The effective use of precision strike assets by Azeri forces in the ongoing Nagorno-Karabakh conflict illustrates how the precision revolution has spread beyond great powers.
Over three decades have passed since Armenian separatists seized much of the Nagorno-Karabakh region from Azerbaijan. Since then, Armenia has prevailed in the intermittent clashes over the disputed territory. But, in 2020, a range of new Azeri capabilities, employed as part of a coherent campaign plan, has drastically altered the balance in the Caucasus.
When Azerbaijan started its offensive on 27 September, its initial thrusts to seize villages overlooking key road links were fiercely resisted by Armenian forces. Both sides took casualties, but with an important difference. Azeri casualties were concentrated in the frontline manoeuvre elements conducting the attacks, and Azeri tanks were knocked out by anti-tank guided missiles. This is what one would expect, with the Azeris taking more losses when attacking.
By contrast, Armenian casualties were distributed throughout the depth of the battlespace. The Azeris used long-range fires and UAVs to strike assembly areas, command posts, logistics and manoeuvre elements as they approached the combat area. The effect of this approach has been that while Armenian forces have fought well in the close battle, they have become less effective as the conflict continued and reinforcements and resupply faltered. Azerbaijan has subsequently made significant territorial gains.
Azerbaijan’s concept of operations is far from revolutionary, resembling the US AirLand Battle doctrine. But Azerbaijan has a defence budget of under $2 billion. That a country such as Azerbaijan was able to effect precision strikes at operational depth – once thought to be the sole preserve of great powers – by using a range of relatively cheap tools to substitute for its lack of a robust air force is strategically noteworthy. In the future, Western forces should anticipate a robust, layered threat to the safety of their rear areas, even when facing sub-peer opponents.
Ballistic Missile Proliferation
One of the more notable events of the conflict was Azerbaijan’s use of an Israeli-made LORA ballistic missile to target a bridge on the Akari river connecting Armenia with Nagorno-Karabakh, complicating Armenia’s transfer of reinforcements to the front. The LORA features several characteristics which have transformed the role of ballistic missiles including GPS and TV terminal guidance. Moreover, it flies within the Earth’s atmosphere on a quasi-ballistic trajectory, enabling course corrections, which reduces the circular error probable (CEP) of the LORA to around 10 metres. This has made it possible to strike targets which previous generations of ballistic missiles with CEPs of up to 900 metres could not reliably hit.
Armenia’s response illustrates the difference in effect. Armenia used Tochka-U and Scud-B missiles, with respective CEPs of 150 and 900 metres against cities such as Ganja and Mingachevir, as they were unable to target specific military targets. This difference is indicative of the step change in threat that Western forces now face when conducting expeditionary operations. Whereas sub-peer adversaries were historically constrained in their use of conventionally armed ballistic missiles as a terror weapon – as during the Iran–Iraq war – they now field the ability to responsively strike military logistics hubs and critical infrastructure.
The Azeris are not exceptional in fielding such capabilities. The Russian Iskander and its North Korean derivative, the KN-25, also follow a quasi-ballistic trajectory with precision guidance. China has an array of long-range missiles fielded and in development. Iran has developed a manoeuvrable re-entry vehicle for its Raad-500 missile. These capabilities are increasingly exported, whether covertly as with Iran’s support to Yemen’s Houthis or via foreign military sales. In fact, Armenia has Iskander missiles, though it has yet to employ them.
Loitering Munitions and Strike UAS
Perhaps the most widely commented upon Azeri capability has been its UAVs, not least because of the kill-cam footage the Azeri Ministry of Defence has been publishing on social media.
Air breathing precision strike assets such as the Israeli Harop loitering munition have been utilised extensively by Azerbaijan. The most notable use of the Harop was its role in a strike against an Armenian S-300 surface-to-air missile (SAM) site in Shuskakend. Loitering munitions such as the Harpy and the Harop are functionally similar to cruise missiles, with ranges from 500 to 1000 km, but have different propulsion systems and carry smaller payloads. Their payloads are nonetheless sufficient to target high value points of failure, such as the radar of SAM systems, using either antiradiation homing or a combination of infra-red and electro optical sensors. While slower than cruise missiles, they can loiter over the battlespace for longer to designate their own targets.
The second capability has been the use of Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 UAVs. With a reasonable loiter time and guided munitions, these have allowed Azeri forces to launch hunter-killer raids into the Armenian rear to find and interdict Armenian forces. They have also provided intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance feeds enabling the accurate employment of artillery and multiple launch rocket systems that lack guidance, turning cheap conventional capabilities into deadly long-range fires systems. Together these have so far destroyed over 100 Armenian T72 main battle tanks of varying vintages.
As with ballistic missiles, loitering munitions and medium-endurance strike capable UAVs are proliferating widely, with multiple competing exporters. Israel, Turkey and China export comparable platforms worldwide. Russia makes extensive use of UAVs in its reconnaissance strike complexes. Iran has both manufactured comparable capabilities and provided them to its proxies. Western forces must therefore expect to face these threats in most operating environments.
Fighting at the Seams of the Battlefield
These capabilities represent a significant challenge for expeditionary armies because they function at the seams of existing defences, which are rarely optimised against them. Quasi-ballistic missiles fly much of their trajectory at altitudes of roughly 40 km to exploit the seams between air and missile defences. They can fly under the radar horizon of a ballistic missile defence radar such as the AN/TPY-2 radar of a THAAD battery. They fly too low to be intercepted by ballistic missile defence interceptors which do not function optimally within the denser parts of the earth’s atmosphere but fly too high for air defence interceptors to engage.
Loitering munitions present comparable challenges. Their small size confers advantages with regards to evading detection by radar, which likely facilitated the Azerbaijani infiltration of the Armenian SAM site. Loitering munitions are sufficiently cheap to be used in larger numbers. The Harpy, for example, has a unit cost of around $70,000. Such assets can thus inundate systems based around expensive interceptors designed to target high-value aircraft. High-end air defences may be able to hit them, but they do so at risk of exposure to traditional strike assets.
Strike UAS can also present difficulties. With a range of approximately 10 km on its MAM-L smart micro munitions, the TB2 sits beyond the engagement range of most short-range air defence (SHORAD) systems. The TB2 is also not an optimal target for medium-range SAM systems intended to catch fast jets. The easiest way to knock out a TB2 is to attack the command link with electronic warfare. This, however, requires emitting a great deal of energy, which can itself be used by the enemy to target systems.
None of these capabilities are alone transformative. Ballistic missiles are few in number and the threat can be partially mitigated through dispersion. Appropriate electronic warfare and SHORAD systems can knock out loitering munitions and strike UAVs. These defences will need to engage targets more economically than current systems which were built to intercept a smaller number of more expensive targets. Failure to do so can result in unfavourable cost exchanges – typified by recent Israeli and Saudi uses of Patriot missiles to engage UAVs which cost several hundred dollars to build. While the systems engaged their targets successfully, even wealthy countries can only afford a limited number of expensive interceptors which cost between $1.5 and $5 million per shot. Even poor attackers can field cheap strike assets en masse to overwhelm these systems by sheer weight of numbers. As they are much cheaper than traditional air forces, these threats will proliferate, and Western armies must be able to counter them if they are to project combat power across the modern battlefield.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
Dr Jack Watling
Research Fellow, Land Warfare
Dr Sidharth Kaushal
Research Fellow, Sea Power