On November 10th, 2020 the Republic of Armenia signed a ceasefire with Azerbaijan, agreeing to hand over nearly a fifth of the territory within its sphere of influence prior to the signing. While maintaining the Lachin corridor, as well as a passageway to Stepanakart, the former capital of the self proclaimed Artsakh Republic; the Armenian Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan, was forced to accept a peace agreement returning all surrounding territories to Azeribaijani control, as well as permitting Russian Peacekeepers to set up observation posts throughout the Lachin corridor and the Nagorno-Karabakh region. Leading up to this historic agreement was a bloody, and largely one-sided conflict in which Azerbaijan proved once and for all that a new generation of warfare has arrived.
Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Nagorno-Karabakh as well as the surrounding territories have been fiercely contested between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Initially the undisputed territory of Azerbaijan, the regions surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh have been under the de-facto control of the Artsakh Republic, an autonomous region within the Armenian sphere of influence, since the brutal First Nagorno-Karabakh War ended in 1994. During this war more than 700,000 Azerbaijani civilians were displaced from the region, causing enormous friction in the years following the OSCE brokered ceasefire, as they were not permitted to return to their homes after the territorial handover took place.
While the territory surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh has remained de-jure Azerbaijani, internationally recognized to be so, the negotiations regarding their return remained fruitless for the 26 years they had been underway. Baku, growing increasingly dissatisfied with this lack of progress, began to consider military options during the mid-2010s. Border skirmishes became a common occurrence, with hundreds of Azerbaijani and Armenian troops being killed and wounded in the years before the 2020 conflict.
In 2016, a large scale flare-up in the fighting brought tensions to a fever-pitch, with more than 100 combatants being killed. This also served as confirmation for the Azeri military that they were truly a match for Armenia. While undesirably large casualties were suffered, the advance had been extremely rapid; in some cases with Armenian positions being overrun in a matter of hours from the beginning of operations. Taking note of these results, Azerbaijan’s government began to remedy them in the form of further military modernization and expansion.
Large deals between Israel and Turkey provided Baku with loitering munitions such as the IAI Harop, developed by Israel, and the Bayraktar 2 reconnaissance drone, built by Turkey. The Azerbaijani military also began a general restructuring of their tactics, aiming for a truly multi domain capability rather than the two-dimensional operational thinking common amongst second-rate powers. In order to make this happen, Baku increased their defense budget by more than 60% between 2016 and 2020.
Following further skirmishes in 2017 and 2018, the gloves finally came off on September 27th, 2020. Initial skirmishes along the line of contact led to the declaration of martial law in both Armenia and Azerbaijan, and the beginning stages of mobilization by the Armenian Military. The following day, Azerbaijan began its own mobilization efforts. Much to the consternation of the United Nations and the International Community at large, Azerbaijan did not relent and continued it’s offensive actions past the first skirmishes. Following initial moderately successful counterattacks by Armenia in an effort to retake lost positions, the lines became relatively static for the following days despite intense clashes between the two forces.
As early as the beginning of October, the Armenian lines began to crack. Intense usage of long range artillery with observation drones in a forward observer role started to take their effect on Armenian manpower and morale. Azerbaijani forces were able to advance in both the Northern and Southern sectors of fighting throughout the beginning of the month; and following incremental Azerbaijani advances, on October 10th Russia brokered an initial Ceasefire between the two sides. However, within a matter of hours this ceasefire fell apart and hostilities resumed across the entire front.
Throughout mid-October the advantage shifted further and further towards Azerbaijan. The Republic of Artsakh began losing more and more territory, and the Armenian aligned military forces continued losing more and more men and equipment. It was at this point where Azerbaijan began exerting more operational dominance on the battlefield. By October 19th, Azerbaijani forces had occupied a significant portion of southern Artsakh, and were successfully holding their gains in the north as well. Hundreds, if not thousands of Armenians had been killed by this point, and hundreds of trucks, tanks, and other pieces of military equipment had been destroyed by Azerbaijani drones and artillery.
