Tuesday, 26 January 2021

Aftermath: Lessons Of The Nagorno-Karabakh War Are Paraded Through The Streets Of Baku

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
If Azerbaijan starts a war, Armenian tanks will go as far as Baku. (Artsrun Hovhannisyan, Press Secretary of the Ministry of Defence of Armenia, September 2020)
In a way surely different from what the Ministry of Defence of Armenia had envisaged, Armenian military equipment was on full display during Azerbaijan's Victory Parade on the 10th of December 2020. Marching through Baku's Freedom Square, the parade offered a glimpse of some of the equipment used by both sides during the 44-day long Nagorno-Karabakh war. 
While the parade segment with military trophies was sizeable, with row upon row fielding yet another type of weapon system ultimately overcome by drone warfare, the Armenian equipment on display was roughly one-tenth of the total amount of weaponry and vehicles captured by Azerbaijan. [1] In fact, even if we assume double the amount of losses confirmed to have been suffered by Azerbaijan, its military would still have captured more military equipment than it lost during the war.
Contrary to popular belief however, the massive losses in equipment suffered by Armenia are actually less significant than one might think. With a quantity of equipment better suited for a regional power than an economically struggling nation with a relatively tiny population, its composition of forces had always been highly geared towards the defence of Nagorno-Karabakh and the Armenian-occupied territories surrounding this region. Having relented control over nearly half of Nagorno-Karabakh and all of the surrounding territories, the reason for a large standing army is now lost along with it.
The rows of battered Soviet equipment, most of which dating from the 1970s and 1980s, offered a stark contrast to the modern city of Baku, which has rapidly developed in the past years to become the metropolis it is today. The paraded Armenian equipment also stood in contrast to the masses of weapons systems displayed by Azerbaijan during the parade, many of which have been recently acquired and belong to the most modern systems in their respective classes.

The parade can be watched in its entirety here. The segment with Armenian military equipment starts from 1:02:40.

The first entry to the parade was a highly symbolic one for both nations: A composition made from the license plates of Armenian military trucks and jeeps captured by Azerbaijan during the conflict. This was a clear nod to Armenia's 'number plate wall', which it constructed from the license plates of cars previously owned by Azerbaijani citizens Armenia had just expelled from Nagorno-Karabakh and the seven surrounding regions in the 1990s. On the Azerbaijani wall, 'Qarabağ Azerbaycandir!' - "Karabakh is Azerbaijan!" was reiterated. 

Heading off the vehicle section of the parade were three KAMAZ trucks with (Christian) crosses painted on them. Although sometimes applied to military vehicles by their Armenian crews, the crosses featured on vehicles in the parade were in fact applied by Azerbaijan to mark the difference between captured Armenian equipment and Azerbaijani equipment.
Throughout the duration of the conflict, Armenia continued to receive several batches of KAMAZ trucks from Russia through Iran. [1] These were not wartime military aid from Russia to support Armenia in its battles against Azerbaijan, but rather part of a large order placed before the outbreak of the war. Opposed to arms embargos imposed against any nation as a rule, Russia clearly honored its contractual obligations in spite of the war.
Of interest are the various types of mortars transported on the back of each truck, which include (from left to right) 60mm M57s, 82mm M69s, 120mm M74s, all of Yugoslavian origin, and a type of hell cannon. The latter was a surprise finding on the battlefields of Nagorno-Karabakh, as hell cannons are normally associated with rebel groups that lack access to more conventional weaponry. 

Capable of laying down fire over far greater ranges than mortars are the many towed artillery pieces in Armenian service, of which the 122mm D-30 howitzer (pictured) is the most numerous. Heavier systems include the 152mm D-20 howitzer and the 2A36 Giatsint-B field-gun of the same calibre, and even WWII-era 122mm M-30 and 152mm D-1 gun-howitzers and anti-aircraft guns converted to the role of artillery (KS-19) were still in frontline use in 2020.
Considerably cheaper than their mobile counterparts on tracks, many nations have begun to address the limited mobility of towed artillery by installing them on trucks. Surprisingly, this development was never initiated in Armenia, and almost all towed artillery pieces were placed in pre-prepared pits, which although giving some protection against counter-artillery fire, left them completely exposed to drones hovering overhead. It should thus come as no surprise that no less than 135 artillery pieces were destroyed by Bayraktar TB2 UAVs alone (out of more than 245 artillery pieces confirmed to have been lost by Armenia in total). [2] Often picked off one by one, the wartime life of an Armenian artilleryman must have been a truly terrifying experience, bringing with it a short life expectancy.

