Some of you will have heard about the resurgence of violence between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. Several hundred people have already died and there is a risk of further escalation.
Still internationally recognised as part of Azerbaijan, the ethnically Armenian region and its surroundings were wrestled from them by Armenia in the early 1990s as the Soviet Union disintegrated. This initial conflict killed tens of thousands and displaced many more. Tensions have periodically flared up into violence, but this latest conflict is the most serious since the official ceasefire was signed in 1994.
The conflict threatens to drag in bigger regional players. Armenia has a defence treaty with Russia while Azerbaijan is getting full-throated support in “their holy war” from none other than Turkey’s own dictator-to-be Erdoğan. Turkey’s involvement, which now includes sending Syrian mercenaries, is another prong in their campaign to be the region’s hegemon (again).
This piece in Foreign Affairs provides a useful overview if you want to read more.
This piece by the Economist argues that the conflict has given drones new purpose, as Azerbaijan uses them to destroy Armenian tanks and artillery from the air. Traditionally an anti-insurgent (sometimes Yemeni wedding parties) weapon, they were not expected to be useful in conventional warfare where manned aircraft would quickly dispatch them. It turns out that most countries do not have big air forces (Azerbaijan and Armenia have 52 between them. Australia has around 100) and armed drones are a cheap way to rain fire down on your opponent.
Before the Second World War, most navies were organised around battleships, giant floating artillery platforms that could hurl shells over the horizon. They were astronomically expensive and took years to build. They were already obsolete once the war started. Hundreds of cheap planes, launched from an aircraft carrier hundreds of kilometers away, made short work of them. See Operation Ten-Go.
Today militaries are made up of expensive weapons platforms like the F35 fighter jet ($100 million a pop excluding maintenance and R&D) or aircraft carriers (the latest US aircraft carrier costs $13 billion). Azerbaijan’s drones cost about 2 million each by comparison. The question is how drones might change war between larger powers. Will drones be the Achilles heel of modern militaries? Time will tell.