The New Eurasian Drone Wars
Serious renewed violence broke out between the armed forces of Armenia and Azerbaijan last month (April 2–5, 2016), with fighting in the separatist Azerbaijani region of Karabakh reaching levels not seen since the ceasefire of 1994. One the distinctive features of the recent escalation, which has come to be known as the “Four Day War,” was the extensive use of sophisticated military hardware, including unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), for surveillance and reconnaissance missions, as well as for use in ground attacks. In fact, the Karabakh conflict may be the first-ever inter-state armed conflict in which drones have been deployed on specifically combat missions. While reports of downed enemy drones in and around Karabakh have been fairly commonplace in recent years, the deployment of UAVs to the so-called “Line of Contact” (LoC) received ample media coverage only after the recent fighting. Azerbaijan has downed three Armenian drones since the beginning of April, one of which was destroyed during the Four Day War (Trend, April 3), while two others were shot out of the sky in the following weeks (Azvision.az, April 7, Ann.az, April 19). Armenia claimed it had downed ten Azerbaijani UAVs during the four days of fighting, but only two cases were confirmed to date with video and photos (Ng.ru, April 22).
(This story was original published in the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Monitor)
The first ever known combat use of a “kamikaze drone” also reportedly took place during the recent fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia. On April 4, an online video surfaced showing a drone over Armenian positions in Karabakh that appeared to be an Israeli Aerospace Industries Harop (YouTube, April 4). According to the Armenian Ministry of Defense, the drone hit a bus carrying volunteers from Armenia’s Sisian region to the battlefield, leaving seven dead and several wounded (Panarmenian, April 11). One of the wounded later died in the hospital, on April 21 (News.am, April 21).
According to Azerbaijani sources that have not been officially confirmed, the Harop launched six precise shots during the fighting, destroying targets such as the 2S3 Akatsiya artillery system, Armenian air defense units, an assembly point of soldiers, and a military runway at an airbase (Azeridefence.com, February 20).
Following the Harop deployment, Armenia voiced sharp protests to Israel over its supply of modern weaponry to Azerbaijan (Massispost.com, April 11). Meanwhile, Armenian Deputy Defense Minister David Tonoyan confirmed that Yerevan had also been offered advanced military hardware by Israel, including drones, but that they had turned down the offer (Armedia.am, April 11). Despite criticism by Armenia, Israel will reportedly continue delivering new drones to Azerbaijan based on previous contracts (Panarmenian, April 12).
The first reports of Azerbaijan’s drone acquisition date back to 2008–2009, when the country purchased a number of Israeli UAVs, such as the Hermes 450, Aerostar and Orbiter M (Haqqin.az, August 7, 2015). In 2009, a contract was signed with Israel on co-manufacturing and assembling drones in Azerbaijan (Ng.ru, April 22, 2016). Domestic production was launched in March 2011, when President Ilham Aliyev inaugurated Azad Systems, a joint venture between Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defense Industry and Israeli drone manufacturer Aeronautics Industries (News.az, March 11, 2011).