Further to the rear, three Ural-4320 trucks appeared carrying 152mm D-20 gun-howitzers and a selection of anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs), recoilless rifles and heavy machine guns on their flatbed. These included six examples of the dreaded 9M133 Kornet, responsible for wrecking havoc among armoured fighting vehicles, structures and clusters of soldiers on key battlegrounds in Syria. In the Nagorno-Karabakh war, ATGMs played only a small role as the Armenian ATGM teams usually got neutralised or were forced to retreat by drones, artillery and missile fire before the tanks they were supposed to hit ever got in sight.
Nevertheless, in what was likely meant as a morale boost by the Armenian MoD, footage of reservists undergoing training on the 9K115 Metis ATGM systems was regularly aired on national TV. Originally designed by the Soviet Union to provide its soldiers with a lighter ATGM system compared to the 9M113 Konkurs, the lack of range and penetration capabilities of its 9M131 missile meant it proved less popular than originally envisioned. Of course, with a range of just one kilometre (compared to more than five kilometres for the 9M133 Kornet), their impact on the seemingly unstoppable advance of the Azerbaijan Army would have been negligible even in large numbers. Unsurprisingly, no footage of the missile system fired in anger during the war exists.

The next section of the parade was dedicated to the various types of anti-aircraft equipment employed during the conflict. First off, the ZSU-23-4 self-propelled anti-aircraft gun (SPAAG), a proven system that still has the potential of inflicting low-flying aircraft the knockout blow with its four 23mm cannons, together offering combined rate of fire of roughly 4,000 rounds per minute. Of course, a requirement is that such an aircraft should come within the ZSU-23-4's firing range, which due to the plethora of standoff weaponry deployed by any respectable air force nowadays is a rare occurrence. This is also true for drones, which can track and target systems like the ZSU-23-4 while flying too high and far away for the system to ever fend for itself.
The chances of targeting loitering munitions like the Harop are significantly better, as these must descend to earth during their attack run towards the target, thus entering the ZSU-23-4's firing range. Several nations have set out to improve the capabilities of their ZSU-23-4s to target such systems through the addition of more modern radars, electro-optical targeting equipment and even MANPADS. No such upgrade was performed by Armenia, and the ZSU-23-4's deficiencies in a modern war were once again made painfully clear. To ease parade training and avoid any possible damage to Freedom Square, tracked vehicles like the ZSU-23 were paraded on trailers rather than driving on stage on their own power.

The 9K33 Osa (NATO designation: SA-8) still is Armenia's primary surface-to-air missile (SAM) system, and the country has made continued investments in keeping the system relevant to the 21st century. As recently as January 2020, Armenia showed off some of the 35 9K33 Osa-AK systems it had just purchased from Jordan for 27 million dollars. [3] [4] Although of an older variant than the Osa-AKM (and thus bringing with it decreased capabilities and a more limited range for its missiles) also in Armenian service, these systems were to be indigenously upgraded, which was made possible thanks to their extremely low purchase price.

While the acquisition and reliance on systems like the 9K33 was heavily critised both during and after the war, they were used with some success against loitering munitions during earlier clashes with Azerbaijan. Unfortunately for Armenia, all of the upgrades (consisting of new computers and optical systems) performed or planned on its 9K33 Osas failed to address one major issue: UAVs like the Bayraktar TB2 can target the 9K33 without ever needing to come into their range. Other countries sought to specifically address this issue, the most popular upgrade hence becoming known as the Osa-1T by Belarus (which was also acquired by Azerbaijan). But as modernising and upgrading each missile is amongst the most expensive features of such an upgrade, Armenia looked at other ways of increasing the efficiency of the 9K33s.
That said, during the war Bayraktar TB2s frequently operated within range of several 9K33 Osa systems at the same time without ever being targeted. It is likely that Armenia had envisaged that it could at least partially compensate the lack of capabilities of the 9K33 by deploying them in far greater numbers so that their engagement envelopes would overlap. This would mean that if a TB2 was in the process of engaging one 9K33 it would automatically fly into the range of another system located nearby. As Armenia found out the hard way, these systems turned out to be completely unable to identify the Bayraktar TB2s flying circles above them even with their radar system visibly turned on. This was likely the result of the TB2's low radar visibility, and also possibly due to the use of electronic warfare (EW) measures by Azerbaijan, resulting in at least 19 9K33 Osas destroyed with no TB2s lost in return. [2]

