On 10 November 2020, Azerbaijan and Armenia signed an agreement bringing all hostilities to an end. Russia managed to broker the agreement after Armenia agreed to surrender control of all Azerbaijani territory adjacent to Nagorno-Karabakh (which it had gained through war in the early 90s) and accept Azeri control of the Shusha district in southern Nagorno-Karabakh itself which the Azeri army had captured in the final phase of the war.
Three previous attempts by the Organisation of Security and Cooperation’s Minsk Group, led by Russia, had failed to bring the six-week war to an end.
The war which began with an Azeri offensive on September 27 has ended in Azerbaijan’s favour with most of its objectives fulfilled. Azerbaijan has regained seven of its districts, the southern district of Shusha and control over the Lachin corridor which will now be the only route linking Armenia with Nagorno-Karabakh. Under the agreement Azerbaijan has also got land access through Armenian territory to Nakhchiven, its exclave abutting the border with Iran.
These are impressive gains after Azerbaijan lost the war to Armenia in 1994. While the agreement allows the separatist Armenian oblast to retain its control sans the Shusha district captured by Azeri army, Baku has managed to gain psychological advantage over Yerevan.
There are lessons here at two levels: politico-strategic and military-operational. Consider.
Going to war requires years of preparation in terms of the working of the economy, strong diplomatic relations, increased defence spending linked essentially to a growing economic pie, training of forces, their configuration, patience, good planning and execution and retaining initiative.
These and other factors can be subsumed into the two-level analysis. Azerbaijan did all of this.
But why war? That’s the central lesson here. Despite the United Nations resolutions and UN’s acceptance of Nagorno-Karabakh as Azeri territory, Armenia and the separatists holding territory in N-K refused to budge or negotiate any settlement. Having won the war in 1994, they didn’t see any reason to engage with Baku in any meaningful way. The Minsk Group’s efforts constantly floundered because of Armenia’s refusal to entertain Azeri claims, not just with reference to N-K but also the Azeri territory adjacent to N-K and captured by Armenia in the 90s’ war.
Azerbaijan’s diplomatic overtures to resolve the issue were looked at as Baku’s military weakness.
Azerbaijan could either just swallow Armenian intransigence or wait for the right opportunity. It gambled on the latter.
But, and that’s important: war is serious business and cannot be undertaken lightly.
At the politico-strategic level, the growing differential between Azeri and Armenian economies unfolded in Baku’s favour. The bigger economy (oil revenues, tourism, higher exports etc) allowed Baku to spend more on defence. However, except for 2015 when Azerbaijan’s defence spending rose to 5.6% of its GDP, it averaged at just below 4% between 2009 and 2019. Armenia, while spending relatively more on defence as a percentage of its GDP, averaging 4.5%, could not catch up given the much smaller size of its economy. According to data by the Stockholm International and Peace Research Institute, Baku spent some USD24 billion on defence between 2009 and 2018. Armenia spent a little over USD4 billion for the same period.
Lesson: wars are expensive and they need strong economies.
Nonetheless, the economy is just one factor, though a very important one. A state intending to go to war must also have its diplomatic flanks covered. Armenia has always been a close ally of Russia. Russia’s relations with Azerbaijan have seen ebbs and flows. However, since 2018, Armenia-Russia relations despite a military pact (Russia also maintains a base in Armenia) have been strained while Moscow’s relations with Baku have improved.
Azerbaijan also has very close relations with Turkey for historical, ethnic and linguistic reasons. Armenia and Turkey have historically been inimical. Azerbaijan and Turkey might be two separate states, but they consider themselves the same people. Azerbaijan also has strong ties with Israel. Turkey is also the second most important state player in the Caucasus and under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has developed a complicated relationship with Russia, which considers the former Soviet republics as Moscow’s sphere of influence.
Azerbaijan has been buying military equipment from Turkey, Israel and Russia. Its military has very close ties with the Turkish military; both sides have been conducting joint exercises and Turkey has been training Azeri officers and ranks. Azerbaijan’s military training, deployment, employment of equipment and doctrinal development owes greatly to the Turkish military.
