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Military Drones: Pros and Cons

After the war in Karabakh, many experts started talking about the fact that a revolution was taking place in military affairs, which was about to change the tactics, operational art, and even the strategy of the armies — not only of developing countries but also of the most powerful ones. First of all, we are talking about the massive use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, or simply drones) by Azerbaijan based on Turkish technical and strategic developments. The theory that drones will radically change the art of war has opponents. From their point of view, the drones in Karabakh did not show anything new ‒ the Turkish and Azerbaijani military simply took advantage of the weakness of the Armenian air defense system and showed the world a convincing picture of beating the weak. The massive use of drones will not work against a strong enemy, skeptics say.

I will try to fully consider and tell the drone strikes pros and cons using the examples of the military confrontation in Karabakh and how effective this tactic will be against stronger military powers like Russia.


What role did drones play in Karabakh?

On September 27, Azerbaijan accused Armenia and the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (created on the territory of Azerbaijan in the 1990s as a result of the Armenian-Azerbaijani war, in which Armenia won) of provocations. The Azerbaijani army went on the offensive; Baku declared its goal to completely liquidate the unrecognized republic.

The hostilities began with various types of UAV strikes (Turkish Bayraktar TB2 attack vehicles with high-precision missiles and bombs, Israeli-made Harop kamikaze drones, which, among other things, are aimed at radio emission from air defense radars, and several types of small kamikaze) against the Armenian Air defense. Also, Azerbaijan used An-2 maize trucks converted for UAVs as bait for air defense, which fired at them and thereby marked its positions.


In the very first days, the army of Karabakh lost dozens of air defense installations ‒ mainly obsolete ones, inherited by Armenia after the collapse of the USSR. It is impossible to determine the exact number of knocked out functioning equipment: many installations were used as decoys for enemy aircraft; judging by the videos from the attacking drones, which were distributed by the Azerbaijani Ministry of Defense (data from all videos were processed by the Oryxspioenkop website), 26 air defense installations and 12 radars were destroyed. The beating of the air defense then continued: in October and November, several elements of the S-300 long-range anti-aircraft missile systems and one launcher of the most modern Russian-made Tor-M2KM complex in service with Armenia were knocked out.

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After solving the air defense problem, drones switched to other equipment: tanks, combat vehicles, artillery, and trucks carrying ammunition and reinforcements. This was followed by a series of attacks directly on the positions of the Armenian infantry and ammunition depots. Besides, throughout the war, drones aimed their artillery on equipment and infantry clusters. One of the episodes of a combined strike against the mass of infantry, directly from drones and from multiple launch rocket launchers, happened during a large offensive of the Armenian army.

As a result of heavy losses of Armenians from airstrikes, the front in the south of Karabakh was broken through, after which (in early November) the Azerbaijani infantry, advancing through the mountainous terrain, which Armenia considered its “natural fortress”, reached the vital areas of the unrecognized republic ‒ the cities of Shusha and Stepanakert.

In the last days of the war, airstrikes virtually stopped. This could be attributed to bad weather ‒ fog and low clouds. However, the Armenian leaders blamed the pause in the airstrikes on their efforts. After the war, the President of Karabakh Arayik Aratyunyan stated: “Recently we have been able to solve the problem of drones, but on the last day the enemy again managed to use their UAVs and inflict heavy blows.” He did not elaborate on how the problem was temporarily resolved and what happened after. Israeli journalists, citing their country’s intelligence, reported that the use of drones could have been hindered by urgent supplies of Russian electronic warfare (EW).

The pause in the airstrikes did not prevent the Azerbaijani army from seizing Shusha on November 7 and advancing to the outskirts of Stepanakert. By this time, as follows from the talks of the leaders of the Armenian defense published later, due to drone strikes, their army had lost almost all of its artillery.

On November 10, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan signed a joint statement with the presidents of Russia and Azerbaijan, which recorded the defeat of the Armenians in the war.

It is interesting that both sides of the conflict almost did not use manned aircraft ‒ fighter-bombers and army aviation (attack aircraft and helicopters), although each had dozens of units of such “traditional” equipment. They probably feared politically sensitive losses.

Thus, the war was the first in which the main tasks usually performed by “traditional” aviation ‒ reconnaissance, target designation, drone strikes against equipment, positions, and reserves ‒ were performed by drones. And many experts believe that this is not just the replacement of one type of aircraft with another, but a decisive turn in the long outlined revolution in military affairs. The main creators of the victory were Turkish vehicles and the tactics of using drones developed by Turkey.

Military Drones’ Pros and Cons Versus Conventional Aviation?

