War teaches and preaches many lessons. The recent Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, which ended in a Russian-brokered ceasefire on November 7, 2020, is the first major interstate war fought between conventional forces in the past several years. Azerbaijan regained its territory by seizing the districts of Agdam, Lachin and Kalbajar in the aftermath of this war. While Armenia still enjoys the control of seven districts that it had captured in the earlier conflict during the 1990s, its loss of the city of Shusha is a notable one. Despite the heavy ammunition loss that each nation inflicted upon the other, the highest price was paid in the form of human casualties, and Azerbaijan seemed to have gambled there more than Armenia. As a modern kinetic war, this skirmish offers doctrinal lessons regarding the use of technology in warfare. Moreover, it provides a unique insight into how the future of warfare is likely to develop.
As Clausewitz long argued, “War is nothing more than the continuation of politics by other means… For political aims are the end and war is the means, and the means can never be conceived without the end”. This war by every lens of analysis was, in fact, a pursuit of political objectives via the employment of modern apparatuses of warcraft, and it proved that victory is dependent on the political situation during which war takes place. Russia did not provide outward support to Armenia like it could have done, and the United States’ role was limited to reporting, owing to its recent policies of global restraint. Turkey went all out for the Azerbaijani side, not just in terms of provision of hardware but also assisting with the formation of battle strategy, which proved decisive in turning the wind in Azerbaijan’s favour.
President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan was said to be preparing for this conflict for quite some time, with the assistance of his Turkish allies. The clear sense of military objectives, political gains, and the geopolitical equation contributed to the war’s overall outcome. Compared to Armenia, Azerbaijan’s massive military budget was instrumental in the sense that it helped Baku in acquiring crucial military gears just before the confrontation. Due to the country’s energy resources sale, it was able to modernise its military through modern technology, better weaponry, drones, air defence systems and state of the art tools for propaganda warfare. The tools of this military advancement had a variety of origins, such as Israel, Turkey, and Russia, thus giving Azerbaijan an upper hand.
This war also reiterated the need to bridge the gap between military reality and leaders’ perceptions.
Drones proved to be the element of surprise for Armenia, which was largely using musty, outdated military equipment and relying primarily upon decades-old Soviet defence systems. Azerbaijan used Turkish made Bayraktar drones that can carry the bomb load up to 55kg, for precise targeting of Armenian defence systems. Israeli-made Kamikaze drones IAI Harop, which can carry 10-15kg bomb loads and are very delicate to be picked up by most service radar systems, were also employed. It shows that if a country enters a modern conflict without capabilities of mitigating the role of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISRs) and stopping unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) (as Armenia did), it will face a considerable number of casualties. In such a scenario, it does not matter how efficient the country’s infantry is or how coherent is its armoured corps. Out of a total of 230 functioning Armenian tanks, 133 were annihilated, 93 were captured, and 5 suffered minor damages.
It seems that JFC Fuller’s premonition regarding tanks exclusively ruling modern battlefields has been proven wrong. Aerial technology and the use of drones on engaging battlefields have appeared deadlier and have started to inflict swift damages to the adversary. However, tanks are also not entirely obsolete because a light infantry alone does not provide sufficient defence. Fuller was indeed correct to declare, “As the present age is largely a mechanical one, so will the armies of this age take on a similar complexion”.
Moreover, due to technological advances enabling armies to keep a check on each other, manoeuvre warfare in today’s time has become increasingly difficult. The widespread use of mobile phones or even GPS systems, which emit a signal and are not encrypted, makes it easy for an army to be hit through precise guided mutations. An adversary who has access to cheap, high-quality sensors (such as Azerbaijan) to defend itself against camouflage cannot be made to face “multiple dilemmas” in the traditional sense. It means that new passive defence methods are required, which would try to get the upper hand over the opponent through manoeuvre and reconnaissance. However, they would have to overcome technological barriers, such as sensors.
Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has brought to light the technological advances in military capabilities, the revolutionary power of drone technology, the need to revise manoeuvre tactics, the significance of war propaganda and the importance of well-established alliances in conventional warfare.
The advancement in technology also has implications for the terrain aspect of warfare. Nagorno-Karabakh is a mountainous region that could have been a geographical constraint for Azerbaijan, and the Armenians thought that they could defend it. However, superior Azeri technology overcame the difficult terrain and distance by using drones. This war also reiterated the need to bridge the gap between military reality and leaders’ perceptions. In reality, Azerbaijan had a qualitative superiority over Armenia owing to its technology and Turkish support, but the Armenian Prime Minister did not pay heed to it. His perception was not in line with the on-ground situation, resulting in Armenia suffering more losses than it needed to.
The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict also reveals the importance of propaganda during a war. Azeri drones had cameras that recorded footage showing the Armenian army being hit and destroyed. These clips were released within short intervals for the entire world to see, thus bolstering the Azeri image and enhancing their sense of victory.
The military and warfare implications of this conflict in the South Caucasus are well summarised in the following statement by Michael Kofman, a military analyst, “The use of autonomous or unmanned systems is simply the latest evolution in the modern character of war. They hold implications for the survivability of ground forces, the efficacy of contemporary air defense and the need to think differently about terrain and maneuver (sic)”. In other words, the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has brought to light the technological advances in military capabilities, the revolutionary power of drone technology, the need to revise manoeuvre tactics, the significance of war propaganda and the importance of well-established alliances in conventional warfare. It should, however, be noted that nuclear capabilities were not involved in this war; the situation would have looked very different if they were. Nevertheless, this war provides a unique insight into how warfare has been reformed with technological advancement.