The Nagorno-Karabakh War: Advantage Hindsight: A View

anil chopra, air poer asia, Russia, Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan

Russian President Vladimir Putin made a televised statement confirming the details of the Russian brokered peace deal, which provided for “complete cessation of hostilities in the Nagorno-Karabakh”. The agreement went into effect at 01:00 local time (21:00 GMT) on 10 Nov 2020, just prior to the announcements. Armenia’s PM, Nikol Pashinyan, first made the announcement on face book stating, “I have signed a statement on the termination of the Karabakh war along with the Russian and Azerbaijani presidents”. With this the latest round of conflict between the Armenian and Azerbaijani military, which started on 27 Sep 2020, came to an end.

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Recent History

This 44-days war has its roots in history, the relatively recent version of which commenced in 1918, after the fall of the Russian empire. The predominantly Armenian-populated region of Nagorno-Karabakh was claimed by both the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic and the First Republic of Armenia, when both countries became independent in 1918. This dispute led to a conflict between the two in the 1920s. The dispute was largely contained after the Soviet Union established control over the area, and created the Nagorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast (NKAO) within the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic, an arrangement in which NKAO had “broad regional autonomy”; had a majority Armenian population; and significantly, did not share a land border with Armenia.

In the late 1980s, while the Soviet Union was going through its pre-breakup phase, loosening of Soviet control led to the region re-emerging as a source of dispute, leading to a conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. With the break-up of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan in late 1991 dissolved the NKAO, split it, and administratively integrated the split regions with the adjacent Azerbaijani regions. Shortly thereafter, Karabakh held a referendum in the region and declared itself as an independent republic, the Republic of Artsakh, also known as the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh. However even after this referendum, Artsakh failed to garner regional or international recognition. While Armenia never officially recognised Artsakh’s independence, it de facto became its main financial and military backer. Limited conflict has continued to sporadically break out between Armenia and Azerbaijan since then.  

The fighting in the 90s resulted in large loss of human lives, as well as displacement of hundreds of thousands of humans, and ended with ethnic Armenians gaining control of the region. In addition to the NKAO, they also occupied Azerbaijani territory outside of the NKAO, creating a buffer zone that finally linked Karabakh to Armenia. This First Nagorno-Karabakh War ended with a ceasefire agreement, which came into effect on 12 May 1994. The Russian-brokered ceasefire resulted in Karabakh as well as parcels of Azeri territory around it, to be under Armenian control. This ceasefire thus left a simmering discontent in the region, as a large number of Azeris were killed, or driven out from their homes; as also a number of Armenians were killed, or driven out of Azerbaijan. Despite this, there has been no serious breach of the 1994 ceasefire, until 2020.

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Republic of Artsakh The NKAO region in the so-called Republic of Artsakh is very mountainous, averaging 1,100 metres (3,600 ft) above sea level. The population is 99.7% ethnic Armenian and the primary spoken language is the Armenian language. The population is overwhelmingly Christian, while Azerbaijan’s population is about 99% Muslim; 85% Shia and about 14% Sunni. The Republic of Artsakh is an unrecognised state, whose territory is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan.

The Second Nagorno-Karabakh WarThe 2016 Conflict

Conflict broke out on 02 Apr 1996, which lasted for 4-days, with fighting mainly along the Line of Contact between the Azeri and Artsakh/ Armenian troops. The scale of military actions, the number of forces and combat equipment involved such as heavy artillery, including truck mounted, rocket dispensed cluster munitions, tanks, air forces and drones, as well as the statements of Azerbaijani officials clearly indicate that the events of 02nd – 05th  April were not a spontaneous escalation, but a carefully planned, and prepared military operation by Azerbaijan, which aimed at resolving the Karabakh conflict through use of force. The intense fighting ended on 05 April 2016, as suddenly as it had begun, giving rise to speculation that the conflict may have been initiated as a consequence of reactivation of the Russian policy in the Caucasus, as also by the Azeri desire to avenge its humiliating defeat at the hands of the Armenians, in the 90s. Russia’s main objective may have been to strengthen its dominance in the region; this, after the drifting of Azerbaijan into the Turkish, and Western camp. The nature and results of the conflict pointed to a balance of forces between the two warring sides, in the conflict zone; and a nominal military success for the Azeris (the front lines in the battle zones were moved forward by about one kilometre); but the larger geo-political outcome was strengthening of the Russian influence, and weakening of the Western influence in the region.

