The volleys of the last Karabakh war, which ended so mournfully for Armenia and so successfully for Azerbaijan, died down. What military-technical lessons should Russia learn from what has been demonstrated on the battlefield? Does our country have the opportunity to oppose something to the weapons that brought victory to Azerbaijan?
Azerbaijan has been preparing for this war for many years. In 2020, Azerbaijani platoons, companies and battalions were commanded by officers, whose whole life, from the moment they started talking [this is not an exaggeration], passed under the slogans of national revenge in Karabakh and the expulsion of Armenians from the territory of Azerbaijan. This gave a very high level of personnel motivation. Azerbaijan made an attempt to “probe” the Armenian defense in 2016, but then Russia and Iran pulled down Ilham Aliyev, and the offensive had to be stopped. This time Aliyev, knowing how much Pashinyan pushed Russia away from Armenia, decided to take a risk and go to the end.
For many years, Azerbaijan has been buying the latest weapons from Russia, for example, T-90 tanks. In recent years, Israel first joined Russia as a supplier of military equipment, and more recently – Turkey with its now famous unmanned aerial vehicles [UAVs] Bayraktar. The Azerbaijanis continuously conducted exercises, stocked up with ammunition.
Before the start of the war, the Azerbaijani army was able, firstly, to create an overwhelming numerical superiority over the troops of Karabakh. Secondly, to mislead the enemy about their intentions. And thirdly, to come up with a scheme for deploying and bringing their troops into battle, in which the Azerbaijanis were ahead of the Armenians in concentrating forces in any attacked area.
The numerical superiority of Azerbaijan was overwhelming and without any UAVs, as was the qualitative superiority of the troops. To a large extent, the victory of Azerbaijan is connected with this: its troops were better armed and trained, there were many times more, they were better controlled, the Azerbaijani military planning was better than the Armenian one – and, in general, the victory of Azerbaijan was a foregone conclusion.
But the degree of this victory, the “battle score” and the price were not predetermined. And here we should turn to military equipment.
In his recent interview, Ilham Aliyev said that the drones of the Azerbaijani Armed Forces destroyed $ 1 billion worth of Armenian equipment – the same amount as all other means without exception.
Azerbaijanis used “large” UAVs Bayraktar TB2 and various types of loitering ammunition: for example, Israeli Harop and Skystriker. These are, in fact, suicide drones – disposable UAV destroyers. It should be noted that Turkey also produces such devices: for example, Kargu – a quadrocopter with a sighting system, satellite radio control channel and an explosive charge. Both in Syria and in Libya, and now in Azerbaijan, the use of unmanned combat aircraft of various types forced the opponents of Turkey and Azerbaijan to pay a huge price for their inability to effectively counter this threat. What conclusions should Russia draw from this?
First, we ourselves need this technique and as quickly as possible. Loitering ammunition is an ideologically new weapon for us. Roughly speaking, they are first “shot” and then looking for a target. This is essentially a one-time reconnaissance and strike complex. Such devices make it possible to conduct aerial reconnaissance and destroy identified targets to any commander of a motorized rifle company, if not a platoon.
Now an officer on the front line does not need to first wait until a dug-in and camouflaged tank opens fire on you, and then request artillery fire by radio. Or wait until your tanks or anti-tank missiles hit the enemy that has discovered itself. Now you can examine your attack zone from the air, identify important targets, and destroy them with the same UAVs – no need to ask anyone for anything and wait for someone. We do not know how, we have neither proven tactics for such actions, nor the technique for this.
The example of the Azerbaijani Armed Forces shows that the presence of destroyer drones multiplies the enemy’s losses and reduces its losses by the same factor. This also makes war cheaper – you have to spend a lot of artillery shells on a pinpoint target, or raise your “big” UAV and, at the risk of it, direct fire from precision guided artillery shells that cost comparable money. Taking into account the losses in “large” UAVs and the rate of consumption of projectiles, loitering ammunition makes war much cheaper.
Russia could create such ammunition itself, or go the beaten path – buy technology from Israel. Another option is to attract Iran to cooperation, which is also one of the world leaders in the production of loitering ammunition and even has such anti-aircraft systems. An Iranian one-time assassin drone allegedly shot down a CIA plane in Afghanistan, which was carrying Michael d’Andrea, a senior CIA officer in charge of the assassination of IRGC General Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad. Iranian destroyer drones have been used in Syria more than once; this is a proven technique. That is, we have the opportunity to get various equipment for this purpose – and this needs to be done urgently. It is important not to miss the tactical and technical characteristics – the low price of such a weapon is required.
The second important lesson is the value of strike drones. And here again the question arises about the cost of the war. The work that an expensive Mi-28 attack helicopter with two live pilots does for Russia, for Turkey and Azerbaijan is performed by a much cheaper drone with low-power ammunition, which, however, is enough to destroy typical targets on the battlefield. If he is knocked down, then there is no problem, a new one can be lifted into the air, and we lose a qualified crew and many times more money for equipment.
It is much more difficult to hit the UAV, it uses a lot of composites instead of metal, it is small, it is detected by radars at a very short distance, its infrared signature is low, the noise level is at the level of a car. At the same time, its ability to detect targets is not inferior to that of helicopters, and highly directional satellite communication channels with operators are almost beyond suppression.
