• Sirgapoor Sahil Reddy



The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan is an ethnic and territorial conflict over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh.[1] The region is controlled by the self-declared Republic of Artsakh but is internationally still considered a part of Azerbaijan,[2] even though it is predominantly populated by Armenians, with the Azerbaijanis forming a minority. There has long been dispute over the status of the region, whether it would continue to be a part of Azerbaijan or would it be recognized as the Republic of Artsakh.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, the Armenian dominated region of Nagorno Karabakh was integrated into Azerbaijan.[3] Years of clashes ensued, till 1994 when Russia brokered a cease-fire agreement between the two States. The First War resulted in Armenia's victory over Azerbaijan, which is a bigger, more populated, and even had a larger army. The reasons cited for the victory was the superior military discipline, improved weaponry and technology of the Armenians.[4]

However, the tables have turned in the war that began in September 2020, as the Azerbaijan military forces routed the Armenian army in a little over six weeks, with the Armenian army eventually signing a peace deal and handing over the control over Nagorno-Karabakh to Azerbaijan.[5] The victory has been majorly attributed to the drone warfare of the Azerbaijani forces, as the Armenians lost almost 6-7 times the military resources compared to their counterparts.[6]

How Azerbaijan Won the War

Nagorno-Karabakh has become a prime example of how fast, small, and inexpensive drone attacks change the dimensions of a conflict which was once dominated by ground forces and the conventional air forces. Azerbaijan used its drones that they purchased from Turkey and Israel to tail and eventually destroyed the Armenian weapon systems in Nagorno-Karabakh, shattering its defences and facilitating a quick attack. Like most countries part of the defunct Soviet Union, most of the air-defence systems in Karabakh were old Soviet systems that found it impossible to defend against the modern drone attacks.[7]

For smaller countries, drones can be cheap and efficient additions to their tactical aviation and precision-guided weapon systems.[8] Enabling them to attack the enemy's costlier equipment like tanks and air defence systems. Additionally, countries that cannot afford an air-force can now use drone technology to advance their defence capability. The missile-firing drones are made in many countries including Turkey, China, and Israel, and hence a country would not require cordial relations with dominant players of the defence industry like the United States and the United Kingdom. For example, Azerbaijan imported the Bayraktar TBC2 drones from Turkey and the Kamikaze drones from Israel.[9]

Turkey's tryst with drones began in 2006 when they ordered ten unarmed Heron drones from Israel.[10] In 2010, Turkey cut off diplomatic ties with Israel, after an Israeli raid that killed 9 Turkish nationals.[11] Turkey received drone equipment and expertise from the USA, but after its standoff with Israel and its involvement in Libya and Syria, the US refused to supply Turkey armed drones.[12] The refusal to supply drones acted as a catalyst for Turkey, who went on to develop its killer drone - Bayrakhtar. Turkey has now emerged as one of the world's most prolific manufacturer of killer drones rivalling the US and UK, which has boosted its increasingly assertive international role and grown their political and military weight. Turkey ended up being the decisive ally for Azerbaijan in the war, as they not only supplied the drones, but also took part in joint military exercises with the Azerbaijani forces and provided them technical expertise and know-how about drone warfare.[13] It is also pertinent to note that Azerbaijan had ordered the drones from Turkey in June 2020,[14] which further elucidates the immediate impact the drones entail in modern warfare.

Advantage of Drones

An intrinsic feature of the war was the fact that the Azerbaijan forces comprehensively won the war without a pilot or a soldier meeting the Armenian forces. Whether the strength of drones would dictate the outcome of future wars can only be ascertained with time. However, it would be a far-fetched claim to state traditional military equipment like tanks and armoured vehicles have become obsolete. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict indicates the increasing importance of using drone warfare 'along' with other weapons and armed ground forces. Drones have even reduced the loss of human lives, as lesser personnel are now engaging in direct combat.

The Drones were characterised as ancillary, as they were not the primary arsenal for warfare for a State—the Azerbaijani army has changed that notion through their military efforts. Moreover, they even converted An-2 aircrafts, their traditional air-warfare equipment into drones and used them as baits to alarm the Armenian defence system; tempting them to reveal their positions by firing and thereby becoming targets for the drones.[15] The war-preparedness of Azerbaijan revolved around their drones, which can be deduced from their approach of not letting their soldiers or pilots come in the close vicinity of their enemies during several attacks.

Nevertheless, drones cannot solely be the primary line of defence or offence. Drones cannot defend another drone attack, they can be used for a counterattack, and hence States must resort to weapon-systems, radars and armed personnel, the traditional arsenal for a war to defend themselves from drone attacks. This conflict has emphasised the importance of technology in a war, and the superior advantage technology creates over the opponents. Equipment like Counter Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (C-UAV), anti-drone weapons and guns are some of the advancements made to traditional warfare by technology, which could help counter the threat of the drones.[16] If the Armenian military had access to these weapon systems and equipment, the fate of the war would have been entirely different owing to their discipline and organisational prowess.


The emergence of drones as an essential aspect of modern warfare has been a game-changer for the military strategies of countries. A war would now be judged based on a different set of parameters rather than the conventional strength of an army, number of tanks, radars and other weaponry. Today the drones are so valuable that a country with a superior set of killer drones can easily compete with a country having a larger army. There are lessons to be learnt for countries like India from the changing landscape of war. Even a country like Azerbaijan, which hardly matches the military strength of India can be capable of inflicting large-scale damage on a larger military power. These are alarm bells for countries to improve their defence arsenal to develop drone preparedness, and to look at drones as a new norm in modern warfare.


[1] Andrew Kramer, “Armenia and Azerbaijan: What Sparked War and Will Peace Prevail?” (The New York Times, 29 Jan 2021) https://www.nytimes.com/article/armenian-azerbaijan-conflict.html accessed 23 April 2021. [2] ibid. [3] ibid. [4] ibid. [5] Robyn Dixon, “Azerbaijan’s drones owned the battlefield in Nagorno-Karabakh — and showed future of warfare” (The Washington Post, 12 Nov 2020) https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/nagorno-karabkah-drones-azerbaijan-aremenia/2020/11/11/441bcbd2-193d-11eb-8bda-814ca56e138b_story.html accessed 23 April 2020. [6] Stijn Mitzer, “ The Fight for Nagorno-Karabakh: Documenting Losses on the sides of Armenia and Azerbaijaan” (Oryx, 27 Sep 2020) https://www.oryxspioenkop.com/2020/09/the-fight-for-nagorno-karabakh.html accessed 23 April 2020. [7] Supra at Note 5. [8] ibid. [9] Supra at Note 6. [10] Umar Farooq, “The Second Drone Age” (The Intercept, 14 May 2019) https://theintercept.com/2019/05/14/turkey-second-drone-age/ accessed 23 April 2021. [11] ibid. [12] ibid. [13] Supra at Note 6. [14] ibid. [15] Supra at Note 5. [16] Cristopher McFaden. “7 Anti-Drone Weapons used by the Military and Law Enforcement around the World” (Interesting Engineering, 03 Dec 2019) https://interestingengineering.com/7-anti-drone-weapons-used-by-the-military-and-law-enforcement-around-the-world accessed 23 April 2021.

About the author: Sirgapoor Sahil Reddy is a final year Law Student at OP Jindal Global Law School.

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