The Second Nagorno-Karabakh War has come, hopefully, to an end. The time has come for summarising events, and if political experts have a wide range of topics to choose from, from Erdogan's neo-Ottomanism to the role of Russia in the Transcaucasus or the degree of the betrayal’ of the Armenian prime minister, those interested in military technology are concentrating on one topic that has dominated the media since the beginning of the conflict.
Of course, we are talking about the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) by the Azerbaijani armed forces. In the Russian media, the assessment ranged from laudatory alarmism (respectively, about Turkish equipment and the lag of the domestic armed forces in this area) to sceptical and reassuring assessments. Azerbaijani and Turkish authors and their audience on social networks were naturally mostly delighted with the "next-generation war". Probably, it is precisely the peculiarities of the presentation of the conflict in the media that present the unique role of UAVs this time. The fact is that Baku managed to ensure the highest level of censorship along its front line - it was only in the second half of the conflict that media content had gone AWOL, including impartial content. Prior to that, the coverage was limited to lists of liberated settlements and videos of the defeat of Armenians.
Moreover, the Azerbaijani side wisely met the main needs of the modern information space: content should be easily accessible, of high quality, and should be supplied regularly and in large quantities. For obvious reasons, the easiest way to get such a video is from a weapons system, which itself shoots and transmits a video of its combat work. So the main "eyes" of the war were UAVs, patrolling ammunition (they were also "kamikaze drones") and, to a lesser extent, Spike NLOS tactical missiles. What machines are we talking about?
For a long time, Israel was Azerbaijan’s only partner in the field of drones. Since the beginning of the 2010s, Aeronautics Defence Systems had supplied its Orbiter ultra-light reconnaissance UAVs and Baku had also purchased the larger Elbit Hermes 450 and IAI Searcher for reconnaissance purposes. Later, after gaining its initial experience, by the middle of the decade, heavier UAVs with a longer flight duration were purchased - the IAI Heron and Elbit Hermes 900. The assimilation was facilitated by the fact that in both cases, the drones were a development of the younger models of the respective companies. In the 2016 and 2020 conflicts, these UAVs were actively used for reconnaissance and fire control.
For reconnaissance and strike missions, the so-called loitering munitions or, as they’re often called, "kamikaze drones" were bought in. Such devices carry out patrolling and reconnaissance of the area like an ordinary drone, and when an enemy target is detected, at the command of the operator, they hit it with a warhead installed on board. Moreover, if they do not detect a worthy target, then they can be reused. Obviously, they provide many interesting opportunities, but they also have drawbacks that do not allow them to serve as a replacement for missiles, primarily because of their often extremely low flight speed.
The main aircraft of this class in service in Azerbaijan is the IAI Harop. It’s not a new model, and has a number of drawbacks (it’s large for its class and has a noisy internal combustion engine), but it has a good flight duration and it’s proven: it was used back in 2016. Lighter and newer "kamikaze" drones in Baku’s arsenal include the Aeronautics Orbiter 1K and the Elbit SkyStriker. An interesting device is the STM Kargu - an ultralight Turkish kamikaze quadcopter.
Some of the aforementioned Israeli UAVs were assembled by Azerbaijan under license, probably from ready-made sets. It is important to note that Israel, going by the number of Azerbaijani air transport flights, actively supplied weapons during the 2020 conflict, and loitering ammunition looks like the main consumable weapon.
But the main ‘hero’ of the war was probably Baykar Defence’s Bayraktar TB2. Turkish aircraft builders could not think of a better name for their aircraft than ‘Standard Bearer’. In recent years, it has appeared everywhere where Ankara's geopolitical ambitions are most acutely manifested: the first buyer was friendly Qatar, which had been blockaded by its neighbours. It was used in Syria, then Iraq, Libya and now Karabakh. They have been shot down everywhere, but the losses of UAVs are perceived less brightly than their successes, especially in the defeat of air defence systems - and in recent cases, the anti-aircraft gunners in Libya and Karabakh did not always succeed enough. The success of its use everywhere is strenuously emphasised by Turkish propaganda, which is often converted into purchases on the arms market. Probably next year we will hear about more export contracts. Regarding the war in Karabakh, the Azerbaijani media and the public especially praise the Turkish and not Israeli technology, for understandable reasons of political sympathy. Considering that their acquisition was announced quite recently, and before the war they were not particularly visible, it is difficult to shake the thought that they were controlled by Turkish operators during the hostilities: the military or directly by the manufacturer.