2016 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. In pink Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh including Armenian-occupied territories surrounding Nagorno-Karabakh. In mustard are Territory claimed by the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh but controlled by Azerbaijan

Build-up to the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh (NK) War

Azerbaijan is today the 24th largest oil producing country; Baku region has been known as an energy surplus region since early times; is among the top 16 oil-exporting countries; with a population of just about 10 million, of which about 70% are in the 15-64 age groups. The breakup of the Soviet Union led to the independence of Azerbaijan, which in turn gave it the freedom to utilise its abundant oil and gas revenues towards, in addition to other priorities, building up its military wherewithal.

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Weapon Acquisitions The trade register for transfer of major weapons made to Armenia and Azerbaijan between the periods 1992 to 2019, at the website brings out the following facts. Armenia was totally dependent on Russia for all its imports, which mostly comprised of SAMs, and anti tank weapons, with a limited transfer of Multiple Rocket Launch systems (MRLS), tanks, and towed guns. During the same period, Azerbaijan had not only received similar weapons from Russia, but had also diversified its import of weapons. It received UAVs & loitering munitions from various manufacturers in Israel; as also, Surface to Surface Missiles (SSM); self propelled guns, mortars, and MRLS; SAMs; anti tank missiles; and APVs. It also received APVs, & self propelled MRLs from Turkey. Additionally, the Defence Minister of Azerbaijan announced in June 2020 that Azerbaijan had taken the “decision to purchase Bayraktar TB 2 drones from Turkey”. It is evident that while Armenia focused on procuring mostly defensive weapons, suitable for a classic conventional war, which included legacy SAMs, & AD radars, from Russia, the Azeris diversified and, in addition to the regular conventional weapons, focused on offensive weapons in the form of UAVs, focussed on intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR) and neutralisation of targets in depth, through the use of relatively cheaper, airborne fire control platforms, kamikaze drones, and precision weapons. Michael Kofman of a US-based national security research centre says that, “Azerbaijan was able to purchase weapons from Israel, Russia and Turkey to attain a substantial military edge.” He further opines that, “In general what you see is Armenia fielding a sizeable tank and artillery force that lacks the ability to defend itself from modern precision-guided weapons.”

Bayraktar TB 2 drone. Image Source:

Weapon Employment These Azeri capabilities were very professionally orchestrated, under a well thought out campaign plan and were directly responsible in dramatically altering the dynamics of the balance of power between the two countries, during this conflict. The Armenians were ready for a regular conventional war, with their strengths being; dug in positions, anti tank weapons, manoeuvre forces, and all of these defended by legacy AD radars and SAMs. The Azeris pursued a different line of thought, and successfully turned this Armenian strength, into a weakness. Instead of utilising their conventional airpower platforms, they employed airpower assets from the lower end of the spectrum, in the form of UAVs that were neither detectable nor destroyable by the Armenian deployed conventional radars or SAMs, respectively. The Azeris used these to find, fix, track, designate, and neutralise fortified targets, radars, SAMs, MLRS, tanks, and every other target system, and in depth too.

Azerbaijan’s Turkish-made rocket system bolsters country’s presence in region dispute. Image Source:

Prosecution of the 2020 NK War

Dr Jack Watling in his article has neatly summed up the war in a few sentences. He says that, “Both sides took casualties, but with an important difference. Azeri casualties were concentrated in the frontline manoeuvre elements conducting the attacks, and Azeri tanks were knocked out by anti-tank guided missiles. This is what one would expect, with the Azeris taking more losses when attacking. By contrast, Armenian casualties were distributed throughout the depth of the battlespace. The Azeris used long-range fires and UAVs to strike assembly areas, command posts, logistics, and manoeuvre elements as they approached the combat area. The effect of this approach has been that while Armenian forces have fought well in the close battle, they have become less effective as the conflict continued and reinforcements and resupply faltered. Azerbaijan has subsequently made significant territorial gains.” A slow Azerbaijani territorial advance, coupled with heavy casualties initially, got accelerated after about 2 weeks into the conflict leading to shock effect on the Armenians. Target neutralisation coupled with live video information psy-war played an equally important role in demoralising the Armenians.