Longer-range systems like the 2K12 Kub (SA-6) fared no better, and like the 2K11 Krug (SA-4) also still in active service in Armenia, essentially played no role during the war. Nonetheless, Armenia still maintained at least two sites of these aging systems, although only the one near the city of Shusha appears to have been active during the outbreak of hostilities. Interestingly, no attempt was made to reactivate the other site during the war, which didn't stop Azerbaijan from striking the 1S91 radar (another captured example of which is pictured below) and empty launchers as a precautionary measure.
In defence of the 2K12, neither its replacement system the Buk-M1-2 nor the Tor-M2KM or even the vaunted S-300 had any impact on aerial warfare occurring above Nagorno-Karabakh. For the Tor-M2KM, perhaps its sole merit is that only two systems are (confirmed) to have been destroyed by loitering munitions. [5] Although it was envisaged that the Tor-M2KM could operate as a hunter-killer system in Nagorno-Karbakh, using its small footprint, ease of camouflage and mobility to escape from the attention of enemy UAVs, the Tor along with all other systems clearly became the hunted party instead.

While the standard Russian response is often to blame the operators of the SAM system or to claim that the system in question was never meant to target the munition or drone that dealt it the finishing blow, every layer of Armenia's air defence umbrella in Armenia was soundly defeated at the hands of piston-engined drones. This included both Soviet-era systems and modern Russian systems designed to replace them, including the dreaded S-300. Although the S-300 family is often flaunted as a wonder weapon that by itself is capable of completely disturbing the strategic air balance in a region, in reality the S-300 has been hyped up to a standard that could never be met in the first place. During the war, Bayraktar TB2s literally flew circles near three S-300 sites while waiting for the ballistic missiles and loitering munitions directed against them to strike their targets before doing damage assessment and flying away. Shockingly, the launchers in some of these SAM sites were not even in deployment mode, as if no war was going on in the first place.
This is not to say that Armenia was caught fully unprepared, as the recent acquisition of modern SAM systems like the Buk and Tor, and years of investments in a host of Russian electronic warfare systems and electro-optical equipment acquired from various sources had turned Nagorno-Karabakh and the surrounding areas into one of the densest covered areas of air defence in the world (save for North Korea). Although still lacking in some areas, it further operated a plethora of both older and more modern systems in every range category, backed up by modern MANPADS, SPAAGs and anti-aircraft guns. As a result, its Air Defence System (ADS) presented something of a trump card to any foe that was willing to challenge it. The fact that this trump card was soundly defeated in a matter of days, at the cost of next to no losses is certain to become the subject matter of many a study into the efficacy of modern air defence systems against new developments in areas such as drones, electronic warfare and stand-off munitions.
That Armenia had placed especially much confidence in the EW systems delivered by Russia is testified by MoD spokesperson Artsrun Hovhannisyan, who enthusiastically called the Avtobaza-M the ''death of the Azerbaijani Air Force'' (yes that is the same guy from the introductory quote of this article). [6] Systems like the Borisoglebsk-2, R-330P and the Repellent-1, all of which are meant to disrupt the operations of UAVs in one way or another fared little better, and it must be concluded that they proved completely incapable of hindering UAV operations over Nagorno-Karabakh even in the slightest way.

