15 January 2021

The future of drones. Lessons for Romania from the Nagorno-Karabakh war

Sorin Butiri

The unmanned aerial vehicles have developed quickly in the last years, including, or better said especially, in the military field. Many of world’s governments have made huge investments in the field, being aware of the real value of suing these technologies in the defence field. The recent conflict from Nagorno Karabakh is confirming the idea of most of military equipment producers, who are saying that these systems are basically the future of military technique. This article will be followed by another one, entitled “The future of drones. Lessons for Romania after the Nagorno-Karabakh war”, where I will explain the situation Romania is facing and what it should do to fix it.

Image source: Profimedia

Something about the unmanned vehicles…

As I was stating in a previous article, the unmanned aerial vehicles, remote or with autopilot, have developed a lot in the last years and even the terms describing the products are now “out of control”. “Drone” is the term most commonly used. Its synonyms are “UAV” (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) and “UAS” (Unmanned Aerial System). However, these three words/acronyms are not actually synonyms.

A UAV is an unmanned aerial vehicle and it is only referring to the aircraft itself. The UASs include the aircraft, the command units, the communication systems and the infrastructure elements (the transport and launch apron etc.). In other words, drones are aircrafts which are remotely controlled and are available for the public.

In technical terms, these aircrafts are known also as Remotely Piloted Vehicles or Remotely Operated Aircrafts.

In terms of their use in the military field, the UAS can be: strategic, operational and tactical.

The strategic UAS have a long range of action and are frequently used for information collection, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) in strategically important areas. This is where the “Global Hawk” system is included, which can navigate to 20.000 meters altitude, for 40 hours, and can reach a 3.000 nautical miles.

The operational UASs include the “Predator” and “Reaper” systems, which can fly to 7.500-15.000 meters altitude and can be both for ISR actions and to launch attacks. If these have also ammunition then they turn into UCAS (Unmanned Combat Aerial Systems).

The tactic UAVs are flying low altitudes and on short distances, maximum 20 nautical miles. An example of such UAVs is the “Dragon Eye”. Unlike the strategic and operational systems which can be pre-scheduled to fly on a certain itinerary, the tactic UAVs are continuously and completely controlled by an operator and, in some cases, they do not have launching and transport aprons, because they are smaller. Besides the armed forces, the tactical UAVs are used by the border protection and control forces, for crowds’ control and illegal actions fight.

As for the UAS classification depending on their weight, there are three categories: the first category, between 2 and 149 kg, the second category, between 150 and 600 kg and the third class, above 600 kg.

… and the concept of their use

There was a tendency among the military specialists and political-military decision-makers to reduce the effectiveness of UAVs and UASs in the inter-state conflicts. Most of the UASs which are currently used are “stealth” aircrafts, subsonic, lacking maneuverability and self-defense capacity.

Most often, these unmanned systems were used in fighting terrorism and insurgencies, in situations where a state that enjoys technological superiority is fighting a non-state force that lacks such technology. The use of these systems in inter-state conflicts was limited because they are seen as too vulnerable to the fire the air defence systems and other countermeasures can have. Therefore, these unmanned systems were not seen as having a role in inter-state conflicts. The recent conflict from Nagorno-Karabakh seems to have proved everyone wrong. In the first phases of the conflict, the reports on the success of UASs in action have raised harsh commentaries about the end of tanks and other land vehicles in military actions.   

The UASs role in the second Armenian-Azerbaijani war

 The surprise was not that Azerbaijan won the war, but how it did that. Therefore, we can state that this is the first modern inter-state conflict wherein the unmanned vehicles have overpowered the enemy’s land forces, making it possible for the Azerbaijani forces to move forwards and conquer some strategically important villages and objectives. Given these military realities, Armenia had to accept a humiliating ceasefire agreement and made thousands of its citizens become refugees.

But let’s get back to UASs and UCAVs (Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles) and how these were used.

In the first days of the conflicts, the belligerents have launched attacks with aircrafts and helicopters, but the air defense systems of both sides proved their effectiveness. Both sides had huge loses both in the land and air forces. That was the moment when the UAVs entered the scene.

Meanwhile the Armenian UAVs were not developing but ISR actions, the Azerbaijanis have launched an air offensive with UCAVs.

In the first phase, Azerbaijan’s UCAVs sought the elimination of Armenia’s air defense systems. Once the Armenians’ air defence was annihilated, the Azerbaijanis focused their UCAVs attacks on the main elements of the land forces: tanks and armored vehicles of the infantry, artillery units and logistic systems elements.

The OSINT investigations made by the “oryxspioenkop” blog is confirming that the Azerbaijani UCAVs “Bayraktar TB2s” have destroyed 89 T-22 tanks, 29 armored vehicles, 131 artillery elements, 61 missile launchers, 143 trucks, 9 radar systems and 15 surface-to-air systems. During these actions, the Azerbaijanis have lost at least two UCAVs. At the same time, the Azerbaijani UAVs like the “Harop” have destroyed at least three S-300 surface-to-air missile systems.

But the most important role played by the Azerbaijani UASs was the propaganda. Because the UAVs are equipped with special devices for information collection, such an unmanned system is basically like an aerial camera. Any operation involving a video camera captured by an UAS or a drone is like a report made by certain media channels in conflict areas. This advantage was quickly exploited by the Azerbaijanis, who, aware of the importance of social media in transmitting information, have “broadcasted” their attacks on the Armenian land forces.  

The supremacy of Azerbaijanis in UAS-type capabilities has allowed them to improve their online idea of success against Armenians, showing the public thousands of images of Armenian vehicles and their destroyed air defense systems, with minimal costs and zero losses ... a state level vlogging. Taking a closer look, we can say that the success of UAVs and UCAS was not so "brilliant". For example, destroyed Armenian tanks are part of older generations, lacking protection against airstrikes. New models of tanks built by the US, UK, Germany, France, Russia and China have additional protection, including active defense systems and reactive armor. We will see how effective the UCAVs strikes over these models are.

Do not miss the second part of this article – “The future of drones. Lessons for Romania after the Nagorno-Karabakh war”.