Drones are playing a big role in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Israeli, Turkish, Russian and locally produced drones and loitering munitions figure in the conflict and account for most losses especially by Armenia, which has lost armored vehicles, multiple rocket launchers and air defense platforms.

Azerbaijan says it also has taken out an Armenian S-300 surface to air missile system, using an Israeli Harop. Armenia denies the claim.

The Harop is a “suicide drone” manufactured by Israel Aerospace Industries (formerly Israel Aircraft Industries) and is classified as a loitering munition. Harop is an anti-radiation drone that can autonomously home in on radio emissions and is optimized to go after air defense systems.

Sometimes also called Harpy 2, Harop features a stealthy airframe design making its detection and interception by enemy air defenses difficult. It also has a low thermal signature, meaning that IR weapons can’t effectively track Harop, and its sleek body makes visual location and identification difficult.

Harop also has electro-optical guidance so it can be used against non-radiating targets or against radars and missile defenses that are switched off.

Harop can loiter over a battle area for some 6 hours and has a range of around 1,000 kilometers (620 miles).  It has a 23-kilogram warhead built into the body of the vehicle.  An advantage for the Harop system is that when a radar is turned on, as a loitering system it can autonomously react and attack the source of the radar emissions.

A Harop ‘suicide’ drone test launch in a file photo. Image: Twitter

Israel has also supplied a number of other drones and loitering munitions to Azerbaijan including SkyStrikerOrbiter 1KOrbiter 3ThunderBHermes 450Hermes 900 and Heron TP.

SkyStriker, manufactured by Israel’s Elbit systems, is much smaller than the Harop, it can loiter for around two hours with a five-kilogram warhead and has a range of 20 kilometers.  SkyStriker is definitely part of the operational mix in the current conflict and Armenia has claimed to have shot some of them down.

Turkey’s armed drones Bayraktar TB2 are also being used in the current fighting.  No one is sure who is operating them, although given Turkey’s aggressive support for Azerbaijan it is a reasonable guess the unmanned combat Bayraktars (or UCAVs, for unmanned combat aerial vehicles) are operated by Turkish forces.

Turkey has been shipping tons of weapons into Azerbaijan and has supplied Syrian mercenaries, as it has also done in Libya.

The Bayraktar UCAV showed its effectiveness against Russian-supplied equipment in Syria and Libya. In Libya Bayraktars are credited for killing three Pantsir Air Defense systems – one of them, at least, on the road when it was hit.

Previously, on March 3, the Bayraktar knocked out a Pantsir system in Idlib province belonging to the Syrian Army, and a second Pantsir was destroyed in Syria along with various radars, also in Idlib province, on March 11.

Bayraktar carries a  laser-guided Smart micro munition system under production by Turkey’s Roketsan, known as MAM-L.

MAM-L has a 22 kg warhead and is laser guided. There are four different types of warheads available for MAM-L.  The one reported in use in Nagorno-Karabakh features anti-personnel submunitions.

It is difficult to get an accurate picture from either side on what has been destroyed by drones and loitering munitions.

The Bayraktar UCAV in a file photo. Image: Wikimedia

Judging from reports circulating on Twitter, it appears that loitering munitions have been able to knock out high-value air defense targets.  But many other target3e armored vehicles including tanks (principally T-72 Russian tanks used by both sides) have been hit either by Harop or other loitering munitions or by Bayraktar. 

Numerous videos of successful strikes by Bayraktar are featured on Twitter. As of September 27, Stijn Mitzer in collaboration with Jakub Janovsky had published a fairly detailed accounting at Oryx. But, as the authors note, the actual losses are probably higher than they are able to document and report.

The Oryx report shows that the most important Armenian air defense equipment destroyed were three 9K35 Strela-10 air defense systems (known as the SA-13 Gopher by NATO) and six 9k33 Osa (known as SA-8 Gecko by NATO). Both these systems are fairly old ones and it appears that none of them were able to detect or respond to an incoming threat.

Fairly clearly, the modern battlespace is being redefined by loitering munitions and armed drones. These kinds of weapons are relatively cost effective, are unmanned, and can cause significant damage by degrading enemy air defenses.

While it is quite true that a fairly large number of these drones have been shot down, in terms of high-value targets they have shown themselves to be successful.

An image grab taken from a video made available on the official web site of the Azerbaijani Defence Ministry on September 28, 2020, allegedly shows Azeri artillery strike towards the positions of Armenian separatists in the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Photo: AFP

While neither side has the ability to use swarming drones as a battlefield tactic, other countries including China and Iran are working on  swarming tactics. That could make the battlefield even more complicated from a defender’s point of view in the future.

Others are using decoy drones as a tactic to “occupy” air defense systems and lure them to switch on their radars. Israel has used its Delilah cruise missile as a decoy for this purpose, but there are cheaper alternatives.

The really serious question facing the two adversaries in Nagorno Karabakh is: What happens after they run out of sophisticated UCAVs and loitering munitions?