Quite recently, the first batch of Orion attack UAVs entered service with the Russian troops, but it must be admitted that we have lagged behind Turkey, Israel, Iran and the United States for many years in this area. This gap urgently needs to be closed, and the war in Karabakh shows how urgent it is. We also need to critically assess what kind of ammunition we are going to equip them with – they must be inexpensive and, as the Turks have shown, can be small. The ability to direct artillery fire from any non-reusable UAV is critically important, including by means of laser “illumination” of targets. Russia has the technical capabilities to supply such equipment to the troops, you just need to do it and that’s it.
Air defense lessons
However, the Russian troops need something else – the ability to defend themselves against such equipment.
UAVs in the form in which they were used by Turkey and Azerbaijan pose a problem for military air defense. If the positions of the S-400 type air defense missile systems or stationary objects can still be covered with “Pantsir-S1”, then the troops cannot be protected with them, other systems are needed. In theory, a full-fledged military air defense can protect troops from such threats as “large” UAVs, the same “Bayraktar”, but even here a lot of work is needed. We need, for example, a unified control and information exchange system, when military air defense could receive data on the presence of a target in the air even from ground units. It would be worthwhile for the Russian Armed Forces to conduct research exercises involving large groups of ground forces and our own combat UAVs in order to determine in which direction the military air defense needs to be improved.
So, there is an opinion that helicopters can be involved in the fight against UAVs. The same Ka-52 with a different radar instead of the standard one and air-to-air missiles could simply become a “Bayraktar killer”.
“Unfortunately, this helicopter is now being modernized“ in the other direction, when it completely loses even its existing capabilities. But still, it is a potentially successful platform for such tasks, and there are radars that could enable it to operate on stealth UAVs in Russia, moreover, ready for mass production. You just need to merge”one with the other.”
Defense against loitering ammunition is much more difficult. Today, not a single army in the world has a ready-made recipe for repelling attacks from unmanned aerial vehicles, suicide drones. The fact is that with their massive use, no anti-aircraft missiles, no radar stations will suffice. In fact, in order to have a chance to repel the strikes of such UAVs, each or almost every unit of military equipment itself must be an air defense system. Today, no one has such an opportunity. What is necessary?
First, the improvement of fire control systems and mutual information exchange of combat vehicles. Roughly speaking, we need the technical ability to transfer target designation from the military air defense radar to each BMP, so that with each BMP they could point the weapon at an air target and hit it.
It looks like fantasy, but it’s not fantasy. This can be done, even with existing technologies, but we need to do it, such a system will not appear in six months, this is a serious work. Now in the Russian Federation, the BMP-2 is being modernized, the gun turrets are being replaced with gun modules with the same 30-mm cannon. It is in this work that it would be worthwhile to “build in” the need to integrate the military air defense with the rest of the military equipment of the ground forces. Fortunately, the second component of such a system – 30-mm projectiles with programmable detonation – already exists in Russia and has even been tested in Syria. This should be used.
The second important direction is the urgent acceleration of work on bringing to the series the 2S38 self-propelled anti-aircraft gun, equipped with a 57-mm anti-aircraft gun, firing both guided projectiles and projectiles with programmable detonation. This vehicle, coupled with the inclusion of all carriers of 30-mm automatic cannons [infantry fighting vehicles, armored personnel carriers], will protect the troops from attacks by unmanned aerial vehicles. The problem is the timing – most likely, we will not have time to saturate the troops with these installations until the next big war, which is clearly not far off. But there is a “cheating move” here.
Until now, in the warehouses of the Russian armed forces, there are large numbers of old “heroes of Vietnam” – automatic anti-aircraft guns S-60 of 57 mm caliber. Now they are almost useless as an air defense tool. However, they are effectively modernized abroad. For example, the Slovenian Valhalla turrets equips such a gun with an aiming module with a thermal imager, a continuous projectile feed mechanism [92 pieces in a row] and an automated guidance system. As a result, the old Soviet cannon turns into a uniform superweapon. The downside is the small [400 shots] barrel resource, but spare barrels are also in storage, and they change quickly on this gun. The programmer for the shells also “stands up” on it, it was checked.
The impossibility of rapid production of 2S38 can be compensated for by adopting such guns. They can be upgraded and simply installed on the roofs of MTLB tractors taken from the same storage. This is precisely a cheap and massive solution, which, in the presence of systems for the mutual exchange of information in the troops and together with the use of 30-mm programmable shells on infantry fighting vehicles and armored personnel carriers armed with cannons, will make it possible to fend off attacks from kamikaze drones.
Destroyer drones have become a serious threat today, but the next stage is on the way. If the Turks and Israelis use them as remotely controlled ones, then the Americans are practicing the use of “salvo” attacks on such UAVs with primitive artificial intelligence. And tomorrow, instead of a dozen controlled kamikazes, there will be a hundred autonomous ones, which simply have no connection with anyone and are invulnerable to any electronic warfare systems. At American training grounds, this technique has already successfully hit targets.
There is one way to stop them – by creating and maintaining on their combat path a fragmentation field of such density that they do not pass through it. This means that the above recipes for dealing with this kind of UAV have no alternative. In five or six years, the commander of a convoy of a company tactical group will suddenly detect, in 30-40 seconds of flight time, a couple of hundred suicide drones on his armored personnel carriers or infantry fighting vehicles, and the Russian armed forces must now learn to repel such attacks. Russia is technically capable of preparing for this, but it needs to be done, the problem will not disappear by itself.
This is perhaps the main military-technical lesson of Karabakh.