  • The main advantage of UAVs, especially of the small and middle class, is the low cost of creation and operation.
  • Small and medium-sized attack drones are platforms for the use of high-precision weapons and fairly advanced surveillance and reconnaissance tools. They are capable of striking most of the targets on the battlefield and behind enemy lines while remaining very simple (compared to modern manned aircraft and helicopters) aircraft. At the same time, the relative cheapness and simplicity of UAVs make it possible to build much more of them than manned vehicles.
  • A similar concept ‒ a cheap platform for modern weapons ‒ has become increasingly popular in recent years in many fleets of the world, where powerful precision weapons are installed on relatively small and cheap ships: destroyers, frigates, and corvettes. For instance, Russia, armed its corvettes ‒ the smallest ships of these three classes in displacement ‒ with Caliber cruise missiles capable of hitting targets within 1,500 kilometers.
  • Unlike small missile ships, which are cheap platforms for effective but expensive weapons, UAVs are armed with relatively cheap ammunition; advances in technology have made it possible to produce small and heavy missiles and bombs that, despite their size and price, can hit most typical targets on the battlefield.
  • The second advantage of future military drones is that there is no pilot on board. They are managed by operators who are tens, hundreds, and even thousands of kilometers from the front. All this makes the UAV cheap, as well as reduces the political risks of losing it. If the pilot cannot be killed or captured during a mission, that mission can be much less risky. Losing a UAV is also less painful in terms of price.
  • The third advantage is the ability to carry out missions for many hours. UAVs with turbojets flying at very low speeds (less than 200 km/h) are extremely economical in terms of fuel consumption. The class of military drones MALE (medium-altitude long flight duration) can be in the air for a day or more. Even though they spend more time than jets to get to the battlefield, they still can track targets much more thoughtfully on their own (without external targeting from other intelligence sources).
  • The fourth advantage of drones: they were originally conceived as an important part of the information network about the battlefield. UAVs ‒ both shock and reconnaissance ‒ are a platform for various sensors that study the situation and identify targets. They share this information in real-time with the operators, who, in turn, also share it in real-time with the entire combat control network. For example, the standard task of military drones is to call up barreled or rocket artillery fire at identified targets that the UAV cannot hit on its own (for example, at fortifications or large concentrations of infantry and equipment). Besides, drones can be easily taught to interact with each other. Both options were shown in the video of the Azerbaijani Ministry of Defense from Karabakh: combined strikes of drones and artillery caused by them on infantry and strikes by different drones and manned aircraft on especially important targets (this is how, for example, the Armenian Tor anti-aircraft missile system was destroyed).

However, UAVs have obvious disadvantages compared to manned aircraft.

  • The payload of small and medium-sized drones is low ‒ due to the relatively low power engines and small size of the airframe. Roughly speaking, manned systems are capable of simultaneously dropping much more explosives on the enemy than drones. This can be important in a “high-intensity war” ‒ a conflict between advanced military powers.
  • Also, when equipping drones, there is always a trade-off between the weight (and therefore the efficiency) of the ammunition and the weight (efficiency) of the sensors. So, during the war in Karabakh, Canada banned the supply of Wescam optical-electronic stations to Turkey ‒ this is the main set of sensors for the Bayraktar TB2 UAV, which allows it to see equipment and people from many kilometers and measure the distance to the target from 20 kilometers using a laser rangefinder. The Turks were ready for such a turn: they announced that they had a CATS optical station of their production. It has similar characteristics to the Canadian one but weighs almost 10 kilograms more. And that’s minus two 6.5-kilogram laser-guided MAM-C bombs in the Bayraktar payload (in total, it can carry four small bombs or missiles).
  • Finally, future military drones depend on the quality and range of radio communications they need to communicate with the operator. The enemy may try to suppress communications using electronic suppression (EW) or even take over control using electronic warfare (EW). Due to communication restrictions, the Bayraktar TB2 UAV has a range of only 150 kilometers (it can be slightly increased with the help of repeaters). The problem is solved with the help of satellite communications (this is what the founders of the “drone war” do ‒ the Americans).
  • But the use of satellite channels leads to the fact that the UAV loses one of its main advantages ‒ low cost of operation in comparison with manned aircraft. So, an hour of flight of the MQ-9 Reaper strike drone in 2006 costs the US Army $3,624, and an hour of flight of the F-16C fighter jet costs $20,809. However, if you include in the price the annual maintenance and operating costs of both machines and divide by the number of hours spent in the air, it turns out that using the Reaper will be almost more expensive than a fighter ‒ because of the use of broadband satellite communications.

What is the essence of the “Turkish revolution” that everyone saw in Karabakh?