Falling between the category of anti-aircraft guns and armour were four MT-LB armoured auxiliary vehicles that were locally converted to the role of fire-support vehicle. In this role, they are usually equipped with Yugoslavian 20mm M55 triple-barreled anti-aircraft (AA) guns or more rarely, 23mm ZU-23 AA guns or even 57mm AZP S-60 AA guns (as seen in the second photo). 
Although all of these guns retain some efficacy against helicopters and low-flying aircraft, they are wholly inadequate to deal with the threat of fast aircraft and loitering munitions without the addition of electro-optical targeting equipment. Owing both to their numerical quantity and little relevance on the battlefield, at least 48 MT-LBs equipped with AA guns were lost during the war. Of these 48, some dozen were lost to Bayraktar TB2s, two to Spike-ER missiles and 31 were captured. [2]

On the armour front, six BMPs were driven onto the stage, comprising both the BMP-1 armed with a 73mm anti-tank gun and the more modern BMP-2 that uses a rapid-firing 30mm autocannon ideal for targeting infantry and surpressing enemy positions. Likely in an effort to combine the capabilities of both, Armenia upgraded several BMP-1s with the addition of two 23mm autocannons taken from ZU-23s and ZSU-23-4s. This does little towards expanding the actual capabilities of the vehicle however, while hugely increasing the workload of the gunner, who now has to operate both types of guns.

In any case, this setup mostly revolved around an offensive role for the BMP-1. On the defensive throughout almost the entirety of the 44-day conflict, most of the BMPs were left in static positions in anticipation of an order to counter-attack that never came. One of the few counter-attacks taking place that involved BMP-2s occurred near the entrance of Shusha shortly before Armenia's surrender on the 10th of November. Conducted under the cover of foggy weather, drones were prevented from taking part in the offensive for a few days in a row. When the skies did finally clear up these same BMP-2s were immediately struck by loitering munitions, and even under the cover of fog the counter-attack was defeated at the hands of Azerbaijani special forces entrenched in parts of the city and nearby forests. Armenia would ultimately end the war with some 80 less BMPs than it began it with, most being lost after ending up in the crosshairs of Bayraktar TB2 drones.

The T-72 tank was another anticipated participant in the parade, and a total of six examples were paraded in front of the audience. These included the three most common variants in Armenian service: The T-72A, T-72AV and T-72B. Each of these types were held at the frontline for far too long, often placed in open revetments waiting for an enemy that never came in range. What came instead were Bayraktar TB2 drones (which are visually confirmed to have destroyed at least 88 T-72 tanks), loitering munitions (responsible for the destruction of a minimum of thirteen tanks) and Spike-ER ATGMs (which destroyed at least 24 T-72 tanks). [2] When Armenia finally began to pull back some of its armour and artillery, it did so without any air cover, meaning TB2 drones could now strike both the equipment being evacuated and the truck that was evacuating it with just one MAM-L munition.

In addition to the T-72A(V) and the T-72B, Armenia operates two more T-72 variants: The older T-72 'Ural' and the T-72B Obr. 1989, which is equipped with Kontakt-5 ERA (which also equips the T-90) rather than the Kontakt-1 ERA installed on the T-72AV and T-72B. Only two T-72 'Urals' are confirmed to have been destroyed during the war, while the T-72B Obr. 1989 wasn't seen at all. Armenia also operates a single T-90A it won during the 2014 Tank Biathlon in Russia, but like the T-72 Obr. 1989 it isn't believed to have seen action during the war.

One of the paraded T-72Bs revealed a rather interesting addition to the turret of the vehicle: two electro-optical jammers (popularily known as IR dazzlers) of indigenous manufacture. IR dazzlers are specifially designed to disrupt the laser designator of ATGMs painted at them, in turn saving the tank from almost certain destruction in a way that increased armour protection could never achieve. Of the some 245 tanks confirmed to have been lost by Armenia during the war, this T-72B is one out of two examples seen equipped with the IR dazzlers. This likely indicates that it was either still in a prototype stage and currently being tested, or considered too prohibitively costly to warrant their introduction on a wider scale.
Next up were three 122mm 2S1 Gvozdika self-propelled howitzers, some twenty of which are confirmed to have been lost by Armenia during the fighting. Although most of these were destroyed by Bayraktar TB2s after the air defences that were supposed to protect them got taken out, several were captured by Azerbaijan after being left behind on the battlefield. Of course, with their protective air umbrella gone, it is entirely understandable that some crews abandoned their mounts rather than waiting for the seemingly inevitable drone strike to hit their vehicle next.