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This 44-day decisive war was fought with a diverse array of legacy and advanced air and missile strikes, artillery, as well as the innovative use of drones. Drones of mostly Turkish and Israeli origin performed ISR missions to support artillery use, & information psy-war, as well as kamikaze and strike missions; these were able to destroy heavy ground units, including T-72 tanks and advanced S-300 air defenses. This conflict over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region included the heavy use of missiles, anti-tank weapons, drones, and MRLS. Although exact losses are hard to come by, an 11 Nov 2020 article published in the Washington Post, by Robyn Dixon, lists Armenian losses at 185 T-72 tanks; 90 armoured fighting vehicles; 182 artillery pieces; 73 multiple rocket launchers; 26 surface-to-air missile systems, including a Tor system and five S-300s; 14 radars or jammers; one SU-25 war plane; four drones and 451 military vehicles. These losses also include the Armenian equipment captured by Azerbaijan. Innovative use of the Russian built AN-2, as scapegoat decoys, helped destroy targets, through the use of kamikaze drones. Virtually all of Armenia’s AD systems were destroyed, leaving Armenian forces only with hand held MANPAD’s for air defense.

Armenian S 300 near border. Image Source:

Considering the Armenian AD systems, the Azeris had shown flexibility of thought in planning, procuring for, and executing the war. They relied heavily on the game changing use of drones for ISR, information psy-war, and also as precision guided loitering munitions to destroy/ neutralise targets in depth. Azerbaijan’s technological edge and drone warfare demonstrated an innovative war fighting capability, which was finally capped by an offensive campaign that utilised traditional concepts and weaponry to clear and hold the occupied territories. “As the Azerbaijani push developed, Baku’s military planning transformed from a drone-driven, overwhelming war of attrition into a more combined arms warfare effort, pursuing a more balanced approach.”

Culmination of War – A Clear Victory In contrast, the Armenians were too fixed in their approach and thinking, to this new kind of warfare, to have any chance of reversing the one-way tide in this war. This resulted in the Azeris reaching Shusha, in just under 44 days. Susha is the second largest town in Artsakh, which is 5 kms from, and overlooking, the capital city of Stepenakert. This forced the Armenian PM to accept a fait accompli in the form of a deal to cease hostilities and accept considerable territorial losses, which signals a clear victory for Azerbaijan. The deal grants Azerbaijan the control of the heights over Armenian-controlled Stepanakert, as well as its other territorial gains in the recent fighting; Armenian forces are also required to evacuate from crucial districts outside the NKAO that they have held since the 1994 truce. In addition, access to the Armenian mainland will only be possible through a five-kilometer-wide corridor, which is overseen by some 2000 Russian peacekeeping troops. Only time will tell if this ceasefire is sustainable? If yes, for how long? Also, if there is any way to prevent a future war?

Approximate frontlines at the time of the ceasefire, with Azerbaijan’s territorial gains during the war in red, the Lachin corridor under Russian peacekeepers in blue, and areas returned by Armenia to Azerbaijan hashed. Image Source: Wikipedia


1. History, geography, religion, and ethnicity are important building blocks of human beings and are transmitted through family folklore, as well as through a culture that people share. The author feels that their importance can never be underestimated. This is one of the big messages from this, and other wars around the world; NK war is steeped in all of these factors. The International Crisis Group plan for peace, of October 2005, speaks of the “contradiction between two principles of international law: the sanctity of international borders and the right to self-determination”. How can these be resolved in modern nation-states? Are these finally going to be the death knell for the present way of organising human beings into political entities represented by nation-states? These are questions that will need to be addressed to prevent wars between nation-states.

2. This war too has proven the indispensable need for control of the air, both to prosecute a successful offensive campaign in the air, on the ground or surface, as well as to prevent the neutralisation/ destruction of own assets in a defensive setting. Technology has widened the spectrum of airpower assets in terms of platforms, cost, availability, training, autonomous/ manned, and accuracy that can be used, to achieve the standard functions of airpower, which have not changed since inception; be it control of the air, interdiction, close air support, ISR, or air mobility. Electronic Warfare, information psy-war and training contributed as force multipliers in this conflict.

3. This war has shown that while the impact of interdiction of non contact troops, supplies and lines of communications is not directly apparent on a daily basis, it’s cumulative effect is most effective in strangling and demoralising an army, because of the large scale logistical needs of modern militaries.

