If you look at the video put out by the Azerbaijan Defense Ministry and at other photos taken in and around Shusha, it is clear the city has fallen without any need for heavy artillery, rockets or even drone attacks that have otherwise characterized the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

For all intents and purposes, the Nagorno-Karabakh war will end in not much more than a week to 10 days and Azerbaijan will retake all or most of the territory it lost to Armenia in 1991-92.

Once Azeri forces took the Lachin corridor and controlled the only road from Armenia into Shusha, the city’s fall was certain since without supplies the remaining “army” holding it could not fight.  

Part of the reason the road was cut was that a key bridge connecting Armenia to Shusha was knocked out by a precision Israeli missile called LORA (for LOng RAnge). Without the bridge, Armenia could not move supplies or troops in to relieve Shusha, nor could it pull troops out before they were trapped.

Unlike the Russian-supplied missiles and artillery in the hands of the Armenians and Azerbaijanis, none of those weapons were accurate enough to do much more than strike terror into civilian populations. LORA appears to have changed the game in breaking Armenia’s defense of Shusha.

Drones are accurate but do not carry heavy enough explosives to take out major infrastructure. 

For example, the Roketsan MAM-L rocket used on Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones weighs 21.5 kilograms, or 47 pounds, and when subtracting the rocket’s case and propellant the warhead size is considerably smaller. Comparatively, LORA’s warhead is 570kg.

A Turkish Bayraktar TB2 military drone. Photo: AFP/Muhammed Enes Yildirim/Anadolu Agency

The last step in the war will be Stepanakert. This small city with a population of less than 60,000, served as the capital of the so-called Artsakh Republic. Artsakh was not recognized by any country other than Armenia, which backed its creation.

There has been a huge exodus of people from Stepanakert, especially in the last few days. While not yet clear in the fog of war, it is likely that many of the Armenian fighters will also pull out.

During the previous war, Nagorno-Karabakh and a number of adjacent territories that clearly were Azerbaijani – including territory along the border with Iran – were captured by Armenian forces. 

Armenia never handed back these lands and carried out what the Azerbaijan government claims was “ethnic cleansing” in them. Last week, the Armenian-held Azerbaijani towns along the Iranian border including Fuzuli, Hadrut, Jabrayi, Gubadli and Zangilan were captured by Azeri forces.

On November 9, Azeri forces shot down a Russian Mil Mi-24 helicopter gunship piloted by two Russians who were killed. The attack helicopter was over Armenian territory but very close to the border. The Azerbaijan government immediately apologized to Moscow, which said it would investigate the incident.

Military lessons

There are three early military lessons from the Nagorno-Karabakh war.  

Precision weapons matter. This is the first and most important lesson of the war. The use of drones, loitering munitions and precision missiles changed the conflict’s outcome. The steady destruction of Armenian hardware including tanks, vehicles, artillery, rocket launchers and air defenses demonstrated that these new weapons were decisive.

The Russian newspaper Sputnik reported that Armenia lost 241 battle tanks, four S-300s and two Scud Elbrus tactical missile systems while Azerbaijani troops captured 39 tanks and 24 BMPs

Tanks that Azeri army officials said were seized during the ongoing fighting with Armenia over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region in the town of Beylagan on October 5, 2020. Photo: AFP/Tofik Babayev

These are staggering losses. For the record, the number of tanks reported lost is more than the number of tanks publically listed in the Armenian army inventory. But the fact that the Russians are reporting the number is significant since these are all Russian-made battle tanks (T90s and T-72s). 

The loss of four S-300s is also a major victory against a top Russian system. The Sputnik report does not cover other air defense systems knocked out by Azerbaijani drones.  Nor does the Sputnik report cover the destruction of two types of multiple launch rocket systems used by Armenia – the Smersh BM 30 MLRS and Grad BM-21 MLRS.

Videos have shown both types of MLRS destroyed by Turkish drones. 

In comparison, Azeri losses were much smaller. According to at least one report, Azerbaijan lost 26 tanks (models not specified) and 24 drones (types not specified but mainly Bayraktar TB2 drones). Azerbaijan appears to have lost some surveillance drones and at least one Harop.  

None of the loss figures should be considered authoritative or accurate. However, Azerbaijan has published numerous videos of drone attack successes showing destroyed tanks, BMP armored personnel carriers, Smersh and Grad multiple launch rocket systems, command centers and troop transports replete with flying bodies to make clear they had great success in this kind of warfare.

So much success that in the case of a wider conflict Armenia would have had little equipment to fight back against Azerbaijan.

An officer shows a Smerch rocket before demining it in the village of Tap-Qaragoyunlu, about 60km from city of Ganja, on October 24, 2020. Photo: AFP/Tofik Babayev

Air power played almost no role in the fighting. According to the Azeri Ministry of Defense, Azeri forces shot down three Armenian Su-25s. The Su-25 is primarily a ground attack aircraft that the Russians still use and which is in the inventories of many countries. 

