How could what we’ve learned from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict affect the course of fighting along the Russia-Ukraine border? If Russia invades Ukraine, one result may be a fuller understanding of the role that drones will play in high-intensity modern combat. The world will be watching, not just for the geopolitical spectacle but also for clues as to the future of military conflict.
Drones have been used on the battlefield for a long time and in a wide variety of ways. It is an oversimplification of the history of drone warfare to draw a tight distinction between reconnaissance and strike. Even early drones were sometimes used in strike roles, and the most modern strike drones work so well in part because they can provide a map of the battlefield. Over the last decades drones have demonstrated transformative potential in certain kinds of conflicts, especially in permissive, low-intensity wars. Drones make possible long-term surveillance, combined with the ever-present threat of a lethal strike.
We can perhaps say that the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is the first in which drones have played a decisive tactical role in modern high-intensity combat. Drones not only mapped out defensive air and land networks, but then directly attacked and degraded those networks. This goes a step beyond the classic AirLand Battle vision of long-range, precision airstrikes which could disrupt communications and logistics nodes and thus either cut the guts out of an armored offensive or paralyze a defensive network. Rather, plentiful lethal drones were used as part of an attrition strategy, mapping out the enemy defense and then attacking it directly in addition to facilitating traditional armor, infantry, and artillery attacks. Azerbaijan was able to purchase off-the-shelf military equipment (sometimes with off-the-shelf operators) and use it to tear apart a set of prepared defensive positions that had held territory for decades.
The newfound importance of drones is also challenging some geopolitical alignments. Turkey’s unusual position as a friend to Russia and an arms exporter to Ukraine puts it at the crux of the current crisis. Indeed, concern that Turkish drones exported to Ukraine might change the military balance in the Donbass is one of the drivers behind Russia’s confrontational strategy. Access to drones means that Ukraine will keep some of the tools of airpower even if Russia establishes rapid domination over the airspace. But then Russia may be able to use its fleet of drones to map, attack, and neutralize Ukraine’s air defense network, making its own legacy systems that much more effective. Russia’s drone arsenal is large and lethal, and may well help ground forces chart a path through static Ukrainian defenses, all while making it more difficult for Ukrainian forces to move into blocking positions.
But innovation always spurs counter-innovation. We can count on armies to develop more advanced techniques for concealing themselves from drones using both old and new technologies. The importance of basic competency in electronic warfare, which makes the command and control of drones more complex, will become clear. We should also expect armies and air forces to figure out ways to make their air defenses more lethal. This will include automatic ground-based defense systems and potentially UAVs that can destroy enemy drones. For their part the Russians have improved defenses on some of their armored vehicles, hoping to avoid the results of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
We can wildly overestimate the impact of UAVs (and eventually of ground and sea unmanned vehicles) on warfare over the last. The importance of even famous platforms like the Predator is often misunderstood. Yet it now seems likely that unmanned vehicles will play a critically important role if the Ukraine-Russia conflict goes super-hot. If there’s war, the defense industrial giants of the world will be paying the closest kind of attention to how the battle plays out.