Last year I wrote about the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabak enclave. At the time, I said:
The startling thing, to me, is the graphic evidence of how the modern battlefield has changed. In my days in uniform, sure, we were under constant threat from Soviet-supplied aircraft of the Angolan air force; but they weren't well flown, and missed most of the time. Smart weapons weren't usually encountered until the latter days of the Border War. As long as we camouflaged our positions well, and took basic precautions such as digging foxholes and slit trenches, we were more likely than not to emerge unscathed from Angolan air raids. Indeed, South African artillery operated for months well inside the Angolan air umbrella, and didn't lose a single gun or crew to air attack.
Nowadays, things are very different. Here's a video clip provided by Azerbaijan, showing how its Turkish-supplied unmanned aerial vehicles and the missiles they carry can interdict any group of Armenian soldiers they can see. It's literally the truth for Armenia's troops that to gather in a group, even in the protection of a slit trench or under other cover, is basically a death sentence. No matter what they do, they can be seen; and if sensors can detect them, they can be killed. There's no longer any place to hide. Even camouflage won't conceal them from modern sensors that can see through or around it.
There's more at the link, including the embedded video.
Now comes an article in Small Wars Journal titled "What the United States Military Can Learn from the Nagorno-Karabakh War". The authors make the same point, along with several others. Here's an excerpt. Bold, underlined text is my emphasis.
This latest war lasted 44 days and left Azerbaijan in control of nearly one-third of the territory in the Nagorno-Karabakh. Unlike previous skirmishes and cease-fire violations, the warfare that erupted in September 2020 included post-modern characteristics and multi-domain combat operations. At only six days into the conflict, Azerbaijan already claimed to have destroyed 250 armored vehicles, a similar number of artillery pieces, and 39 air-defense systems, including a Russian S-300 surface-to-air missile system. Armenian forces faced a persistent threat of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) that could attrite traditional defenses and minimize their overall defensive capability.
. . .
Azerbaijan leveraged [its] economic windfall to field several different types of UAS in the conflict. Among the deadliest and most effective was the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 which carries four MAM (Smart Micro Munition) laser-guided missiles. The Azeris developed an imposing UAS arsenal composed of Israeli loitering munitions, also known as “suicide” or “kamikaze” drones that included the Harop and SkyStriker. They also deployed a locally-made version of the Israeli Orbiter-1K small kamikaze drone and converted a number of their old Russian AN-2 biplanes into ISR or suicide UAS. By contrast, Armenia’s UAS fleet consisted of smaller, indigenous systems focused on reconnaissance missions and is generally recognized as less capable than Azerbaijan’s fleet of foreign UAS.
The armed conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia highlighted the continued use and effectiveness of unmanned platforms in low-intensity conflict and its ability to transform smaller, less-funded militaries into more lethal warfighting organizations. The use of UAS, particularly by Azerbaijan, included a range of intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) operations, as well as unmanned aerial attack operations involving a variety of different platforms and munitions. The resounding success of UAS in the Nagorno-Karabakh War marks what many consider to be a turning point in modern warfare. For the first time in recorded history, nearly all battle damage was inflicted by unmanned platforms. The attrition of forces and equipment by UAS led to a decisive Azeri victory.
Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD)
At the onset of the conflict, Azerbaijan leveraged Soviet-era AN-2 biplanes to deceive and expose Armenian air defenses. Though decades old and intended to serve as traditional manned aircraft, the biplanes’ conversion to unmanned decoys allowed Azerbaijan to conduct low altitude flights into the highly contested environment—and more importantly—into the weapons engagement zone (WEZ) of Armenian air defenses. These improvised UAS were repurposed as decoys and flown to the front lines to force air defenses to give away their location and enable targeting by TB2s. When the Armenian air defenses targeted, engaged, and destroyed the perceived threats, they inadvertently broadcasted their positions to Azeri unmanned aerial attack platforms that flew at higher altitudes—enabling the Bayraktar TB2 and kamikaze drones to destroy higher-payoff targets like the Armenian air defense systems.
These tactics are reminiscent of Vietnam-era “Wild Weasel” or “Hunter-Killer” concepts, where a bait aircraft would fly at low altitude in an attempt to gain enemy contact or draw fire, and a separate trail aircraft maintained enough lateral and/or vertical separation to immediately engage enemy forces that exposed themselves. By leveraging these tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs) with an unmanned fleet, Azerbaijan was able to destroy the vast majority of Armenian air and missile defense equipment and establish tactical air superiority with minimal risk to force or mission. It is worth noting that traditional rotary wing assets were not used during these attacks. The high density of ADA systems across the battlefield presented too great a risk for more expensive manned aviation assets.
. . .
In addition to the apparent lack of Armenian counter-UAS (C-UAS) capability, the strikes clearly demonstrated the vulnerability of more advanced air defense systems when faced with an overwhelming UAS threat.
Fire and Maneuver
A number of reports indicate that Azeri special operations teams, also referred to as “saboteur groups” by both Baku and Yerevan, infiltrated Armenian territory and occupied vacant houses days before combat operations began. Ethnic Armenians in the local area verified these reports and highlighted that “strange men, not Armenians” had established a presence in the town. After initial UAS strikes decimated Armenian positions and opened gaps in defensive lines, the small groups of Azeri operators were able to seize key terrain with minimal resistance. With the use of UAS, the Azeri saboteur groups were then able to call-for-fire, directing accurate rocket, artillery, and air-to-ground fire onto designated targets. It is currently unknown whether these saboteur groups leveraged any type of manned-unmanned-teaming platform (i.e., a One System Remote Video Terminal equivalent) to receive live video, identify targets, or conduct battle damage assessments. These tactics demonstrated a variety of similarities to NATO operations in Afghanistan, where U.S. Special Operations Forces use unmanned platforms and laser range finder/designators to direct laser-guided and precision munitions onto targets, or sparkle targets to aid in directing unguided munitions onto target.
In the highly mountainous terrain of Nagorno-Karabakh, where movement by dismounted troops is slow, cumbersome, and restrictive for large military equipment like tanks, UAS serve as an equalizer that limits the advantage provided by elevated terrain and the cover and concealment it offers. The inhospitality of the terrain is amplified when small areas of low ground within the rising terrain provide little vegetation for concealment. Outposts and fighting positions in mountainous terrain can be identified and destroyed by UAS outfitted with modern sensor payloads and organic weapons. This is particularly applicable to fighting positions without appropriate passive defense measures (i.e., camouflaging, target hardening, etc.). When UAS do not have organic munitions and another UAS or manned platform is unable to support a remote engagement, UAS can transmit highly accurate grid coordinates to artillery or multiple launch rocket systems, enabling immediate “fire-for-effect” capability that yields accuracy to within ten meters of the intended point of impact.
There's more at the link, including a useful analysis of lessons learned.
Once again, I feel like a dinosaur when it comes to military tactics, techniques and technology. Our war in southern Africa was a whole lot less sophisticated (although no less deadly) than the modern battlefield has become. Effectively, the era of massed troops is over on the high-tech battlefield. Large numbers of troops have become nothing more than large numbers of targets to an enemy equipped with the latest technology.
The USA has always relied on its technological edge to give it operational superiority over opponents. The Nagorno-Karabak conflict demonstrates that even a minor power can now buy off-the-shelf systems and weapons that can match US capabilities, and render the result on the battlefield a lot less certain than it used to be. Imagine if Iraq had had such systems when we invaded there in 2003 . . . we'd have paid a much higher price in blood than we did, even if we eventually won. Whether or not modern American people would stand for that is questionable. We've grown a lot softer as a nation since our grandfathers and great-grandfathers fought World War II.