Seth J. Frantzman, Middle East Forum writing fellow and executive director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis, spoke to participants in a December 11 Middle East Forum webinar (video) about the six-week war that erupted between Azerbaijan and Armenia last September and what is tells us about the future of warfare in the Middle East and beyond.
The military confrontation over Nagorno-Karabakh, a disputed majority Armenian area within the borders of Azerbaijan, pitted two adversaries with relatively unremarkable conventional military arsenals, with one exception – Azerbaijan had invested a substantial portion of its defense budget on purchases of Israeli and Turkish drones.
In particular, Azerbaijan deployed large numbers of Israeli-built "loitering munitions," also known as "suicide" or "kamikaze" drones – inexpensive unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) designed to fly into targets and detonate. Frantzman likened these drones, such as the Harop (Israel Aerospace Industries) and Skystriker (Elbit Systems), to remote-controlled missiles. Frantzman said that Israel is "probably the most proficient country in the world in terms of building these loitering munitions," excelling in miniaturization, precision guidance, electro-optics, and sensors, the last being "the name of the game in military technology."
Unless an enemy has a sophisticated, integrated air defense system specifically designed to handle large numbers of interceptions, a swarm of loitering munitions can easily overwhelm targets. "If you throw enough drones at an air defense system, the air defense system can't handle them all."
Loitering munitions can then make short work of other military assets. "One layer destroys the enemy air defense, the next layer comes in and pounds the tanks, the next layer comes in and hits the artillery, and then all you have to do is pick off a bunch of soldiers and that's your war."
Azerbaijan also deployed large numbers of Turkish drones, notably the Bayraktar TB2. Though not a loitering munition, Bayraktar TB2 is likewise cheap and effective in sufficient numbers at overwhelming all but the most sophisticated air defense systems. It can "carry just a few missiles" and is "not very fast," said Frantzman, but it had been used to devasting effect against Russia's Pantsir air defense system in Syria and Libya.
In the Middle East, only Israel, with its "integrated air defense system with multiple layers" – notably its Iron Dome anti-missile batteries – is capable of neutralizing drone swarms effectively. Even Saudi Arabia, which has "very good air defenses," suffered a devastating attack by Iranian drones on its Abqaiq oil facility in 2019.
Countries that invest in the technology of loitering munitions acquire "the ability to have an instant air force" without having to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on systems that are often difficult to acquire and even harder to master. Whereas elite pilots require years of specialized training to fly F-16s or F-35s, drone operators can be trained in a matter of weeks.
"Smart countries will invest in this type of technology and buy it en masse."
Frantzman predicts that "smart countries will invest in this type of technology and buy it en masse," an imperative that he says doesn't apply only to countries that can't afford state-of-the-art conventional air power. "Smart Western militaries ... serious about confronting near-peer adversaries like Russia or China ... need to be investing in these types of [weapons systems] and investing in a massive scale."
The United States is more focused on building small numbers of what Frantzman calls "Rolls Royce drones," like the $200 million Global Hawk. "And the Chinese are like, 'No, no. We'll just build a million Hondas and throw them at you.'" Such tactics could be particularly effective at sea – a drone swarm is likely the most effective way to overwhelm the defenses of an aircraft carrier. Frantzman believes the outcome of the Azerbaijani-Armenia conflict is an important wake-up call for Washington.
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.