Lessons From Aliyev’s Escalation: Big/Small Powers and the “Dronisation” of Interstate Warfare

Aliyev has gained a military advantage over Armenia due to the newly acquired Bayraktar TB2 Turkish drones.
Source: Ali Özkök

My case studies on Obama and Erdogan portray the dominance of drones in anti-terrorism operations. This form of semi-autonomous weapons (the only ones that have been used on the battlefield so far) has proven to be effective in killing presumed terrorists both on domestic and foreign grounds. The benefits that drones bring to political leaders, mainly a reduction in “blood, treasure, and reputation” costs, incentivize decision-makers to use and even increase violence against terrorist groups.

More recently, after Erdogan’s effective drone operations in Syria and Libya that successfully defeated air defense systems in many instances, a potential drone dominance in internationalised civil wars rose to prominence. These operations led to an escalation in conflict and, as Erdogan had planned, the inception of Turkey as a new drone power. A debate at the scholarly and political levels has begun again on the impact that autonomous weapons like drones could have on our global security. 

While drones have proven their dominance against individual human targets, how effective are these weapons in conventional battles? Has drone technology been able to achieve offense dominance? What are the implications, then, for interstate conflicts? As I explain in my first blog of this series, if autonomous weapons were to achieve offense dominance, then theoretically they would incentivize leaders to use, increase, and prolong violence against other states. Can this really be the case anytime soon?

I will now explore a case study of interstate violence to answer these questions. Specifically, I will look into the recently revived Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. In late September 2020, Azerbaijani president Ilham Aliyev escalated violence in the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

The widespread use of drones in this small powers conflict has triggered the attention of countries around the globe and, especially, that of Indian leaders and military generals. The drone race in big power India to catch up with big power and rival China might be impacted by the result of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Overall, with these two examples, I will show that the incentive implications of drone offense dominance are different for leaders from small and big powerhouses. Regardless, the risk of violence is very much present in both cases.

The Reasons behind Aliyev’s Escalation of Conflict

The dispute over the Nagorno-Karabakh region began decades ago; in 1994 and after 6 years of war, Armenia took over the officially recognized Azerbaijan region. There were 30,000 dead Azerbaijanis left behind. Since then, intermittent open conflict has been followed by failed negotiations between both countries. Most recently, on the 27th of September, president Aliyev decided to continue the vicious cycle of conflict with a full-scale military confrontation

Different reasons explain why Aliyev decided to break the stalemate between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Domestically, both at the citizen and political levels, the president has the utmost support, if not pressure, to take Nagorno-Karabakh back. Armenia’s invasion of the region 30 decades ago continues to be a historical humiliation for Azerbaijanis. After a border clash in July 2020 that killed 16 people, massive protests demanded Aliyev to stop this humiliation once and for all. 

However, more interesting for my purposes are the technical reasons that triggered Aliyev to begin what some claim to be “the most serious escalation in recent years.” At the beginning of the confrontation, Aliyev stated that he was confident of his military win over the region. Could the acquisition of new drone technology be the push that Aliyev needed to finally and for all regain Azerbaijan’s honour?

In fact, this old confrontation has attracted new eyes from media and leaders around the globe due to the heavy and surprisingly effective use of drones on the battlefield. Azerbaijan has gained a military advantage over Armenia due to the newly acquired Bayraktar TB2 Turkish drones. As I explain in my previous blog, these drones proved to be quite effective in Syria and Libya. Azerbaijan is also in possession of new Israeli suicide drones, such as the Skystriker and Orbiter 1K, which are virtually silent until they collide with air defense systems once these identify the drone. When these defense systems are surpassed in battle, tanks are an easy next target. 

This is exactly what has happened in Nagorno-Karabakh. Footage has been released of drones mercilessly destroying Armenian tanks, triggering a debate on whether these long-standing armours are now obsolete. Just as what has happened in anti-terrorism operations in the Middle East, drones have also provided an advantage during open conflicts in mountainous terrain like Nagorno-Karabakh, against which tanks have little to do in comparison. Aliyev’s alliance with Turkey, its main military assistant and provider of drones, has contributed to Aliyev’s advantage and has probably triggered him into a renewed battle with Armenia.