While it has been upgraded, the Su-25 is slow, subsonic and lacks a modern missile warning system. Su-25s were shot down by Turkey’s F-16s in Syria and Libya. At least one of the three shot down in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was taken out by a Turkish F-16 deployed to Azerbaijan. 

Azerbaijan says the other two Su-25s were destroyed by Azerbaijan’s S-300 system.

One of the key lessons for Russia and its clients and partners is that the Su-25 should be retired sooner rather than later.

Both countries have small and mostly outdated air forces. Whether in the future that will change is not clear.

Armenia has four Su-30 fighters in its inventory and has apparently ordered eight more. These are formidable aircraft but if they were used in the war they would have found themselves up against Turkey’s superior F-16s. 

A Turkish F-16 in a file photo. Photo: AFP/Adem Altan

This is a confrontation the Russians did not want to happen, as it would have meant a bigger war with more Turkish Air Force assets committed to the fight. Turkey shares a border with Armenia.

Clearly, Turkey checkmated any use of more advanced airpower by Armenia and Russia, which made it clear it did not want the Su-30s in the fight.

Loitering munitions and unique tactics destroyed Russian-supplied air defenses. The Israeli loitering munition known as Harop was very effective in destroying Russia-supplied S-300s and other systems that use radar for surveillance or targeting.

Harop has a range of 1,000 kilometers and can loiter for up to nine hours. It can be operated with a man in the loop or it can operate autonomously. In autonomous mode, it can’t be jammed electronically, meaning that if you detect it you must destroy it kinetically. 

Harop works by detecting a specified radiation source such as a working radar or a command post with active radio transmitters. Harop is extremely accurate with a CEP (circular error of probability of a hit) of less than one meter. It also features a stealthy design, making radar detection difficult.  

Russian air defenses had great difficulty in detecting drones. It is likely that the radars used in systems such as the S-300 are not capable of seeing small, lightweight drones, or by the time they see them the drones have already launched their weapons. 

The Harop and other loitering munitions are suicide drones, meaning that the drone crashes into the target. It was only late in the war when the Russians brought the Krakushka system into the conflict. 

Krakushka is a broadband multifunctional jamming station manufactured by KRET (“Concern Radio Electronic Technologies”), part of the Rostec Group that can take out a drone’s positive control system and cut off GPS signals. 

The Russian press reported that Krakushka managed to knock out about 12 Bayraktar drones. The Bayraktar requires a man in the loop. 

Most of the Bayraktar drone strikes and many of the videos taken by surveillance drones appear to be at relatively low altitude, perhaps 600 to 1,200 meters in height and about at a one-mile slant range from the target. This suggests very poor performance by Russian-made air defenses.

Azerbaijan also used a saturation tactic, flying An-2 biplanes over enemy targets to light up their radars, letting the drones come in from behind to knock them out. There are two reports on this: one has it that the AN-2 biplanes were automated and thus were not piloted. 

The other report is that the pilots flew the planes to near the target, tied ropes or belts around the control stick and then bailed out. The bail-out technique recalls the tragic Aphrodite mission in World War II where the US used as suicide bombers B-17 Flying Fortress and PB4Y bombers as munitions against bunkers and other hardened enemy facilities. 

In Aphrodite, the operators were supposed to bail out at the last moment. On one of those missions John F Kennedy’s older brother, Joseph Jr, lost his life. (For more information see Aphrodite: Desperate Mission by Jack Olsen.) 

It also partly recalls Japan’s Kamikaze missions, but here the pilots flew the aircraft directly into the target and were killed. 

Azerbaijan used the An-2s only as decoys. There is a report that at least one of the pilots died when bailing out.

A serviceman stands next to an S-300 surface-to-air missile system during missile firing drills at the Ashuluk training range in the Astrakhan region, Russia. Photo: AFP/Sergey Pivovarov/Sputnik

Conclusion

Russia will need to evaluate the performance of its weapons used in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Too many Russian-supplied major systems were knocked out and many of Russia’s better systems, such as the Smersh and S-300, were vulnerable to drone attacks and did not survive.

Turkey should be pleased with the excellent performance of the Bayraktar drones it supplied, although the survivability of these drones in future is uncertain. The Russians need to improve their air defenses, especially radars, and it is likely they will endeavor to do so.

Other countries, such as the United States, will also have to pay far more attention to counter-drone systems.

Israel has to be happy with Harop and LORA, both of which performed very well and probably account for knocking out high-value targets. One can expect sales for both products to rise accordingly.

Israel also supplied air defense systems to Azerbaijan including the Iron Dome and Barak 8. As yet there are no reports available on their performance.

Azerbaijan stayed in the fight and was far more professional than its forces were in 1991-1992. Its use of technology grafted on top of Russian-supplied hardware turned out to be decisive.

Armenia took a big hit in the war and lost many soldiers and most of its fighting capability. It will take years to replace the hardware. Manpower is another looming problem for the future, since Armenia is now badly exposed because of its overall losses.