Like most militaries under the Russian sphere of influence or simply inheriting its predecessor's military apparatus, Armenia operated vast numbers of the ubiqitous 122mm BM-21 multiple rocket launcher. As MRLs are capable of laying down devastating barrages over often longer ranges than conventional artillery, Armenia invested significantly in expanding their inventory of such systems. This not only included the BM-21, but also the Chinese 273mm WM-80 acquired in the late 1990s and more recent acquisitions such as the 300mm BM-30 'Smerch' and even the 220mm TOS-1, which is based on the T-72 chassis and fires thermobaric rockets.

While one might expect that Armenia would exclusively employ its longer range systems (most notably the BM-30) to target enemy troop concentrations and command posts located far away, it instead employed the 'Smerch' in a series of attacks against the Azerbaijani city of Barda at the end of October, resulting in the deaths of 27 civilians. These were not isolated events, as in early October Armenia had already began launching OTR-21 'Tochka' and Scud-B ballistic missiles against the city of Ganja, resulting in the destruction of whole apartment blocks and killing 26 civilians.

Although both the BM-30 and any ballistic missiles are operated by the Armenian Army rather than the Army of the Republic of Artsakh (which is almost entirely manned by Armenians and an inherent part of the Armenian Army anyway), Armenia denied responsibility for both attacks, calling them "absolute lies''. [7] Instead, it had the Republic of Artsakh claim responsibility for both attacks supposedly ''targeting military targets'' despite the fact that Artsakh's military wasn't operating either of the systems and the fact that the Scud-Bs were launched from Armenia proper. As it happened, Bayraktar TB2s operated in a silent vigil far beyond the frontlines of Nagorno-Karabakh, and thus tracked the Scud-B systems during their deployment to the border region. [8]

But even had the artillery systems been aimed against military targets within the cities of Barda and Ganja, then the choice of armament was simply inexcusable, and showed a clear disregard for civilian lives. The BM-30s in question used inaccurate 9M55K rockets equipped with cluster warheads containing 72 submunitions with 96 fragments each, and the Scud-B ballistic missiles have a circular error probable (CEP) of 500 metres, making either suitable only against large military bases or as area denial weapons. If there is still any doubt about the disregard to civilian life with which this side engaged in the war, the spokesman of the president of the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh Arayik Harutyunyan stated that ''A few more days and I am afraid that even archaeologists will not be able to find the place of Ganja'' on October the 5th. [9]

Apart from constituting crimes against humanity, these attacks were also an utter waste of one of the few systems operated by Armenia that was able to strike targets far away to devastating effect. Apart from analysing the causes that led to its defeat at the hands of drones, and its refusal to admit and communicate to its citizens that it was losing the war badly, the Armenian military leadership would also be wise to rethink the way it intends on deploying strategic assests like MRLs and ballistic missiles. 

Of course, this chapter wouldn't be complete without explicitely mentioning the ''Conquerer of Karabakh'', the Bayraktar TB2, again. Apart from destroying 57 BM-21s and one TOS-1 with its MAM-L munitions, it also managed to find, track and destroy the BM-30 systems that had been responsible for the attacks on Barda. [2] Two of the 'Smerchs' responsible had quietly set up at a prepared position deep in Nagorno-Karbakh, operating out of a dry river bed and driving to a nearby field unleashing their devastating payload before moving back to reload. [10] One of these BM-30s was spotted after launching its deadly volley on the 30th of October. Rather than engaging it outright, the TB2 followed the BM-30 back to its staging area, where another BM-30 and reloads were discovered. These were then struck, resulting in the destruction of both launchers and likely saving many more civilian lives in the city of Barda. During the course of the war, two more BM-30s were destroyed (one by another TB2 and one by a loitering munition). [2]
Looming behind the rows of mangled armour and artillery were even more trucks and jeeps, but also a single 9P148 'Konkurs' ATGM carrier, at least eight of which were lost by Armenia during the conflict. Although deemed to be too specialised for widespread service in most Western militaries, several Post-Soviet states continue to operate significant numbers of such ATGM carriers. In addition to the 9P148, Armenia also operates the more modern 9P149 Shturm-S based on the chassis of a MT-LB while Azerbaijan employs the highly advanced 9P157-2 'Khrizantema-S' based on the BMP-3.
That Armenia still valued the capabilities of the 9P148 is attested by the upgrade of several examples in 2018 through the addition of a thermal sight to improve targeting capabilities during day and night. Incidentally, this modernised variant is also the variant that was on display during the parade. Whether Armenia still deems ATGM carriers an asset worth keeping after drawing its conclusions from the Nagorno-Karabakh war remains to be seen, but they might simply opt to continue to operate them at little cost until their (useful) service life runs out.
When the war broke out, the Armenian Army was still in the process of modernising its vehicle park by replacing its Soviet-era trucks and jeeps with more modern mounts. As part of this modernisation effort, large numbers of Ural and KAMAZ trucks and UAZ jeeps were purchased from Russia to replace older versions of these same brands already in the inventory of Armenia. A large part of this modernisation was already carried out, likely meaning that Armenia now has to place follow-up orders to compensate for the huge amount of vehicles lost during the war.