Thank You, Drones: An Optimal Alliance between Aliyev and Erdogan

Erdogan has been Aliyev’s closest ally during the Nagorno-Karabakh confrontations. Both countries have a defence and mutual assistance agreement. When the Azerbaijan attacks began in late September, Erdogan tweeted his utmost support for Aliyev. 

In part, Azerbaijan and Turkey’s old cultural ties together with Turkey’s historical enmity with Armenia explain the basis of this alliance. However, a looming fact cannot escape my mind: this renewed conflict with new technology is the perfect testing ground for Turkey, the new drone powerhouse. The insights that this conflict will give into drones’ weaknesses and strengths during conventional battle will surely aid Erdogan in improving drone technology. Additionally, by actively taking sides with Aliyev, Erdogan is exhibiting his willingness to become a geopolitical power in the region through a strong reliance on his homemade and technologically advanced weapons.

This alliance is a win-win situation for both Erdogan and Aliyev. Aliyev, on the one hand, gets to build his historical legacy by taking back the beloved but lost region and winning over the hearts of his people. On the other hand, Erdogan gets to keep his survival engine moving with a diverting foreign policy and drones as the new national symbol of pride. 

Such an optimal scenario for both leaders would not be achieved without drones, especially the reduction of costs they bring: drones are cheap (especially Turkish ones), they prevent soldier deaths and, in turn, any popular backlash against war. Quite the opposite: thanks to their videotaping of attacks, drones have become a new propaganda mechanism through which politicians (including Aliyev and Erdogan) portray their administrations’ technological capabilities in social media footage. Aliyev himself thanked drones when he stated: “Thanks to the advanced Turkish drones owned by the Azerbaijan military, our casualties on the front have shrunk (…) These drones show Turkey’s strength, and this also empowers us.”

Are Drones Triggering a Paradigm Shift in Interstate Conflict?

What does a “dronisation” of war mean for you and me, average citizens of this conflictive world? The widespread and effective use of drones in Nagorno-Karabakh builds on the paradigm shift that began with Erdogan’s drone operations in Syria and Libya a few months ago. The question of whether drones have achieved offense dominance in conventional battle remains to be answered, but the final say might be left to Aliyev. An Azerbaijani military victory could be the last straw to this debate.

Although at first analysts suggested that Aliyev’s conflict escalation was only aimed at re-starting negotiations with Armenia, the conflict has lasted for 6 weeks and continues. Reports point to Azerbaijan’s territory gains, including a rapid advance towards the strategic Lachin highway that links Nagorno-Karabakh with Armenia; these are unprecedented gains within the 30 years that the conflict has lasted. Experts such as Rob Lee, a war studies researcher in King’s College London, and Ulrike Frank, from the European Council on Foreign Relations, suggest that TB2s are behind Aliyev’s successful escalation.

A drone offense dominance could mean higher likelihood of conflict among states. Policymakers’ incentives with regard to violence would change when they come across the perspective of an easy conquest through drones (remember the Hitler example?). This was likely the case of Aliyev when assessing whether to escalate the conflict with Armenia or not; looking at today’s enduring and full-scale military confrontation with Armenia, the answer seemed to be quite positive to Aliyev.

Traditionally, experts have disregarded drones as a conflict sparker in interstate relations because they used to be easily destroyed with air defense systems. While it might be true among big powers with advanced military capabilities (including nuclear capacity that serves as a deterrent), small powers tend to have weaker military capabilities. When small powers acquire drones, their policymakers deal with very different decision-making incentives during conflict. Let me examine now a big power scenario to contrast the differences with the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

What Happens when a Big Power like India is Involved?

