Israel revolutionized Azerbaijan’s drone arsenal. Are the weapons working?
Drones have played a major role in the recent clashes between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
Armenia held an exhibition on Tuesday. It wasn’t a normal kind of exhibition though. It was devoted to pieces of drones that Armenia says it shot down or captured from Azerbaijan during the recent conflict.
Among the items were a plethora of drones, many of which social-media users identified as Israeli. Drones have played a major role in the recent clashes between Azerbaijan and Armenia. They have been used to help Azerbaijan target Armenian positions, and some have crashed on both sides.
However, in the shadowy world of drones and defense-company exports, tracking where the drones came from and how many were downed is a complex task.
This isn’t the first time Armenia has said it found Israeli drones being used by Azerbaijan. In 2016, a ThunderB drone crashed or was shot down in Nagorno-Karabakh, according to the Flight Global website. What is new is that photos of drones being shot down or used in operations have been published almost daily since clashes began on July 12.
Azerbaijan has used UAVs to document its operations, showing off video of attacks on Armenian positions through video links from drones hovering overhead. This means Baku has integrated drones deep into its armed forces.
Armenia’s display of destroyed Azerbaijani drones on July 21 is a message to Baku and to Israel that the drones keep crashing. At least that’s what it looks like on the surface. Rob Lee, a former US marine who says on his Twitter bio that he is a PhD student at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, has documented the drone conflict over Armenia and Azerbaijan.
“The Armenian Ministry of Defense showed off some of the Azerbaijani UAVs and loitering munitions that crashed or were downed during the conflict including the Israeli-made ThunderB, Orbiter 3 and SkyStriker,” he wrote Tuesday. The photos seem to show that several intact drones were captured, and numerous pieces of drones, perhaps after being shot down, were found.
But there is a problem with Armenia’s display. It appears some of the drones have been used before in various displays dating back to 2016 and 2012. In the murky world of drone sales and claims of shoot-downs, it may be that the supposed upending of Azerbaijan’s drone force was not all it appears.
Let’s start with what we know. The most recent edition of the Drone Databook that was compiled by Bard College’s Center for the Study of the Drone says Azerbaijan has eight different types of drones, all acquired from Israel. These include the Aerostar, Orbiter 1K and Orbiter 3 from Aeronautics.
The Orbiter 1K is what is known as a “loitering munition,” or kamikaze drone. The drone behaves like a drone, hovering around, until it finds a target and then slams into it like a cruise missile. In February 2019, Aeronautics reportedly completed new sales to Azerbaijan. The country has a hunger for Israeli kamikaze-style drones. The Washington Post reported in 2016 that it used an IAI (Israel Aerospace Industries) Harop against Armenians as well. Armenia has complained about the 2016 incident.
According to the Drone Databook, the Harop arrived in Azerbaijan in 2011 along with others purchased by Baku. These included the Elbit Systems Hermes 450 and Orbiter 1K acquired the same year. That means that as far back as 2011, Azerbaijan was trying to revolutionize its drone arsenal.
Using drones in targeted killings or armed attacks is a relatively new phenomenon. The US rapidly increased its use of armed drones during the global war on terrorism. By 2011, only a handful of countries had armed drones, and small Azerbaijan was one of them. By 2016, the country had acquired the Orbiter 3 and the large Heron TP for surveillance. In 2018, it also procured Israel’s Hermes 900 and SkyStriker, according to the book. The SkyStriker sale, reported in January 2019 by the Azeri Defence website, took Baku’s drone arsenal to the next level.
The Drone Databook provides only a snapshot of the number of drones Azerbaijan has acquired. It claims the country has 100 SkyStrikers and 50 Harops, while it had a handful of larger surveillance drones like the Hermes 900 and 450. Azerbaijan also acquired licenses to make two types of Aeronautics drones locally through its Azad Systems.
This means the overall amount cannot be determined. Some of them were also lost in battle. Armenian forces claimed to have downed at least 22 by 2018. Now that list is apparently larger.
