Interview with Dr. Çağlar Kurç: The Second Nagorno-Karabakh War and UCAVs

Oğuzhan Çakır | Assistant Editor |

Question: Dr Çağlar Kurç, I would like to thank you for accepting my interview request for the Political Reflection Magazine, and it is an honour to have an interview with you. I want to start with a general question.

What role have UAVs and UCAVs played in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War? Do you think they have made a serious contribution to drone war theory and practice?

* Çağlar Kurç is an Adjunct Lecturer at the Department of International Relations at I.D. Bilkent University. He was a Fulbright Fellow at the MIT Security Studies Program and visiting post-doctoral scholar at the Arnold A. Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University. His work focuses on defence industrialization in the emerging powers. He co-edited with Richard A. Bitzinger and Stephanie G. Neuman Defence Industries in the 21st Century A Comparative Analysis (2020).

Çağlar Kurç: Thank you for your invitation. It is a pleasure. The combat effective drones (loitering attack munitions (LAMs), intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) drones, and uninhabited combat autonomous vehicles (UCAV)) provided a significant advantage to Azerbaijan. Drones provided benefits in ISR and long-range strike capabilities. Azerbaijan used them to find, fix, track and destroy targets far beyond the front lines. Due to this, Azerbaijan was able to disturb Armenian supply lines and logistics. Furthermore, Drones disrupted Armenian counter-offensives by attacking while they were preparing for an attack. Drones also increased the efficiency and precision of land-based artillery and crewed aircraft.

Indeed, we can draw specific lessons from the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War on the impact of combat-effective drones in war. Azerbaijan’s use of drones resembled what other countries either did before or included in their doctrine in terms of practice. For example, Azerbaijan remotely piloted An-2 as bait for Armenian air defences to locate and destroy them. In terms of theory, the war strengthened the arguments that pointed out the significance of passive defence, combined arms, and dispersion.

Question: We know that there has been a severe arm-race between Azerbaijan and Armenia since 1990. There were intense clashes between the two countries in 2016 and July 2020, but these clashes could not gain the upper hand on both sides. However, after the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, which started on September 27, we saw that while Azerbaijan diversified its defence preferences, as reflected in the SIPRI data and the field, Armenia did not, or could not, take any measures in return. In this regard, can we say Armenia is seriously mistaken in the calculation of Azerbaijan’s capacity and that Armenia faced this with a heavy defeat?

Çağlar Kurç: Armenia certainly miscalculated Azerbaijan’s increasing military capabilities. Azerbaijan has been outspending Armenia since 2008 and modernizing its military. One of the areas in that Azerbaijan has been heavily investing in combat-effective drones. Azerbaijan showcased what it could do with the new technologies, such as loitering munitions, during the 2016 Nagorno-Karabakh clashes. Since the conflict lasted for four days, we have not observed the impact of these new technologies on the battlefield. Following the 2016 clashes, Armenia has increased its arms purchases from Russia, began to invest in air defence systems, such as Verba portable SAM and Tor-1M mobile SAM. Despite the investment in air defence systems, Armenia did not take necessary precautions for drones. They stuck with the old Soviet doctrines, believed that the procurement of air defences would be enough, and did not make any alterations to its defensive positions. They thought that the Bagramyan line, a series of fortifications set up during the First Nagorno-Karabakh War, would be enough to prevent any Azerbaijan offensive. What is also quite interesting is that the Armenian side did not, or could not, successfully camouflage their position. Consequently, in the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, Azerbaijan was able to destroy pre-identified defensive positions.

Question: When the war ended, it is observed that both countries suffered severe losses, but considering that Armenia lost 40-50% of its striking power and that its army had 10 to 15% human casualties along with war casualties, how will this post-war situation affect Armenia socioeconomically?

Çağlar Kurç: It would be challenging for Armenia to make up its material losses. Their economy was already suffering, and they have been lagging behind Azerbaijan’s military spending. Indeed, they would try to rebuild their military. Still, it will take some time unless Russia or other states donate weapon systems. In any case, the power balance seems to remain in favour of Azerbaijan.

Question: Azerbaijan used its drone fleet to stalk and destroy Armenia’s weapon systems in Nagorno-Karabakh, shattering its defences and enabling a swift advance. Armenia found that air defence systems in Nagorno-Karabakh, many of which were older than Soviet’s air systems, were impossible to defend against drone attacks. Thus, losses quickly piled up. So, do you think drones are the future of combat? What place can drone combat take within conventional war doctrine or methods?

Çağlar Kurç: Indeed, an increasing number of countries would use combat-effective drones in the future because more countries are investing in making these drones, and most of them are willing to export their products. I expect, especially after the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, combat-effective drones will proliferate. These drones would not be very complex systems, like the ones used by the United States, but ‘‘good enough’’ systems that could impact the regional conflicts. Therefore, they will be part of future warfare.

