Turkish Drones Over Nagorno-Karabakh — and Other Updates From a Day-Old War

 In Air, Asia

On Sunday morn­ing, Azerbaijan air, artillery and armored forces launched a large-scale offensive tar­get­ing Armenian set­tle­ments and troops posi­tions across the length of the dis­put­ed Nagorno-Karabakh region.

Following a bloody war in the early 1990s, Azerbaijan and Armenian troops have con­tin­u­al­ly skir­mished at the region’s for­ti­fied bor­ders. Passions remain high due to past ethnic cleans­ing and atroc­i­ties per­pe­trat­ed by both sides, as well as the reli­gious divide between Christian Armenia and Muslim Azerbaijan.

However, the cur­rent fight­ing is of unusu­al breadth and sever­i­ty. Armenia has declared mar­tial law and begun mobi­liz­ing reservists. Azerbaijan has closed its air­ports.

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Turkey has openly assert­ed its sup­port for the Azerbaijani offen­sive, while Russia is offi­cial­ly allied with Armenia.

You can read this earlier article to learn more about the events lead­ing up to the cur­rent esca­la­tion, and the reports emerg­ing from the war zone.

This arti­cle looks at the appar­ent involve­ment of Turkish-built drones in the con­flict, fol­lowed by a look at the most recent reports on losses and changes in ter­ri­to­ry.

Both Armenia and Azerbaijan have released combat footage in a bid to influ­ence the nar­ra­tive of who is “win­ning” the con­flict.

Armenian mil­i­tary sources have released exten­sive footage depict­ing damage or destruc­tion of Armenian tanks and armored vehi­cles by ground forces. Azerbaijan, by con­trast, has  pri­mar­i­ly released videos of drone strikes pick­ing off air defense and armored vehi­cles.

This by itself is not a new phe­nom­e­non. Azerbaijan ear­li­er pur­chased a vari­ety of advanced unmanned air vehi­cles (UAVs) from Israel, and in 2016 was the first nation to use a kamikaze drone in combat when it crashed a Harops loi­ter­ing muni­tion into a bus full of Armenian mili­tia. These drones were again active during fight­ing July 2020.

However, the drone strike footage shared by the Azerbaijan Ministry of Defense in September showed some­thing dif­fer­ent — an inter­face which appears iden­ti­cal to the TB2 Bayraktar UCAV drone employed by Turkey.

Turkey has used the Bayraktar aggressively in con­flicts Libya and Syria in 2020, with oper­a­tional­ly deci­sive results. Though oppos­ing sur­face-to-air mis­siles shot down a sig­nif­i­cant number of drones, the Turkish UCAVs in turn still man­aged to method­i­cal­ly pick off (manned) air defense vehi­cles one by one.

And once the air defens­es were sup­pressed, Turkish drones could ravage enemy bases, artillery posi­tions and vehi­cle columns unhin­dered with light­weight pre­ci­sion mis­siles.

It doesn’t take a master of foren­sics to spot why the video released by Azerbaijan’s MoD looks very much like it’s coming from a TB2. Consider the fol­low­ing footage of Turkish mil­i­tary TB2 strikes in Syria and Libya.

Now com­pare it to these videos released by the Azerbaijan Ministry of Defense in which drones picks off what appear to be 2K33 Osa (code­named SA‑8 Gecko by NATO) short-range air defense sys­tems and other vehi­cles.

Another video records a drone strike on an Armenian T‑72 tank.

And anoth­er appears to show a drone observ­ing and pos­si­bly help­ing direct artillery strikes.

If the pres­ence of the TB2 seems likely based on the inter­face, there remains the polit­i­cal­ly con­se­quen­tial ques­tion of just who is oper­at­ing them.

There were reports in June that Azerbaijan was moving towards pur­chas­ing Bayraktars, but there were no follow-on reports of a deal being closed. Perhaps this was done qui­et­ly, or pos­si­bly Turkey trans­ferred Bayraktars to the Azerbaijan mil­i­tary direct­ly in order to assist in its September offen­sive.

A final pos­si­bil­i­ty to con­sid­er is whether Turkish mil­i­tary per­son­nel are oper­at­ing the Bayraktar drones in sup­port of the Azerbaijani mil­i­tary.

The more direct Turkey’s involve­ment, the greater the risks of height­ened con­flict between Armenia and Turkey. Turkish-Armenian rela­tions are already ter­ri­ble due to the con­tro­ver­sy sur­round­ing the Armenian Genocide per­pe­trat­ed by Ottoman troops in World War I, which Ankara main­tains was merely a typ­i­cal counter-insur­gency cam­paign.

NKR offi­cials have also claimed that Turkey may be using U.S.-built F‑16 jets to launch stand­off-range cruise mis­siles at Armenian tar­gets, but no evi­dence has emerged sup­port­ing these claims.

There are also uncon­firmed reports that mer­ce­nar­ies from Syria air­lift­ed to Azerbaijan by Turkey have been seen on their way to the Nagorno-Karabakh front.