It is noteworthy that, technically, the Bayraktar is a fairly ordinary device. The small mass is responsible for its well-known ease of use, but also imposes serious restrictions: for example, the maximum payload is limited to 150 kg at four hardpoints, and this weight significantly limits the patrol time, which is critical, especially considering that it is slower than helicopters (cruising at about 130 km/h). Severe weight restrictions have led to the fact that their main weapons are MAM-L and MAM-C guided mini-bombs, an anti-tank missile and a 70-mm rocket without engines. Despite a good balance of light weight and striking power, they have a serious drawback in the form of a very limited range, especially if the UAV operates from low altitudes. The 8 kilometre firing range indicated by the manufacturer is for a unit with a modest array of ammunition, dropped from the UAV at a low speed, and can only be achieved if the TB2 has climbed to its maximum ceiling.
The Bayraktar TB2 has a good flight duration – it boasts a record of 27 hours, which is an excellent indicator for its class. However, a significant limitation is the lack of a satellite communication channel. Due to this, it can only be used within a limited radius of the ground control complex, given stable communication, which is influenced by the flight altitude and the absence of obstacles (especially important in mountainous areas). A radius of 150 km was named, as well as plans to increase it. However, judging by the photos published on the Twitter of the Baykar company (congratulations were offered to Azerbaijan following its victory, by the way), the device contains at least prototypes of the modification with a satellite antenna. However, it is unclear how long it will take to fine-tune them.
In general, Turkish engineers made a good product from commercial components freely available on the market: the electronic board is mainly American and English, the engine is Austrian, the optoelectronic system is Canadian. The process of import substitution in the Turkish defence industry, which is so familiar to Russia, is no easier than ours, although the embargo announced by a number of suppliers during the conflict may spur it on. On the other hand, the dual purpose of the components can make life much easier - this is how engines of the Rotax 912 family are installed on such a wide range of equipment and are so widespread in the world that it is virtually impossible to cut off their supply lines. So here the loud statement of the Canadian government (Rotax is an Austrian company owned by a Canadian one, Bombardier Recreational Products) does not play a special role. Much more significant for the Turks was the ban on deliveries of its Canadian optical array, the WESCAM MX-15D - the "eye" of the UAV. They reacted to it by announcing success in testing their Aselsan OLS, but it is unclear when it will be ready. However, the ban on supplies will probably be quietly lifted when the situation settles down.
The above was not intended to prove that the Bayraktar TB2 is a bad piece of equipment. The fact is that it is simply not as outstanding as it is being presented. The leading drone-building powers have passed this level a long time ago - we live in a world where the MQ-1 Predator (with a higher combat load and satellite communications) went into battle almost twenty years ago. Not only the United States, but also Israel, China (whose large drone drones have been participating in the wars in the Middle East for at least five years, albeit with less PR) have gone extremely far ahead of Turkey, even taking into account its prototypes.
Thus, it is wrong to say that the drone revolution in warfare happened over the past several months - simply because it happened a couple of decades ago. What happened that’s new in the past months is a demonstration that UAVs can be successfully used on a large scale by third-tier military powers. Success, however, largely depends on the organisation of the enemy, and in this aspect the Armenian side has shown itself rather weak. As for the main merit of the Azerbaijani military-political leadership, it rather lies in the procurement of weapons that are most effective in terms of price/quality ratio in their specific situation (this applies not only to UAVs). Having purchased a small number of combat aircraft instead of drones - for example, Chinese JF-17s, they would not have been able to throw them as calmly at the Armenian air defence for which they would also have been a more convenient target. At the same time, the planes could not provide for an equally massive and effective means of reconnaissance, target designation and correction of artillery fire - namely, artillery played a huge role in the conflict, it’s just that shells do not send videos.
Against this background, of course, the consequences of the Russian military’s long-term neglect of the mass use of UAVs looks especially unpleasant. After all, the analogue, if not of the MQ-9 Reaper, then the Bayraktar TB2, could have been put into service a long time ago. However, apparently, the interest of the state customer in drones, against the background of large purchases of ‘mature’ warplanes in the 2010s, was sporadic and rather weak. This criticism doesn’t apply to the so-called "limited-parameter UAV" concept – this topic has been addressed and yielded a brainchild in the form of the S-70 Okhotnik, but it must be understood that this will not be ready to be put into service until the middle of the decade and will not be a ‘massive consumable’ of war.
Fortunately, from the experience of the Syrian campaign and the observation of conflicts in recent years, the situation is beginning to improve. So this year, finally, the first contract was signed in Russia for the serial delivery of the Kronstadt Orion UAVs. This is a Russian ‘classmate’ of the Bayraktar, somewhat superior in load and range; in late October, the first set was handed over to Russia’s Ministry of Defence.