Lessons learned from a recent war


Last year I wrote about the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabak enclave.  At the time, I said:

The startling thing, to me, is the graphic evidence of how the modern battlefield has changed.  In my days in uniform, sure, we were under constant threat from Soviet-supplied aircraft of the Angolan air force;  but they weren’t well flown, and missed most of the time.  Smart weapons weren’t usually encountered until the latter days of the Border War.  As long as we camouflaged our positions well, and took basic precautions such as digging foxholes and slit trenches, we were more likely than not to emerge unscathed from Angolan air raids.  Indeed, South African artillery operated for months well inside the Angolan air umbrella, and didn’t lose a single gun or crew to air attack.

Nowadays, things are very different.  Here’s a video clip provided by Azerbaijan, showing how its Turkish-supplied unmanned aerial vehicles and the missiles they carry can interdict any group of Armenian soldiers they can see.  It’s literally the truth for Armenia’s troops that to gather in a group, even in the protection of a slit trench or under other cover, is basically a death sentence.  No matter what they do, they can be seen;  and if sensors can detect them, they can be killed.  There’s no longer any place to hide.  Even camouflage won’t conceal them from modern sensors that can see through or around it.

There’s more at the link, including the embedded video.

Now comes an article in Small Wars Journal titled “What the United States Military Can Learn from the Nagorno-Karabakh War“.  The authors make the same point, along with several others.  Here’s an excerpt.  Bold, underlined text is my emphasis.

This latest war lasted 44 days and left Azerbaijan in control of nearly one-third of the territory in the Nagorno-Karabakh. Unlike previous skirmishes and cease-fire violations, the warfare that erupted in September 2020 included post-modern characteristics and multi-domain combat operations. At only six days into the conflict, Azerbaijan already claimed to have destroyed 250 armored vehicles, a similar number of artillery pieces, and 39 air-defense systems, including a Russian S-300 surface-to-air missile system. Armenian forces faced a persistent threat of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) that could attrite traditional defenses and minimize their overall defensive capability.

. . .

Systems Employed

Azerbaijan leveraged [its] economic windfall to field several different types of UAS in the conflict. Among the deadliest and most effective was the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 which carries four MAM (Smart Micro Munition) laser-guided missiles. The Azeris developed an imposing UAS arsenal composed of Israeli loitering munitions, also known as “suicide” or “kamikaze” drones that included the Harop and SkyStriker. They also deployed a locally-made version of the Israeli Orbiter-1K small kamikaze drone and converted a number of their old Russian AN-2 biplanes into ISR or suicide UAS. By contrast, Armenia’s UAS fleet consisted of smaller, indigenous systems focused on reconnaissance missions and is generally recognized as less capable than Azerbaijan’s fleet of foreign UAS.


The armed conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia highlighted the continued use and effectiveness of unmanned platforms in low-intensity conflict and its ability to transform smaller, less-funded militaries into more lethal warfighting organizations. The use of UAS, particularly by Azerbaijan, included a range of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) operations, as well as unmanned aerial attack operations involving a variety of different platforms and munitions. The resounding success of UAS in the Nagorno-Karabakh War marks what many consider to be a turning point in modern warfare. For the first time in recorded history, nearly all battle damage was inflicted by unmanned platforms. The attrition of forces and equipment by UAS led to a decisive Azeri victory.

Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD)

At the onset of the conflict, Azerbaijan leveraged Soviet-era AN-2 biplanes to deceive and expose Armenian air defenses. Though decades old and intended to serve as traditional manned aircraft, the biplanes’ conversion to unmanned decoys allowed Azerbaijan to conduct low altitude flights into the highly contested environment—and more importantly—into the weapons engagement zone (WEZ) of Armenian air defenses. These improvised UAS were repurposed as decoys and flown to the front lines to force air defenses to give away their location and enable targeting by TB2s. When the Armenian air defenses targeted, engaged, and destroyed the perceived threats, they inadvertently broadcasted their positions to Azeri unmanned aerial attack platforms that flew at higher altitudes—enabling the Bayraktar TB2 and kamikaze drones to destroy higher-payoff targets like the Armenian air defense systems.

These tactics are reminiscent of Vietnam-era “Wild Weasel” or “Hunter-Killer” concepts, where a bait aircraft would fly at low altitude in an attempt to gain enemy contact or draw fire, and a separate trail aircraft maintained enough lateral and/or vertical separation to immediately engage enemy forces that exposed themselves. By leveraging these tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) with an unmanned fleet, Azerbaijan was able to destroy the vast majority of Armenian air and missile defense equipment and establish tactical air superiority with minimal risk to force or mission. It is worth noting that traditional rotary wing assets were not used during these attacks. The high density of ADA systems across the battlefield presented too great a risk for more expensive manned aviation assets.