4. Drones and technology have in effect democratised the employment of airpower, by removing the cost, infrastructure, and training barriers associated with legacy airpower assets, thus making it available to even non state actors, as had happened in the case of shoulder fired AD missiles. The diffusion of drones continues to outpace viable counters and defences to them, as on date, making this a real threat, which would need to be countered through an integrated AD network, which can deal with the entire spectrum of threats, from drones to conventional aircraft, and missiles. Drones have minimal radar and IR signatures and are thus difficult to detect by the legacy radars. In view of this, drones will pose a viable challenge and threat, in a permissive environment like the NK war, at least in the near term.

Azerbaijan claimed that the country’s air defense forces destroyed the Su-25 aircraft of the Armenian armed forces. Image Source:

5. A possible reason for non-use of legacy fighters by Azerbaijan could be due to the deterrent effect of the legacy AD radars and missiles deployed by the Armenians. Legacy AD systems have thus not become redundant, but need to be optimally integrated into a centralised network of short, medium and long range threat detection and neutralisation/ destruction.

6. Michael Kofman hits the nail on the head, when he says that “Yerevan appeared to act as though it was the stronger power in the equation, perhaps buoyed by the mythos of earlier victories in 1992. Chauvinism and war optimism continue to be pernicious problems in decision making, often misleading the aggressor, but in this case, misleading the defender.” Mindsets and experience sometimes tend to be mental blocks to the present realities; these need to be re-assessed, based on current environmental realities. Agility of mind is an important attribute of good leadership.

7. The number of tanks neutralised/ destroyed by the drones has put a question mark on the efficacy of a tank in modern warfare, in the minds of some analysts. The tank is a vehicle that provides manoeuvrability, protection, and firepower that is unmatched by any other surface vehicle thus far. The NK war 2020 and the Longewala battle of 1971 Indo-Pak war have this in common; tanks cannot survive aerial attacks, without effective AD cover; in Longewala, it was not available, and in the NK war, it was ineffective against the drone threat. Wars are fought on ground, which needs to be captured, occupied, and held by feet on the ground. Tanks are needed to prosecute any meaningful ground battle involving manoeuvre and thus will have to evolve, over time, with survivability added to their specifications. Survivability against the new threat is thus an issue, as no counter is as yet available for the drone threat.

Tank being hit a missile from a Drone In the war. Image Source:

Concluding Thoughts

It is an accepted, but much neglected, fact that wars are first fought in the minds of men. Also, the quality of leadership makes all the difference. Azerbaijan’s leadership understood the game changing nature of the drones, early on; the 2016 conflict may have given them their ‘eureka’ moment; the Armenians misjudged their strengths in 2020, based on their victories in 1992. Weapon acquisitions by the two countries indicated their assessment of the nature of their next battlefield; increased and diversified acquisition of drones by Azerbaijan for ISR and kamikaze/ loitering munition missions point in that direction. Their employment of the drones during the war point to an innovative thought process, thorough training, and skilful exploitation of the available weaponry. Armenia fought the 2020 war based on their 1992 experience, not paying adequate attention to the changes in the battlefield that the drones had effected, since the 2016 conflict; Azerbaijan on the other hand understood the game changing nature of the drones and electronic warfare. A flexible, thinking mind is key to winning the next war

This conflict is not a harbinger of future warfare, as some opine, but is an evolution of warfare in which autonomous and unmanned weapons; airpower that straddles the entire range and spectrum of offensive/ defensive capabilities; and electronic warfare will have to be integrated at the tactical level in the strategic and operational plans. Acquisitions, Command and Control, communications, jointmanship, and interoperability will be issues that will need to be fine tuned to facilitate a combined arms approach. Wars in the future, like hither to fore, will be fought in the minds of the leaders, during peacetime, as no country will have the resources to have all that it takes to win wars. Airpower will continue to be the decisive element in the prosecution of war on ground, or on the surface. The acquisitions of the needed platforms and weapons are a long drawn out process, and thus acquiring the right mix is an absolute must; this becomes even more critical in leading edge technologies, which are the foundation of aerospace power.

Finally, leading edge technology, its miniaturisation, computing, artificial intelligence, space based systems, abundant data, communications bandwidth, autonomous systems, and to top it all, the easy availability of all these in the information era will impact the way wars will be prosecuted in the future. However, what will not change is to: know your enemy; know yourself; and having a correct visualisation of the next battlefield in all dimensions, much before the actual war.

Author: Wing Commander JP Joshi (Retd) was a fighter pilot in Indian Air Force, and has done Command and Staff College in USA. The views expressed are the author’s own.

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Published by Anil Chopra

I am the founder of Air Power Asia and a retired Air Marshal from the Indian Air Force.

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