It would be difficult to say how drones will change if they change warfare. Currently, it seems that they have been replacing crewed aircraft in specific missions. This could be why many scholars are now calling them cheap air force. In terms of doctrine, we observe the continuation of previous uses of drones in the past. For example, during the 1960s, the United States Air Force used Model 147 Lightning Bugs in North Vietnam for collecting photographic intelligence, dropping chaff to confuse radars, decoying enemy missiles, and even attacking heavily defended ground targets. Israel incorporated electronic jamming pods into its drones and tested them during the 1982 Lebanon War. These were used to locate Syrian SAM batteries months before Israel’s invasion. Therefore, what we are observing today is essentially the continuation of previous experiences. But, as the combat effective drones become more capable, we might see doctrinal changes. For me, it is difficult to what that change would be at this point.

Question: In association with the previous question, the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War causes several interpretations that the traditional land elements of the Azerbaijan-Armenia conflicts, armoured, mechanized, and motorized formations, especially tanks, come to an end in the face of the advanced drone war weapons and concepts. In particular, do you think the era of tanks is over, or do they still have their effectiveness in different cases?

Çağlar Kurç: Arguing that the days of tanks come to an end is a simple lesson from the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War. To some extent, this take is understandable because the drone footages captured the imagination of many. Suppose the analysis is only based on that footage. In that case, one might think tanks are not useful anymore because they are easy prey for drones. However, we should not forget that every weapon system has its strengths and weaknesses. In contemporary warfare, different weapons systems cover each other’s weaknesses, and military attempts to harness the strengths of each platform; hence the significance of combined arms warfare. Tanks have always been vulnerable to attacks above and anti-tank weapons. This is why the efficient use of tanks requires support from other systems and units, such as air defence systems and infantry, to cover its weaknesses. Tanks bring protection and firepower to the field. If you are assaulting a heavily defended position, you want your tanks with you. For example, when the air support was not available due to bad weather, you would still like to have a tank to assault enemy positions or defeat an enemy tank. Tanks are also valuable for urban warfare, where they can support the infantry. I think tanks are with us for some time.

Question: Do you think that this war doctrine carried out by Azerbaijan is similar, or a reflection of the tactics applied in ‘‘Operation Spring Shield of the Turkish Armed Forces’’ or in Libya and Syria? If not, what do you think to differentiate them from the one carried out by Azerbaijan?

Çağlar Kurç: Azerbaijan’s tactics were similar to the Turkish Armed Forces’ operations in Libya and Syria. This was expected for two reasons. First, Turkey and Azerbaijan have close military relations since 1992, when Azerbaijan became a North Atlantic Cooperation Council member. Turkey helped Azerbaijan rebuild its army through NATO partnership tools and mechanisms, including capacity building and interoperability. The cooperation also included education, training, and exercises. Azerbaijan also participated in NATO operations in Kosovo and Afghanistan under Turkish command. So, there has already been established cooperation between the two countries. Second, as Heiko Borchert, Torben Schütz, and Joseph Verbovszky argue in their report “Beware the Hype,” Turkey was involved in operational planning of the Second Karabakh War. Turkish UAVs were optimized for Turkish munitions. These shaped the way the drones used in the war, thus showed similarity with the Turkish doctrines.

Question: Considering that countries with border conflicts such as India, Pakistan, Serbia, and Ukraine all buy attack drones, do you think that drones purchased cheaply from China, Turkey, and Israel are fuelling conflicts such as Armenia and Azerbaijan, and that longstanding “frozen” conflicts outside of Nagorno-Karabakh could be revived?

Çağlar Kurç: It depends on whether the power balance is shifting to one side or the other. If there is a shift in favour of the side that seeks to change the situation, and if one side believes it can win the revived war, then the answer is yes. However, if the power balance remains the same or continues to favour the status quo side, we would not see reviving of the conflicts.

Question: How should states acquire defence systems to deal with drones? Russia’s air defence systems did not perform successfully both in Syria and in Nagorno-Karabakh. Do these systems have no anti yet? In addition to this situation, the comments that UCAVs are the stabilizing factor in the Ukraine Crisis are pretty popular. What are your comments on this issue?

Çağlar Kurç: Military technology has a dialectical development pattern. For each new offensive weapon, there will always be defence measures. This is also true for drones. As they spread in the system, an increasing number of states would search for ways to defend themselves. Defence against drones is a complicated issue because there are many types of drones. Each has different challenges to a defender. Smaller drones pose a higher threat level, primarily when they are used as swarms and overwhelm the air defences. States are especially vulnerable to swarm drone attacks and small drones. Still, several states have been working on the development of counter UAV systems.  Larger drones, such as Reaper or Bayraktar TB2, could have a difficult time against well-structured integrated air defence systems and fighter jets. Drones are also susceptible to electronic warfare. But not all countries can field these systems effectively. For example, during the Nagorno-Karabakh war, the Armenian side refrained from using their fighter aircraft; either losing them would be too costly or insufficient training. Therefore, the airspace over Nagorno Karabakh was not contested, which enabling a better drone operations environment.

