Drone warfare is about to shrink — and get more dangerous.
Azerbaijan’s successful use of drones during its recent war with Armenia, specialists say, has captured the attention of military leaders around the world and accelerated a move toward a generation of unmanned aerial vehicles that are smaller, cheaper and easier to operate.
Even the leaders of major Western military powers such as Britain have signaled a coming shift in their drone strategies after watching Azerbaijani aircraft rain destruction on Armenian troops and traditional ground combat vehicles during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict this fall.
Many of those medium-sized Azerbaijani aircraft were purchased from Turkey and belong to the Group 3 classification of drones. Group 4 and Group 5 drones include much larger and better-known examples such as the Predator, Global Hawk and Reaper, all deployed extensively by the U.S. military over the past two decades.
Those large drones, analysts say, still have a role to play in combat, but smaller and cheaper alternatives, such as the Turkish TB2, which can cost just a few million dollars, are increasingly appealing — and increasingly effective.
“I think there’s a trend globally in militaries to develop or purchase these smaller, tactical Group 3 types of drones. You can purchase more of them [for less money] than it would take to purchase Group 4 or Group 5, and they serve more applications,” said Michael Blades, vice president of aerospace, defense and security at the leading research and consulting firm Frost & Sullivan.
“If you want to use them for a tactical attack, you can do that. If you want to use them for surveillance, you can do that,” said Mr. Blades, who tracks the drone industry closely. “You don’t need a whole lot of technology, with the small drones and airborne IEDs, you don’t need a whole lot of technology to do a lot of damage.”
Indeed, small- or medium-sized drones have proved highly effective in Libya, Yemen, Syria and in other battles around the world, with even nonstate actors such as the Islamic State group employing cheap drones to great effect. Specialists predict that the rapid proliferation of drones could mark a turning point in warfare and, given how vulnerable some vehicles are to small-drone attacks, may lead to wholesale changes in how ground-combat campaigns are conducted.
Small drones and tight budgets
For the world’s leading militaries, the Azerbaijani-Armenian war raised new questions about how best to allocate money in defense budgets that are likely to stay flat or even shrink in coming years because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported late last month that U.K. military officials are eyeing a major purchase of cheaper drones as part of the country’s five-year defense plan. British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace also has publicly declared that Turkey’s TB2 drone and similar aircraft are now “leading the way” in unmanned technology. Israel also has emerged as a leading manufacturer in the arena.
The price tag for those Group 3 drones pales in comparison with the more than $20 million Britain reportedly paid recently for larger Protector drones.
But analysts say there is more to the strategy than simply saving money. Larger drones also aren’t as nimble in the skies over a battlefield and simply aren’t suited to certain missions, whereas a craft such as the TB2 can quickly and easily be fitted for a host of tasks.
“In Nagorno-Karabakh, the TB2 likewise performed well in targeting and destroying enemy defenses,” Shaan Shaikh and Wes Rumbaugh, researchers with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in a recent analysis. “In addition to providing identification and targeting data, the TB2s also carried smart, micro-guided munitions to kill targets on their own.
“Azerbaijan has also used the high-definition cameras the TB2s carry to produce many propaganda videos,” they wrote. “Videos showcasing attacks on Armenian fighters and equipment were posted online and broadcast on digital billboards in Baku.”
Although Armenia fielded its own drones, including some made by its military ally Russia, it was too little, too late. Azerbaijan’s well-planned, well-financed drone strategy wreaked absolute havoc on the Soviet-era ground equipment fielded by the Armenians.
Military observers have concluded that drones likely proved to be a game-changer that left Armenia, which defeated Azerbaijan in a 1994 clash, with few viable military options this time.
The Nagorno-Karabakh stalemate, a “frozen conflict” dating back to the mid-1990s, was transformed in a matter of weeks, resulting in major territorial losses that Armenian leaders called “unspeakably painful.”
Azerbaijan’s success, analysts say, was also attributable in large part to Armenia’s lack of anti-drone systems. Such technology will prove vital in future battles, particularly as more countries and nonstate actors are able to field their own swarms of drones.
The issue is a top priority inside the Pentagon, which recently released the first militarywide strategy for countering small unmanned aerial systems, or sUAS.
“Commercial manufacturers and nation states are improving performance, reliability and survivability of sUAS,” the report reads in part. “Low-cost systems are increasingly available around the world. These more capable systems have extended range, payload and employment options.” “Some of these systems can fit in the palm of a hand, perform military missions, and conduct novel offensive or defensive operations not traditionally associated with the platform. Swarms of sUAS operating independently or augmented with manned systems, facial recognition algorithms, and high-speed digital communication networks, such as [5G] cellular networks, will create new levels of complexity.”
The Pentagon is researching and fielding laser weapons, electronic warfare systems and other capabilities that can either shoot down or disable drones.
But specialists say the growing availability of drones and the number of nations that can now deploy them may force the U.S. to pursue other avenues to limit their use in warfare.
“The U.S. military has always tried to stay ahead by having better technology. But now I think they’re going to have to resort to multilateral agreements on when and how you can use drones,” Mr. Blades said. “That’s the only way you can rein this stuff in.”