Very few people would argue against the importance of air superiority in modern conventional warfare. From the Normandy Bocage in 1944 to Kuwait’s so-called Death Road 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. In the age of militarized drones, however, this power is no longer the reserve of the world’s richest nation-states. To rephrase an old analogy, if a car bomb could be called a working class air force, the UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) is the middle class equivalent.
This became most evident in the renewed conflict between the Republic of Armenia and the Republic of Azerbaijan over the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh, the predominantly ethnic Armenian area on Azerbaijani territory. With Armenia, which has the support of the Russian Federation, and Azerbaijan, which has the support of the Republic of Turkey, as well as political, diplomatic, and military contributions that are good, bad, and indifferent from regional and international parties, this would be another small skirmish in been a protracted cold. The war has heated up into something far more terrible.
According to an open source study by Forbes, Armenia’s relatively poorly equipped armed forces have suffered catastrophic losses from air strikes. And not with conventional aircraft.
Hundreds of videos published by Azerbaijan show drones blowing up Armenian combat vehicles and heavy weapons, as well as destroying supply and reinforcement convoys.
Azerbaijan’s main air combat system in the conflict is an unknown number of Bayraktar TB2 drones built in Turkey, which can deliver precision strikes from relatively safe heights or support deadly artillery fire with small laser-guided micro-missiles.
However, Azerbaijan also makes use of its fleet of Israeli Harop and smaller Orbiter-1K loitering ammunition that can overlook both targets and kamikaze into selected targets such as a missile.
On the first day of the hostilities, Azerbaijani drone strikes were heavily focused on short-range air defense vehicles in Nagorno-Karabakh. These Soviet systems from the 1970s and 1980s, designed for use against aircraft, may not have a resolution to consistently detect and attack drones at great distances and at great heights. Later, more powerful S-300 and 2K12 air missile batteries and long-range air defense radars were also hit.
After the first few days, drone attacks were mainly directed against vehicles, installations and artillery behind or near the front.
The losses of Armenian artillery appear to be just as staggering as of October 22, the equivalent of the destruction of six or seven artillery battalions in total.
While richer nations will continue to have the upper hand over quasi-autonomous killing machines, be it in the sky or on the ground (and the future use of orbital weapon platforms seems inevitable given the poor state of international law), this will be offset by less affluent countries and non-state actors who themselves Use cheaper commercial or improvised drones. And just wait for drone-like assault and fire vehicles to become the norm on the battlefield. With truly autonomous weapons systems not far behind.