Elbit Systems says in an online document that the SkyStriker can hover over a target for up to two hours with a 5-kg. warhead and has a range of 20 km. Flight Global says the Orbiter 1K can fly for several hours with a small 1- to 2-kg. warhead. The Harop, by contrast, can fly much further with a warhead of around 15 kg.
Armenian sources have published numerous photos online since July 12, showing what they claim are downed Israeli drones. A SkyStriker was shown upside down in the dirt on July 20, and another alleged SkyStriker was shown with two men posing next to it on July 17. An Orbiter 3 was found in a grassy field on July 18.
Drone footage was used by both sides, but Azerbaijan’s drone footage is much clearer than Armenia’s. Armenia uses locally made drones and doesn’t appear to have the same level of technology as Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan says it shot down at least one Armenian drone on July 16.
According to Lee’s analysis of Azerbaijani videos of attacks on Armenian targets, there are other Israeli weapons being used. A July 15 video appears to show a SPIKE NLOS from Israel’s Rafael, he wrote. He has identified several videos that may be from NLOS missiles. Most of these strikes were on July 15. Azerbaijan’s use of the SPIKE family of missiles dates back to at least 2016, when Azeri media reported its use.
Rafael makes a large number of SPIKE missiles that are used by 33 countries. It says 30,000 missiles have been sold and 5,000 fired, but it does not reveal details about all customers and does not comment on Azerbaijan. The NLOS has a range of 30 km. and is a non-line-of-sight missile. Rafael also makes the SPIKE ER2, or extended-range missile, which has a range of 10 km.
The outcome of the clashes between Azerbaijan and Armenia have not been decisive, but tensions appear to be rising. Both Russia and Turkey are now playing a role, as well as Iran, which has offered to mediate. These large countries all are involved in discussions about Syria as well. That means the conflict in the Caucuses could have larger implications. Turkey has said it wants to supply Azerbaijan with more weapons, including its own Bayraktar drones. Russia could replenish Armenia’s arms.
Israel has found itself in the middle of controversy over Caucuses conflicts before. Pro-Russian groups in Georgia, backed by Russian MiG-29s, shot down Israeli-made Hermes 450 drones, according to a UN report in 2008.
Russia learned from Georgia’s use of drones that it needed more drones of its own and purchased 10 IAI Searcher MK II drones in 2015, eventually manufacturing them as its own “Forpost” UAV, according to Russian media. Defense24 media reported in 2016 that Russia would stop producing the drones with an Israeli license due to US pressure.
But Russia appears to have kept making drones anyway, some based on Israeli models. In 2019, Russian media reported that Russia would stop using the former Israeli payloads, basically the optics, and use its own.
Israel’s influence over the use of drones in conflicts is massive, dating back to the 1970s. It now appears to overshadow the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. The question social-media analysts are asking is whether Armenia is telling the whole story about drones it allegedly shot down or that crashed and whether the Israeli drones are successful.
Drones crash for numerous reasons, and loitering munitions are supposed to crash as part of their target sequence; they may even be redirected at the last minute if a target changes for some reason. Drones also malfunction for other reasons, such as losing communications. Drones can be shot down, but air-defense systems have found it increasingly complex to shoot down smaller and slower drones.
While a variety of systems exist to shoot them down, it’s not clear if Armenia has these systems. Some claims of drones being shot down also appear, on closer inspection, to be largely mythical stories. For instance, in Libya, dozens of drone shoot-downs have been claimed, whereas the overall number, according to Drone Wars UK, is only around 14 during the months of April and May.
Because Israeli authorities do not comment on Azerbaijan’s alleged use of Israeli drones, and the companies do not comment, it is difficult to judge with any transparency how effective Baku’s use of drones has been and how effective Armenia has been at shooting them down. The footage alone, however, shows that Azerbaijan was effective in using them to help with artillery targeting and also to publish the video as part of information warfare against Armenia to showcase Azerbaijan’s abilities.