With drones roaming free far behind the frontline, trucks ferrying in supplies and soldiers became easy preys for Bayraktar TB2s and loitering munitions. Correspondingly, they suffered heavy losses, with some 700 trucks and jeeps currently confirmed to have been destroyed or captured by Azerbaijan. [2] Similar to footage coming out of Armenian trenches showing the bodies of Armenian soldiers chained to their positions, there is some indication that some commanders opted to chain soldiers to the steering wheel of their trucks to prevent them from abandoning their vehicles out of fear for being struck by a drone. [11] While it is impossible to verify whether these occurrences were legitimate, there exists a surprisingly large amount of footage attesting to such practises.

While it is possible that some of this bountiful equipment will enter service with the Azerbaijani military, the majority will likely be scrapped or held back to be displayed as future monuments. Indeed, preparations for the construction of a Patriotic War Memorial Complex and Victory Museum in Baku had already commenced in early January 2021. Located just a few hundred metres away from the parade ground, among the displayed items are a sizeable number of armoured fighting vehicles and trucks, including several examples that also featured in the parade.

There this armament will remain as a testament not only to one of the more stunning upsets in the history of this region, but also to the consequences of inadequate military planning in the face of a rapidly modernising adversary. As they slowly gather dust, other nations will take note of what happened here, and the consequences of this brief but violent conflict will reverberate in the lessons they learn and changes they make.

[1] Foreign Ministry Spokesman Denies Iran Is Transiting Russian Arms To Armenia https://iranintl.com/en/world/foreign-ministry-spokesman-denies-iran-transiting-russian-arms-armenia
[2] The Fight For Nagorno-Karabakh: Documenting Losses on The Sides Of Armenia and Azerbaijan https://www.oryxspioenkop.com/2020/09/the-fight-for-nagorno-karabakh.html
[6] Armenian new multifunctional UAVs being displayed at ArmHiTec 2018 Yerevan exhibition https://armenpress.am/eng/news/928038/armenian-new-multifunctional-uavs-being-displayed-at-armhitec-2018-yerevan-exhibition.html 
[7] Azerbaijan and Armenia accuse each other of breaking ceasefire https://edition.cnn.com/2020/10/10/europe/azerbaijan-armenia-ceasefire-intl/index.html
[8] Məhv edilən düşmən ƏTRK-nin start mövqeyinə çıxarılmasının videogörüntüləri https://youtu.be/Fi8yGuzQors
[9] A few more days and even archaeologists will not be able to find the place of Ganja. Poghosyan https://www.1lurer.am/en/2020/10/05/A-few-more-days-and-even-archaeologists-will-not-be-able-to-find-the-place-of-Ganja-Poghosyan/328058 
[10] Two more "Smerch" belonging to the enemy, which fired at the cities of Barda and Tartar, were destroyed today https://mod.gov.az/en/news/two-more-smerch-belonging-to-the-enemy-which-fired-at-the-cities-of-barda-and-tartar-were-destroyed-today-vide-33498.html