Suicide Drones - The Threat from Above in the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

  • Jean-Patrick Clancy
  • 18.11.2020 14:50

Armenia remained woefully unprepared for a drone campaign against its troops. As social media platforms became inundated with footage of Azeri drones and loitering munitions targeting Armenian armored vehicles, air defense systems and entrenched troops, experts have been introduced to a blueprint for tomorrow’s warfare.

The latest six-week war in Nagorno-Karabakh has been marked by extreme brutality, a blatant and consistent disregard for human rights, as well as foreign interference. 

Most notably, the reignited territorial dispute offered the world a glimpse on how future battles could be fought.

So-called suicide or ‘kamikaze’ drones have wreaked havoc on the battlefield giving Azerbaijan the edge in the contested region’s latest conflict and have led military experts worldwide to reevaluate their own air defense systems in the wake of the increasing threat posed by versatile, cheaply produced yet deadly UAVs.

 

Suicide drones - A New Alternative

UAVs are increasingly changing the way armed forces fight in the 21st century and have become a game changer in contemporary conflicts.

There exist various models used throughout the world for both reconnaissance and combat missions, yet the recent conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh has introduced the world to a revolutionary weapon which induces a wave of fear in those who have witnessed with their own eyes the devastation it may cause.

Equipped with a camera, so-called Kamikaze drones, or suicide drones which are also referred to as loitering munitions, are UAVs which ‘loiter’ in the air for a specific amount of time, during which they will gather and relay intelligence to troops on the ground while searching for a target, before eventually diving onto and terminating their target by detonating upon impact.

This weapon, which increases the operator’s capability to discriminate between combatants and noncombatants, undeniably allows for a faster reaction time against beyond line-of-sight targets. And, unlike any other military drones, the suicide drone by self-destructing becomes the weapon rather than a means of delivery therefore acting as something in between a UAV and a cruise missile.

 

Israeli-built IAI Harop loitering munition used by Azeri forces against the Armenian military. Copyright:  European Security Journal

 

“UAVs are increasingly changing the way armed forces fight in the 21st century and have become a game changer in contemporary conflicts”

 

Until now, these deadly weapons had seen little use in a world ever more familiar with drone warfare since the beginning of the war on terror in Afghanistan in 2001. 

While their usage had initially been mainly limited to insurgent use in Syria, Iraq or Yemen with more rudimentary low-cost aircraft including commercial quadcopters with strapped-on explosive devices, they have recently become popular with armed forces because they are cheap, relatively easy to produce and remain an effective weapon against a wide variety of targets.

 

A Battlefield Game Changer 

Drones have undeniably dominated the latest Azerbaijan-Armenian war, having captured the attention of technology experts and military strategists worldwide because of the extent of their use against high-value military ground assets. 

In a highly mediatised conflict flooded with ‘kill cam’ footage of devastating UAV strikes, Baku’s successful use of both armed drones such as the Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 and the Israeli-produced Harpy and Harop loitering munitions, have given it the edge in the region’s latest conflict.

Exhausted and ill-equipped Armenian forces failed to cope with Azerbaijan’s obvious air power and its invisible weapon, striking armour and men when they would least expect it, or, to put it bluntly “it’s rifles against drones”.

After all, the military balance had long favoured Baku which boasted its sizable and diverse fleet of UAVs, including suicide drones which mostly originated from Israel, a top manufacturer of loitering weapon systems with a long history of producing advanced and precise weapons to fight terrorist organisations such as Hezbollah and Hamas.

This technology, as stated by Azeri foreign policy adviser Hikmet Hajiyev, helps the country provide security for its citizens”. This explains Baku’s recent investments in Israeli-made Orbiter 1k, SkyStriker, as well as the previously mentioned Harpy and Harop drones, according to data shared by the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College.

Other than its close ties with both Turkey and Israel, the country’s success also lies in its military spending. Azerbaijan invested over $19 billion in weapons between 2011 and 2019, including $5 billion on Israeli loitering munitions in 2016 alone, which is nearly four times more than Armenia’s total $5 billion investment on its own arsenal over the same period of time.

 

“The success of drones on the battlefield will most likely contribute to the 'dronization' of future armed conflicts”

 

As Armenia failed to effectively counter Azerbaijan’s UAVs, the latter’s drones not only dominated the skies but owned the battlefield, ultimately leading to Yerevan’s demise in Nagorno-Karabakh and showed the world what the future of warfare will look like.

The success of this weapon on the battlefield, alongside more conventional combat drones such as the Bayraktar TB2, has caught the attention of countries that operate armed drones.

The versatility and effectiveness of suicide drones, together with technological innovations including swarming, will most likely contribute to the “dronization” of future battlefields rather than a greater reliance on more traditional alternatives such as missiles and artillery.

About author: Jean-Patrick Clancy

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