Following yet another unsuccessful Russia brokered ceasefire, Azerbaijani offensives resumed in the South. Armenian and Artsakh forces were forced into a total retreat, being continuously targeted by unseen drones, loitering munitions, and shelling. At this point the air defenses within Nagorno-Karabakh had been utterly dismantled by effective Azerbaijani use of air assets, such as the IAI Harop that Baku had previously acquired. A notable image encapsulates the conflict by showing the moment before a Harop impacts into an S-300PS Transporter Erector Launcher.
By the beginning of November, the entire Artsakh-Iranian border had been occupied by Azerbaijani forces, and the Armenian aligned forces were on a distinct strategic backfoot. With morale at an all time high for Azerbaijan, their forces pivoted to the Northwest to begin an offensive targeting Stepanakart, the capital of The Republic of Artsakh. Within a matter of days, large scale breakthroughs had been made, as the shattered remnants of the Armenian aligned forces hastily attempted to halt the Azerbaijani advance. However, the Armenian forces were no longer capable of any significant impact on the battlefield, and the Armenian Prime Minister, Nikol Pashinyan, was forced to the negotiating table after the fall of Shusha, the second largest city in Nagorno Karabakh, and the last stronghold before Stepanakart.
This war is essential to take lessons from due to a number of key properties it displayed. The usage of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UASs) is impossible for any nation not to take note of. Unlike in prior conflicts, aerial capabilities are no longer exclusive to large powers, and can be employed to enormous effect by any military regardless of size or funding. There is no longer an ability to fight a nation state without considering the aerial dimension of the conflict, and air defense capabilities must be high up on the priority list of any military planner. Had the Armenian air defenses been competent and extensive, the war may have turned out significantly differently.
The employment of standoff loitering munitions also holds with it enormous consequences for future conflicts. Relatively inexpensive precision guided munitions are proliferating massively, and as a result any concentrated military formation or emplacement is vulnerable from the air. While in the past it may have sufficed to entrench military hardware to protect it, modern warfare now dictates that such two-dimensional thinking is a recipe for disaster. Even small, lightly funded militaries are now capable of precision standoff strikes without putting their forces at risk.
The most important effect of these two new factors is that wars are likely to be more relegated to standoff engagements, rather than troop-on-troop kinetic fights. If it is possible to dismantle a military without ever putting a soldier in harm’s way, a commander will undoubtedly choose that option. It is likely there will be a shift from typical “troop” movements towards an initial battle for aerial dominance, and an attempt to attrit enemy air defenses and destroy enemy formations as quickly as possible with cheap standoff munitions, followed by what is most aptly characterized as “mopping up” by ground formations.
While ground formations are by no means useless, their role has undergone a total change. In a conventional conflict, they no longer are most effective in their offensive capability and ability to destroy the enemy, but rather are now most useful solely to hold off an enemy ground force from being able to deny the use of a military’s aerial assets, and to secure territory following the dismantling of a nation’s military from the air. It is blindingly clear that as soon as Azerbaijani forces were capable of effectively utilizing the air to project power and destroy Armenian aligned formations, the war was as good as won.
Nikol Pashinyan had in fact been warned of this eventuality by the fourth day of the conflict, however he had failed to react accordingly. Instead of ensuring a successful and timely mobilization of the nation, he instead issued orders to halt replacements to the front, and opted to send only volunteers to the front lines. Acquisition of new, effective Short Range Air Defense (SHORAD) systems such as the Tor-M2KM were also neglected, and instead older 9K33 “Osa” Short Range Air Defense systems were procured. While simple procurement and mobilization policies would likely not alone have resulted in a victory for Armenia, it would undoubtedly have made the conflict much more difficult for the Azerbaijani military, and a more favorable peace agreement could have been achieved.
When one opts to ignore the reality of the modern battlefield in favor of political fantasy as Pashinyan has done, good men die. The Armenian military was not equipped with the necessary tools to wage a modern war, and the result was a crushing defeat, with thousands of unnecessary casualties. If any military seeks to win conflicts in the modern age, it must take these lessons from Nagorno-Karabkh, lest they suffer the same fate.