbaijan. A ceasefire was brokered by Russia in 1994, after Armenia gained effective control of the territory. Nagorno-Karabakh has declared itself an independent state called Artsakh but has failed to win international recognition and is still widely considered part of Azerbaijan. Conflict simmers between Azerbaijan and Artsakh with their patron Armenia.
In 2016 matters boiled over into open warfare with dozens and perhaps hundreds killed on both sides. Intermittent violence has continued since. The 2016 escalation was notable for a new type of weapon, the Harop ‘loitering munition’ or kamikaze drone supplied to the Azeris by Israel. Harops reportedly successfully hit many targets including artillery, air defense systems artillery system and a busload of Armenian troops.
The Harops were supplied by IAI. Rival company Aeronautics then engaged in aggressive marketing which turned into something like black comedy. In 2017 a team from Aeronautics was in Azerbaijan to finalize a contract for Orbiter 1K kamikaze drones, and were asked to attack enemy positions. Apparently when the Israeli drone operators refused, “senior representatives of the company took control and operated the craft themselves, ultimately missing their targets,” according to the Jerusalem Post.
Israeli authorities imposed a two-year ban on Aeronautics for this stunt. But when the ban expired in 2019 the company promptly announced a $13m deal to sell drones to Azerbaijan. In the longer term, the Azeris plan to produce a licensed copy of the Orbiter known as Zarba themselves. In 2019 the Azeris also bought a batch of SkyStriker drones, also from Israel.
Local drone production is already stepping up a gear. In 2018, an Azeri company announced it was working on three different sizes of kamikaze drone, including one with an 11-pound warhead able to cruise for three hours looking for targets, while another was working on a drone called Bat which can return for re-use if no target is found.
In 2018 Armenia announced it was buying military drones from Artsakh. The small state evidently has an active drone industry, and last month the Artsakh Defense Ministry announced it had successfully tested a new combat drone with mass production planned in the next few months. They even released a video of the kamikaze drone hitting a target, stating the weapon is ‘not inferior to similar devices designed by leading countries in terms of technical characteristics.’
A 2019 video from Armenian outlet Shant News shows a whole range of military drones on display.
Drones are ideal for this type of conflict. They are cheap, highly accurate and can be used without risking a pilot. They are also deniable. Even if a drone shot down, the operators can claim it is nothing to do with them, as the U.S. did with Firebee spy drones shot down over China in the 1960s and many times since. There have been a series of claims of drones shot down, most recently in April the Artsakh forces downed an Azeri Orbiter Drone.
That small, remote antagonists should launch small aircraft packed with explosives at each other may not seem like cause for concern. But drone technology will not stay confined to one area. And the drones are farm from primitive.
“Many former Soviet countries inherited STEM and military manufacturing know-how and capabilities following the dissolution of Soviet Union,” Samuel Bendett, an analyst with the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C. told this reporter. “We have seen, over the past decade, the near monopoly on drone manufacture and use move from a handful of key nations — U.S., U.K., Israel, Iran, China — to literally dozens of countries.”
Ukraine is a particularly telling example. During the conflict with Russia, the country has had to rapidly develop its own drone capability. University teams, technologists, hobbyists and soldiers worked together to get effective designs to the front line as fast as possible with impressive results. When the U.S. supplied RQ-11 Raven tactical drones to Ukraine in 2016, they quickly fell prey to Russian jammers, something the Ukrainians had learned to counter on their own drones.
The U.S. military is also acquiring commercial Skydio drones, another indication that the latest in the commercial sector can match what the military can field, with its four-to-six-year lag in equipment purchase. The new Artsakh drone really may match what the rest of the world can offer.
“This trend is going to accelerate — already, Ukraine, Estonia, Belarus, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan are either producing and using, or announced the intention to domestically produce unmanned systems,” says Bendett.
But while a slew of minor nations now manufacture their own, many NATO members like the U.K. and Germany still lack tactical attack drones. And while the U.S. forces have their own Switchblade loitering munitions, they lack an effective defense against the enemy kamikaze drones that they are increasingly likely to face.
“UAVs [Unmanned Aerial Vehicles – drones] are cheap mission multipliers, and small militaries like those in the Caucuses can amplify their footprint by acquiring unmanned systems,” says Bendett.
Companies like Azeri outfit AZDynamics are actively seeking to export drone technology. The more they proliferate, the easier it will be for everyone to get hold of such weapons. The drone war in the Caucasus could soon become a drone war in your backyard.