Where is the Fighting Taking Place? Has Territory Changed Hands?

Fighting is report­ed­ly con­cen­trat­ed at at least four point along the Nagorno-Karabakh ‑Azerbaijan border, as well as at Vardenis on the Armenia-Azerbaijan border.

The shelling has spilled far enough south that Iranian media reports that stray rock­ets landed in an Iranian town.

Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defense claimed Sunday to have cap­tured a half-dozen set­tle­ments in Nagorno-Karabakh, includ­ing the strate­gic Mrov heights which could be used to inter­dict logis­ti­cal links between Yerevan and Nagorno Karabakh.

After ini­tial­ly deny­ing the reports, the NKR pres­i­dent admit­ted to the loss of settlements/positions, though it later claimed to have retak­en some of the lost posi­tions.

It’s also notable that Azerbaijani drones and artillery are launch­ing deeper strikes beyond the border for­ti­fi­ca­tions, includ­ing at the NKR cap­i­tal of Stepanakert.

Photos pur­port­ing to show unex­plod­ed 300-mil­lime­ter rock­ets sug­gest that pow­er­ful BM-30 Smerch long-range mul­ti­ple-rocket artillery is being used by Azerbaijani forces.

Azerbaijan report­ed­ly pos­sess 30or 40 BM-30 mul­ti­ple-rocket launch­er trucks, each of which can mount twelves rock­ets that can strikes tar­gets up to 56 miles away.

The NKR also claimed Azerbaijan had employed highly destruc­tive TOS-1 “flame-throwing” rocket launchers on Monday morn­ing, though with­out inflict­ing casu­al­ties.

How Heavy Are Losses So Far?

Both sides claim to have inflict­ed con­sid­er­able mate­r­i­al and per­son­nel losses on their adver­saries, while con­ced­ing only to much lighter losses of their own. Such dis­crep­an­cies arise both organ­i­cal­ly from the “fog of war” as well as delib­er­ate exag­ger­a­tion in an effort to win the pro­pa­gan­da war.

Azerbaijan’s MoD claims its forces have destroyed 22 tanks and armored fight­ing vehi­cles, 15 Osa or Tor short-range air defense sys­tems, 18 drones, eight artillery sys­tems (towed and/or self-pro­pelled) and three ammu­ni­tion depots, and to have inflict­ed 550 Armenian killed or wound­ed.

The NKR has admit­ted to a total of 31 sol­diers killed — an ear­li­er state­ment also count­ed 100 wound­ed. In turn, it claims its forces have shot down four heli­copters and 27 drones, knocked out 33 tanks and four other types of armored fight­ing vehi­cles, and inflict­ed around 200 casu­al­ties.

A sep­a­rate report claims the cap­ture of 11 Azerbaijani vehi­cles, includ­ing a BMP‑3.

One grue­some video released by Armenia appears to show three knocked-out BMP‑2 infantry fight­ing vehi­cles and ten deceased Azerbaijani sol­diers. Other videos show muni­tions impact­ing T‑72 tanks, BMP‑3 fight­ing vehi­cles, BTR-82 APCs and an IMR engi­neer­ing vehi­cle.

Two Armenian civil­ians (a woman and a girl) and an Azerbaijani family of five in the town of Gashalti have been report­ed killed amidst heavy shelling so far, with anoth­er 30 Armenian and 19 Azerbaijani civil­ians injured.

What happens next?

Azerbaijan’s leader Ilham Aliyev may have ini­ti­at­ed the cur­rent hos­til­i­ties in a bid to shore up polit­i­cal sup­port after nation­al­ist pro­tes­tors briefly seized the par­lia­ment build­ing in Baku in July during ear­li­er skir­mish­es with Armenian troops. Thus, it’s pos­si­ble the war may not last long if ter­ri­to­r­i­al gains allow him to “declare vic­to­ry and go home.”

International pres­sure from Europe, the U.S. and espe­cial­ly Russia is ramp­ing up to cease the fight­ing. However, Turkish polit­i­cal and mate­r­i­al sup­port for Azerbaijan may par­tial­ly coun­ter­vail such pres­sure for a time.

Escalation risks remain impor­tant how­ev­er, as Armenia and Azerbaijan pos­sess combat air­craft and long-range mis­siles and rocket artillery that could strike deep into each other’s ter­ri­to­ry. A wider con­flict could dis­rupt or damage the lucra­tive oil indus­try in Azerbaijan, and height­en already sim­mer­ing ten­sions between Turkey and Russia fol­low­ing a year marked by clash­es in Syria and Libya.

Most impor­tant­ly, the human­i­tar­i­an cost of a wider and/or pro­longed con­flict could be ter­ri­ble indeed for both Armenians and Azerbaijanis, which makes diplo­mat­ic efforts to head off esca­la­tion before the fight­ing gath­ers more momen­tum all the more vital.

Forbes: Aerospace & Defense source|articles

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