Lesson 2: if a state wants to go to war, it must have strong backers.
Azerbaijan also has a strong legal case on its conflict with Armenia and the separatist Armenian government (not even recognised by Armenia for that reason). The UN resolutions completely support Azerbaijan’s claims on N-K.
Lesson 3: it’s always good to have a strong legal case if a state wants to use force.
This is as far as the politico-strategic environment is concerned and Azerbaijan managed to create its asymmetric advantage over Armenia at that level.
But war, in the end, is a contest where the will of the fighting sides is tested. That’s where we come to the military-operational level. The lessons at this level are quite fascinating.
From the actual conduct of war it is clear that Armenia was fighting the previous war (when it had an edge) while Azerbaijan had planned its offensives for the present war. It showed superior planning (the opening phase targeted the relatively flatter southern districts abutting N-K) and execution. Here are some lessons.
1: If a fighting side cannot integrate the battle space with sensors, other electronic warfare systems and counter-drone measures, its land forces (troops, armour, infantry fighting vehicles, armoured personnel carriers, artillery guns, radar stations etc) will be in trouble. As has been noted by various analysts through the six weeks of the conflict, Azerbaijan used its Turkish Bayraktar TB-2 drone (which has four hard points for delivering laser-guided smart munitions) and Israeli Harop, which is a loitering munition optimised for suppression of enemy air defence (SEAD) ops. Given that it loiters, finds, acquires and attacks its target in a self-destruct, terminal mode, it’s also referred to as a kamikaze drone.
Azerbaijan employed both drones very effectively against Armenian tanks, IFVs/APCs, ground radars and artillery pieces.
Corollary: Armenian military had to hide its armour and mechanised assets and couldn’t employ them usefully in offensive mode. While it’s too early, as some analysts have suggested, that the era of the MBT and mechanised infantry is over, the conflict clearly tells us that without adequate counter-measures, armour and mechanised columns will be badly exposed to the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities and firepower of combat drones.
- Azerbaijan integrated its ground-based fire power (indirect artillery fire, multi-barrel rocket launchers) with ISR data from the drones and used that for target acquisition and engagement. It seems to have learnt both the use of combat drones and integrating them with land-based firepower from operations conducted by the Turkish military in northern Syria against the Syrian Arab Army.
- The conflict has also shown how combat drones can perform in SEAD and DEAD (destruction of enemy air defence) operations. Again, the Azeri military seems to have learnt this from the Turkish military. Bayraktar TB-2 has made a name for itself in Syria and Libya for successfully hunting the Russian-made Pantsir short- to medium-range mobile AD system. Like the Turkish military, Azerbaijan also used the MAM-L smart micro-munition against Armenia’s Strela system (9K33 and 9K35), a highly mobile, short-range surface-to-air missile.
- The effective employment of combat drones against land forces, integrating them with ground-based firepower and using them for SEAD/DEAD missions not only managed to destroy much of Armenia’s offensive capability while also degrading its defences, but, by extension, made it easier for Azerbaijan to use its own armour, APCs and ground forces to capture and hold territory. In other words, Azerbaijan first dented the Armenian offensive and defensive capabilities and then used its land forces in a traditional offensive mode to capture and hold territory.
This is of course an overview of how the conflict unfolded. It does not mean that future wars will always be fought like this. Adversaries with symmetrical capabilities will have to further innovate to establish an asymmetrical advantage. There are other emerging technologies that are changing, and will change, the conduct of war in ways that one can only conjecture about at this time.
There is also the issue of escalation dominance and spirals, especially between adversaries that are nuclear armed. That raises other questions apropos of how effectively operations can be conducted and how, if at all, they can be conducted without the two sides getting into a spiral that could lead to crossing the nuclear thresholds.
The most important point to note, however, is the nexus between innovation (both in planning and employment of equipment and systems) and creating and maintaining an asymmetric advantage. That is what Azerbaijan achieved in this war. And that is why it has emerged as the victor.
The writer is a former News Editor of the Friday Times with interest in military affairs. He reluctantly tweets @ejazhaider