By Blake Dudley ’23
Much of the recent discussion on warfare has focused on drones and their impact on the battlefield. Though drones are vital in war, they are not the game-changer they might initially seem to be. The Russian Invasion of Ukraine has revealed that while drones play an important role in combat, they do not truly revolutionize modern warfare, which is still largely characterized by traditional weapons and tactics.
The Second Nagorno-Karabakh War in 2020 is one of the most important and overlooked conflicts in recent history. Evolving from an ethnic dispute in Nagorno-Karabakh, the war was a bitterly fought affair in the Caucasus mountains between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The conflict was brief, lasting only 44 days, yet the lessons learned and, more importantly, the tactics used have shined a light on the new era of warfare.
The Nagorno-Karabakh region is a highly contentious area to which both Armenia and Azerbaijan lay claim. Conflicts have flared repeatedly between the combatant countries since the fall of the Soviet Union, with Armenia initially winning possession of most of the region. Previously conflicts in the area were defined by a competition to control the high ground in the mountains; Armenia has always been a weaker power than Azerbaijan in terms of military power, economic capacity and population, yet, with their limited numbers and equipment, they have been able to seize and hold key locations in the mountainous terrain that enabled them to effectively counter and blunt Azeri attacks. As recently as 2016, this remained the case, but Azerbaijan began to invest in a technology that would prove to be an important asset: drones.
Drones were nothing new at the beginning of the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War in 2020, as the United States and many other nations had been utilizing both attack and reconnaissance drones for decades. However, drones had yet to be used en masse in a war between two conventional militaries; prior to 2020, drones had only been used by dominant military forces against low-powered insurgent groups. Yet countries were still investing in their potential, and Azerbaijan, unlike Armenia, was an eager customer for Turkish and Israeli drone manufacturers in the lead-up to warfare.
Azerbaijan successfully launched its new fleet of drones at the start of the 2020 War. Utilizing a combination of recon and strike drones, Azeri forces could spot Armenian positions safely from above and quickly launch precise attacks with missiles. Spearheaded by the Turkish Bayraktar TB2, an affordable and flexible drone, the Azeri fleet encountered little threat from the ground and could easily be replaced if shot down.
The Armenians found themselves overwhelmed: well-prepared positions and tanks that had proved successful in the past faced aerial bombardment without an effective means to counter the Azeri drone swarms. The technology of the future outmaneuvered traditional tactics.
The lessons forged in the Caucuses Mountains have informed Russian and Ukrainian forces, which have employed these tactics with mixed results. Both factions rely heavily on drones to support ground attacks, and most Ukrainian squads are equipped with a reconnaissance drone to spot the enemy and relay information up to command. Similar to the Azeri army in the 2020 War, artillery in Ukraine can use drone reconnaissance to rapidly target and destroy enemy fortifications, allowing ground forces to then recapture occupied territory.
Russia and Ukraine have invested heavily in this new form of warfare, with the two nations and their allies buying and producing suicide kamikaze drones. Men in the field modify and jury-rig commercial drones to fit their combat needs.
But while drone warfare is a crucial new factor in warfare, it is by no means the miracle weapon of the future. While Azerbaijan’s victory can largely be attributed to drones, they also properly integrated them into a newer style of fighting units. Drones were less a war-winning item than an important boost to an already future-focused army. This can similarly be seen in Ukraine, where drones are now an everyday factor in the war. But the ongoing stalemate proves that battlefield success requires more than new technology and that there is no single path to victory.