A man stands amid the debris of a house destroyed by a rocket strike during the military conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, in a residential area of the city of Ganja, Azerbaijan, on October 21, 2020. Photo: AFP / Tofik Babayev

One thing that wars offer third parties is the opportunity to evaluate weapons employed in real conflicts, as opposed to simulated exhibitions. This is important for tactical as well as procurement reasons.

In this regard, the recent war over the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh between Armenia and Azerbaijan was notable for three things: the absence of Western-sourced armaments, the continuing effectiveness of generations-old equipment from Russia, and the cost-effective potency of weaponry from Turkey and Israel.

From September 27 to November 10, 2020, Armenia and Azerbaijan fought an all-out war over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. The outcome of the brief, intense conflict was the opposite of the first war between the two, in the early 1990s, in which Armenia emerged the victor.

This time, Azerbaijani forces decimated their Armenian opponents on the battlefield and captured large swaths of territory before a Russian-backed truce brought the fighting to a halt.

There has been plenty of ink spilled on the advanced weaponry that drove Azerbaijan’s military victory. In particular, the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drone has been heralded as the weapon that won the war, an assessment that, in large part (though not completely), holds true.

Footage released by Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defense showed dozens of strikes daily by the TB2’s guided MAM-L munitions, systematically destroying Armenian air-defense systems, tanks, artillery and even troop formations.

TB2s were not the only Turkish equipment Baku deployed, however. Azerbaijan bought US$123 million worth of armaments from Ankara in the first nine months of 2020, a sixfold increase over 2019. Along with previous purchases, this gave Baku an array of Turkish-made armored cars, multiple rocket-launcher systems and guided munitions, most of which were employed in some fashion in the autumn war.

Advanced Israeli armaments also played a key role. Azerbaijan has purchased as much as $5 billion worth of Israeli military technology in just over a decade, the majority of it focused on precision-guided munitions and drone technology.

Both proved highly effective in this war: Israeli LORA quasi-ballistic missiles were used for strikes on critical infrastructure in the Armenian rear, while IAI Harop loitering munitions (also known as “suicide” or “kamikaze” drones) were employed against armored vehicles and infantry. Perhaps the most impressive of these was the Israeli-made Spike NLOS (non-line of sight) guided missile, which struck targets up to 25 kilometers away.

Regular military flights between Azerbaijan and Israel continued multiple times daily for the duration of the war, highlighting the close nature of military cooperation between the two.

But while the flashy new regional tech stole the show, the crucial role of Russian equipment has been played down. Russian-manufactured tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and rocket artillery formed the backbone of Azerbaijan’s ground forces, without which none of the gains made would have been possible.

Roughly $5 billion worth of Russian arms purchases between 2008 and 2013 fleshed out the majority of Baku’s arsenal, a necessity before the country could consider the qualitative advantages provided by more specialized Turkish and Israeli equipment.

Nowhere was this more visible than in Azerbaijan’s armor. Despite being a nearly half-century-old platform, the T-72 main battle tank remains the armored fighting platform of choice for smaller nations without the luxury of developing their own indigenous variants, or the ability to buy Western options.

Azerbaijan’s T-72 fleet in particular, heavily upgraded with advanced sensor equipment and reactive armor to resist anti-tank munitions, forms nearly the entirety of the Azerbaijan armed forces’ tank wing. A similar combination of adaptability, affordability and availability underscored the rationale for loading up on Russian BMP infantry fighting vehicles to support ground advances.

Air superiority might decide a war, but ground forces bear the responsibility for making gains on the ground.

Armenia, meanwhile, had little to show in terms of recent military purchases – largely the result of simply lacking the oil wealth of Azerbaijan.

Worse, Yerevan had spent its scant revenues on systems that played no role in fighting. Armenia’s four Su-30 jets, acquired several years ago at a total cost of $130 million, were not even deployed, while its Russian-made Iskander ballistic missiles (another post-2016 acquisition) made their first and only appearance on the last day of the war. Neither appears to have been money well spent.

The lessons here for other regional militaries are stark. The war demonstrates that a qualitative edge, employed effectively, can very much shift the battlefield in an aggressor’s favor, even when attacking into long-prepared defensive positions.

While many elements of the Armenian military performance could have been improved, the ultimate outcome of this battle likely would have been the same. Prospective arms buyers and military tacticians now have had a demonstration in Karabakh of the effectiveness of weapons from Israel and Turkey.

And then, there are the drones. One of the upsides of drone usage, especially smaller, comparatively low-cost models, is the paucity of effective countermeasures against them. Consider how even a well-armed state with its own extensive advanced arms industry, Russia, approaches the drone problem.

At Khmeimim, the main Russian airbase in Syria, a complex matrix of integrated air defense is employed to counter even the rudimentary drone threat from nearby Syrian rebel groups. This consists of numerous air defense systems – Pantsirs, Tor M-2s and S-400s – alongside electronic warfare equipment, at a total cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.

The Bayraktar TB2’s cost? A mere $5 million per unit, and the Israeli Harop even less (perhaps half a million dollars at most).

The “drone revolution” demonstrated in Karabakh through Turkish- and Israeli-supplied Azerbaijani weaponry has perhaps been oversold, but in many ways it is very real, and bears lessons that cannot be ignored.

While drones will never take and hold territory, something a modern ground force will always be necessary for, Turkey and Israel now have a formidable showcase of what their technology is capable of, which others in the region should want to pay attention to.

Military affairs are a constant race between technological advancements in offensive and defensive technology, and the former, as the recent Karabakh war aptly demonstrated, currently has the upper hand.

This article was provided by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

Usually based in Tbilisi, Georgia, Neil Hauer is currently working from Yerevan, Armenia.

Neil Hauer

Neil Hauer is a security analyst based in Tbilisi, Georgia. His work focuses on the Syrian conflict, particularly Russia’s role; politics and minorities in the South Caucasus; and violence and politics in the North Caucasus, particularly Chechnya and Ingushetia.