. . .

In addition to the apparent lack of Armenian counter-UAS (C-UAS) capability, the strikes clearly demonstrated the vulnerability of more advanced air defense systems when faced with an overwhelming UAS threat.

Fire and Maneuver

A number of reports indicate that Azeri special operations teams, also referred to as “saboteur groups” by both Baku and Yerevan, infiltrated Armenian territory and occupied vacant houses days before combat operations began. Ethnic Armenians in the local area verified these reports and highlighted that “strange men, not Armenians” had established a presence in the town. After initial UAS strikes decimated Armenian positions and opened gaps in defensive lines, the small groups of Azeri operators were able to seize key terrain with minimal resistance. With the use of UAS, the Azeri saboteur groups were then able to call-for-fire, directing accurate rocket, artillery, and air-to-ground fire onto designated targets. It is currently unknown whether these saboteur groups leveraged any type of manned-unmanned-teaming platform (i.e., a One System Remote Video Terminal equivalent) to receive live video, identify targets, or conduct battle damage assessments. These tactics demonstrated a variety of similarities to NATO operations in Afghanistan, where U.S. Special Operations Forces use unmanned platforms and laser range finder/designators to direct laser-guided and precision munitions onto targets, or sparkle targets to aid in directing unguided munitions onto target.

In the highly mountainous terrain of Nagorno-Karabakh, where movement by dismounted troops is slow, cumbersome, and restrictive for large military equipment like tanks, UAS serve as an equalizer that limits the advantage provided by elevated terrain and the cover and concealment it offers. The inhospitality of the terrain is amplified when small areas of low ground within the rising terrain provide little vegetation for concealment. Outposts and fighting positions in mountainous terrain can be identified and destroyed by UAS outfitted with modern sensor payloads and organic weapons. This is particularly applicable to fighting positions without appropriate passive defense measures (i.e., camouflaging, target hardening, etc.). When UAS do not have organic munitions and another UAS or manned platform is unable to support a remote engagement, UAS can transmit highly accurate grid coordinates to artillery or multiple launch rocket systems, enabling immediate “fire-for-effect” capability that yields accuracy to within ten meters of the intended point of impact.

There’s more at the link, including a useful analysis of lessons learned.

Once again, I feel like a dinosaur when it comes to military tactics, techniques and technology.  Our war in southern Africa was a whole lot less sophisticated (although no less deadly) than the modern battlefield has become.  Effectively, the era of massed troops is over on the high-tech battlefield.  Large numbers of troops have become nothing more than large numbers of targets to an enemy equipped with the latest technology.

The USA has always relied on its technological edge to give it operational superiority over opponents.  The Nagorno-Karabak conflict demonstrates that even a minor power can now buy off-the-shelf systems and weapons that can match US capabilities, and render the result on the battlefield a lot less certain than it used to be.  Imagine if Iraq had had such systems when we invaded there in 2003 . . . we’d have paid a much higher price in blood than we did, even if we eventually won.  Whether or not modern American people would stand for that is questionable.  We’ve grown a lot softer as a nation since our grandfathers and great-grandfathers fought World War II.



  1. Just a matter of time until we see the counter UAV systems start to proliferate… Then it will be interesting, as air battles will take place against the UAVs 'manned' by kids with joysticks on the ground.

  2. Ukraine already demonstrated some of the effectiveness of UAS, especially when pushed down to the company, platoon, and in some cases, even squad level as the Russians have done. If those drones detected any transmissions on certain frequencies, following Russian artillery doctrine, they'd just wax the grid square. Happened more than once, and even caught some of our observers that went over.

    With the US Army's decision to divest itself of jamming capabilities, and the lack of investment in integral ADA and over-reliance on theater level air defenses, we would still get chewed up and spit out today. The chaparral and linebacker systems are good, but, IMO, we really need something to replace the old M163 Vulcan air defense vehicle, especially in light of the proliferation of inexpensive, small, and deadly UAS.

  3. Good article.

    Azerbaijan got Everything it wanted in territory, and out spent the Armenians 6 to 1. Perhaps this is like the Sam and anti tank missile pivot that changed tactics due to the yom kipper 73 war.

    I’m not seeing very effective anti uas defenses yet. Anti missile like the patriot are over kill.

    My guess there was massive Turkish help, beyond just arms sales, that helped the Azerbaijan side.

    Still, troubling changes that I’m Not sure the us military is even thinking about, much less adapting too.