Furthermore, the Armenian side had minimal electronic warfare capabilities. These are all critical factors when assessing the capabilities and the impact of drones. Moreover, Azerbaijan’s EW, which blinded enemy air defence systems, supported drone operations. Consequently, in the Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh cases, drone warfare’s success resulted from two factors; electronic warfare that blinded the air defence systems and the lack of enemy fighter aircraft. We also need to point out the training level of adversaries. In both cases, it seems that the adversaries were not well trained, which reflected negatively on the effectiveness of air defences.

If the conflicting parties cannot reach a peaceful settlement of disputes and if each side is searching for ways to shift the power balance to reinitiate the dispute, then UCAV could destabilize because they are likely to change the balance. Yet, we need to take this claim with a grain of salt. Suppose both sides acquire UCAVs and air defence capabilities. In that case, the power balance will not change, and the conflict’s situation would remain the same.

Question: “Drones are not a military panacea,” Ulrike Franke, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations in London, said and added that “They are not a strategic game-changer. It’s not a technology that gives total dominance to the armed forces of a country.” On the other hand, Can Kasapoğlu, the director of the Security and Defence Studies Program at the EDAM think tank, Turkey’s use of UCAVs became a “tactical game-changer?” A Turkish defence analyst Bahri Mert Demirel argues that “for the first time in the world, drones were used as the primary element in airstrikes and the use of drones in this manner has put forward a new military doctrine not only in Turkey but also in the world’s literature on warfare.” Under the lights of these arguments, which side you do consider yourself with?

Çağlar Kurç: I think the debate is more nuanced than both sides argue. We need to look at the context and the military of each side to understand the impact of drones. Against an ill-equipped and ill-trained military, which uses old doctrines and fails to the basics of modern warfare, such as effective use of passive defence, drones can significantly impact the conduct of war. This was the case in Second Nagorno-Karabakh War. However, suppose we place current drones in a great power war or against a great power. In that case, the outcome could be very different, and the effectiveness of the drones would suffer. For example, during the Russo-Georgian War in 2008, Georgia had an advantage in drones. Still, Russian air defence systems, fighter aircraft, and hacking put Georgian drones out of action. This is why great powers are heavily investing in drone systems that could survive in contested airspaces. Systems, such as Reapers, could not survive in contested airspace. In other, for drones to survive and operate, they needed to be supported by other elements.  This is why one technology alone cannot change the character of war or be considered a “game-changer.” As mentioned above, each system has its strengths and weaknesses. The most effective militaries are the ones that can harness the strength of their available weapons.

In some cases, changes in doctrines can diminish the impact of new technology. Furthermore, as mentioned above, this was not the first time drones were used against ground targets or played an essential role in airstrikes. This is why many reports argue that what we have observed recently is the use of already existing doctrines and proved the importance of air defence, electronic warfare, and passive defensive measures. The effectiveness of drones and what they could do in war depends on the context. Thus, the impact varies depending on the adversaries.

Question: Finally, given that such tools are cheap and easily available, do you think terrorist organizations would pose a serious threat to the international system and national states if they acquired them?

Çağlar Kurç: Not all drones are cheap. But violent non-state actors have been very innovative in transforming commercially available drones for military purposes. Since these systems are small, it isn’t easy to detect them. Because of this, they pose a significant threat. Yet, states are developing countermeasures against small drones. Any advantage that the violent non-state actors have would be negated in a couple of years. But as I said before, there will be a constant competition between offensive and defensive measures, and violent non-state actors would always seek to exploit the weaknesses in state defences.

Question: If you don’t mind, can I have your final comments on this issue as closing remarks?

Çağlar Kurç: When thinking about the future of warfare and the impact of new technology, we need to be aware of two issues. First, there is no silver bullet. Technology alone cannot solve the problems on the ground; it cannot change warfare by itself. Second, we have always been wrong in our predictions about future warfare because we tend to think of new technologies in the light of past wars. New technologies solve the problems of the past. Because of this, many experts became too optimistic about the impact. This optimism results in overlooking the possible dangers that the new technology could bring or vulnerabilities that they could have.  I think we need to be very cautious about the impact of new technologies or assigning them titles such as “game-changer.” Furthermore, war is a very complex phenomenon. It has many moving parts, and many different factors determine the line between victory and defeat. Focusing on military technology would be a very narrow approach and would lose sight of the complexity. We should not lose sight of human factors and context.

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