The effective use of drones in the Nagorno-Karabakh region has triggered the attention of leaders from countries around the globe, including those of powerhouses. India is an example of a big power that has been closely watching Aliyev’s conflict escalation with Armenia. While the country has been in possession of armed drones since 2016, these have yet to be utilised in conflict. Mainly, drones have been used for surveillance and monitoring missions alongside India’s borders. This does not mean that Indian leaders have been trouble-free for using drones. In 2017, an unarmed drone crossed the border to China in what Indian officials claimed to be a technical mistake. Luckily, the tension that arose was resolved through diplomatic means.

India is also a relevant example to look at because of the enduring tensions with neighbours Pakistan and China, who are in possession of armed drones too, the latter being one of the major exporters. The ongoing advances in drone technology pursued by India’s rivals and the increasing tensions with them (including unprecedented border clashes in the Himalayas with China), has put Indian generals on alert mode. Indian Minister of Defence, Rajnath Singh, is currently in negotiations with the US to buy 30 Guardian drones that could be weaponised.

Whether Indian policymakers believe that drones will be a paradigm shifter in their conflict with China and Pakistan is a more ambiguous topic. In an interview with India’s Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadauria about the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict, the Chief stated that “drones are an important part for surveillance and intelligence gathering. Their role in the build-up to a conflict is very important. However, once the conflict starts, they do become susceptible to enemy action…” Nevertheless, India’s potential and very expensive acquisition of US armed drones could suggest otherwise. The conflict with China in eastern Ladakh has also triggered Indian officials’ intention to arm their Israeli Heron drones with laser-guided missiles, which could prove to be useful in mountainous terrain like the Himalayas.

Furthermore, despite the secrecy behind drone developments, a study that examines newspaper articles on India’s drone acquisition suggests that Indian leaders may be interested in drones for reasons beyond monitoring and surveillance. Instead, Indian leaders view drones as a tool to balance rival states’ power, which could trigger or, in view of India’s recent acquisitions, has already triggered an armed drones race against China and Pakistan.

Therefore, what appears to be certain is that drones are playing into the deterrence dynamics that nuclear weapons have long been contributing to. As military analyst and Lt. General Shankar Prasad has noted: “These systems have a great deterrent value, whether there is war or not. Pakistan must not be allowed to think India is a weak nation.” 

A Difference in Incentives: Big vs. Small Drone Powers

Based on my analysis from the above examples, whether drones have an offense dominance and how this dominance may impact policymakers’ incentives regarding war decisions with other states will depend on the type of interstate conflict we are dealing with. In a conflict between small powers like Azerbaijan and Armenia, drones have proven to be a valuable military advantage. These small powers tend to have limited air-power and air defense capabilities.

However, cheap and effective drones like the Turkish TB2 are changing the stakes of the conflict. Aliyev and his ally Erdogan have realised this and, following each their own political goals, have decided to ramp up violence with Armenia. That is, as predicted in my first blog, drones are contributing to increasing decisions of conflict escalation, particularly among small powers.

When it comes to interstate conflict between big powers, the answer to the impact of drones on policymakers’ incentives is ambiguous. Big powers have advanced military capabilities and some of them even possess nuclear weapons. For now, it appears that drones are becoming another deterrence tool, as the Indian case study has shown. In any case, we better watch out for the ongoing conflict between China and India in the Himalayas. Based on the recent armed drone developments by both countries, experts are suggesting that the Ladakh region could become a testing ground for drone warfare between big powers – just as the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has become a testing ground for small powers (and Turkey).

In fact, historian Hal Brand makes an interesting remark when he compares Erdogan’s drone testing against Armenia with the bomb testing that Germany and its allies carried out during the Spanish civil war. Small conflicts provide valuable lessons about emerging military capabilities that could be used for greater (and usually bloodier) interstate conflicts. Recent developments in drone technology, such as swarm drones, paint a dark scenario for our future global security. 

Could regulation prevent any risk of conflict (intra- or inter-state)? Could regulation repress leaders’ incentives to escalate and prolong conflict with autonomous weapons such as drones? Check out my next blog to find out!