  4. Something entirely overlooked in the above tale:

    All those UAVs were operating in a hugely "permissive" UAV environment.
    1) The enemy was not expecting them.
    2) No jamming was present.
    3) Even had they been expecting them, they had no adequate defenses.

    The lessons of the above story are that people with technology will beat any force that is figuratively or literally "savages with spears", in any situation where they can work within their own envelope, and outside the enemy's.

    There is, literally, nothing much to see here.
    Other than "don't charge a mini-gun with leather shields and clubs", etc. etc.

    In a non-permissive environment, the drones themselves would be detected and interdicted, and anything emanating would get a missile up their @$$ at about Mach 5, or the exact same counter-battery fire they were calling down, coming the other way.

    In other news, battleships don't beat carriers, broadsides don't beat surface-to-surface missiles, and cavalry with lances don't defeat panzer blitzkriegs.

    One side leveraged tech because they could. The other side was clueless.

    Don't be clueless.

    Clueless gets you Pearl Harbored.

    "Fat, drunk, and stupid is no way to go through life, boy." – Dean Wormer, Faber College

    But the "Fool Me Once" corollary is, any enemy can have one Pearl Harbor victory.
    But the payback is a b*tch.
    Usually on a biblical level.

  5. the American Public is about to have a chance to decide just HOW MUCH Blood and Treasure we are willing to see spilt in someone ELSE's behalf.
    once the American panjandrums and perfumed princes finish chasing the NOT unwilling Ukrainians up the flagpole and thus drop the Green Flag on an, at best, lukewarm start invasion, we will get a chance to decide just how much blood we're willing to spill.
    MY suspicion is that we Plebs are MUCH LESS interested in watering some other people's land with our blood.

    The next 2-3 months WILL tell the tale on THAT issue.

    Distressingly, there are even more inflammatory issues in our OWN areas of operations, which may ALSO give us pause as to where we REALLY WANT to spend our young people's blood.
    ANTIFA and BLM are JUST beginning to rev themselves up. You didn't REALLY think the shot callers could ACTUALLY start and stop them on a dime, did you??
    Useful idiots are only useful while they can be directed. when they free-lance EN MASSE then issues develop.
    Gonna be a LONG HOT MARCHING SEASON (Summer as well).

    Night Driver

  6. Future nation state war will be a lot more expensive that's for sure. Stealth bombers loaded with EMP bombs and droppable semi autonomous swarm drones (aka slaughter bots) would make excellent genocide weapons if they could get through air defenses.

    This means everyone now needs much better air defenses which makes wealth asymmetry back to the "for we have the Maxim Gun, and they have not" stage.

    Think of it this way a small drone is about $50 US assuming you can deliver enough of these with small explosive payloads you can render an urban area mostly uninhabitable pretty cheaply. Its also great against agricultural land something like a smarter sneakier FASCAM system.

    We haven't quite yet managed the solar recharge or the autonomy and linger software but its all within our grasp.

    Both the YouTube film Slaughter Bots and the Black Mirror episode Metalhead show possible if cinematic outcomes of such tech.

    The more current issue though is essentially as Aesop put it though as others here have noted the US is way behind the curve and frankly in no shape for a real fight against a peer power.

    Until the Reds are gone from office we won't be up for it as we don't encourage the kind of society that is capable of military ops or tech. We don't even make our own stuff domestically or have enough rare earths , nuke parts, tritium and so on for the job.

  7. as always, our military industrial complex is ready to fight, the last war. now the intel swamp has blinded them to the treat as well so it will be a long learning curve in blood. we'll likely pull thru in the end, if we don't get destroyed in the first few seconds of the conflict. hard to fight deaf, blind, lost, with no power, no money, no fuel and no friends. just ask hitler.

  8. Could a cheap air defense system be created that would cope with these cheap drones? I remember a post, I believe here, asking the question if ship defenses could be overwhelmed by a large number of cheap drones. this is the same thing, only land based. How was this much different than the antitank parachute munitions that scan for a target after release and then rocket into the target? If drones become dominant in the air, is the logical response drones on the ground to minimize personal losses?
    Tactically, it's been standard for artillery to relocate after firing to avoid anti-barrage return the fire. Maybe the response to this will be for anti-air assets to also be more mobile?

  9. The limitations on these high-tech tactics will be, as usual, the ability to manufacture sufficient quantities of the tools to implement them, and lack of inventiveness of the countering forces.

    American manufacturing might, combined with Soviet willingness to spend lives, won WWII.

    The US has given up its manufacturing might, and has since the beginning of the 20th century, at least, been unwilling to spend the live, and both look to be unlikely to change.

    Confrontation with China is going to be painful.


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