Until now, drones have occupied an important niche in reconnaissance on the battlefield and behind enemy lines. Israel’s first massive use of UAVs in the war in 1982 helped it suppress Syrian air defense systems in the Bekaa Valley. However, there the drones were mainly used as decoys, with the help of which the Israelis opened the positions of the Arab anti-aircraft gunners.

For 38 years, drones from a niche tool for special operations have become an integral part of reconnaissance and target designation. Reconnaissance drones are now armed to units up to the tactical level ‒ a company or an artillery battery.

Until recent years, shock drones were used (primarily by the Americans) to deliver pinpoint strikes against “soft targets”: the leaders of terrorists, fuel tankers of the “Islamic State”, etc. Also, the US long-range strike drones supported the troops in Afghanistan, where it is difficult to provide basing a large number of “traditional” aircraft. Most of the functions on the battlefield were still performed by manned aircraft: fighters, bombers, attack aircraft, and helicopters. Troops on the ground prefer to turn to the A-10 attack aircraft for help rather than the single Reaper drones. As a result, the US Department of Defense canceled plans to decommission the attack aircraft. In contrast, the Reaper program will be closed ‒ mainly due to the high price; to replace it, a drone with artificial intelligence MQ-Next is being prepared, the exact characteristics of which are still unknown.

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In the 1990s, drones were envisioned to be an important part of network-centric warfare systems. Units or even individual soldiers in such a system had to continuously exchange information about the enemy and the position on the battlefield to concentrate forces and fire in time (primarily with the help of high-precision ammunition). However, complete systems of this type were never created; in different armies, only some of their elements were introduced. A rapid revolution, which would have turned military affairs, did not happen, but its progressive evolution went on.

The Turkish drone system fits this concept, but it became the first cheap (that is, available not only for large military powers) and a full-fledged network-centric system. The Turks created an integrated system of using future military drones, which allowed them to achieve operational and strategic goals in local wars in the Middle East, North Africa, and now ‒ in the Caucasus.

  • Turkey is rapidly developing UAVs of different “caliber” and purpose ‒ from “tactical” Bayraktar (they are smaller than competitors’ MALE drones), “traditional” ANKA (larger and more payload), kamikaze quadcopters Kargu and to powerful drones, capable of carrying good radars and hundreds of kilograms of bombs and missiles and having a satellite control channel ‒ that is, a range of thousands of kilometers.
  • All these platforms are linked into a single information space and are supported by electronic warfare (EW) systems. Long-range cannon and missile artillery, air defense, and manned aircraft are connected to the system. Remote “workplaces” for communication with drone operators have been transferred to the advanced infantry units.
  • As the experience of the war in Karabakh has shown, drones from other manufacturers can be quickly included in this system: in particular, Israeli-made kamikaze drones and Soviet-designed Su-25 attack aircraft.

Thus, Turkey has created a working system of network-centric warfare in which a significant part of the tasks will be redistributed from expensive manned systems to cheaper drones. Its capabilities are enough to win in local conflicts with a relatively weak enemy. This was also recognized by Ankara’s allies in the West (they have become competitors and even opponents in recent years). The head of the British Department of Defense, Ben Wallace, even before the war in Karabakh, said that Turkish drones had changed the course of the war in Libya and Syria. The UK, he said, is preparing to replace the American Reaper drones with its Protector UAVs, which will be the backbone of the strike force of the future. Can drones withstand modern armies, aviation, and air defense?

This is a difficult question: so far, fortunately, there has not been a single “field test” ‒ a conflict in which it would be possible to assess the effectiveness of drones against serious countermeasures. A distant view could be given by the standoff in Syrian Idlib in February-March 2020, where Turkey deployed its entire system of drones and associated ground forces, and the opposing Syrian army probably received high-tech support from Russia. But, alas, the data on this conflict ‒ on the course of the struggle, on the forces involved, on the results ‒ cannot be called accurate and objective.

Thus, one has to rely on general considerations and models.

Brief conclusions:

  • Modern air defense systems (and even more so 20-30 years old) are poorly adapted to the “drone war”.
  • Low-flying microdrones like the Kargu kamikaze are difficult to detect with air defense radars precisely because of their small size.
  • Larger UAVs (like the same Bayraktar, which is positioned as “having low electronic signature”) are not “stealth”, which is also recognized by Turkish experts. Their design shows no signs of a deliberate attempt to reduce the effective scattering area (ESR). 
  • However, they do not look like a simple target for air defense: they are almost entirely ‒ apart from the engine, avionics, sensors, and weapons ‒ made of composite materials, which are less reflective than metals. Also, speed helps them to avoid detection: the radars of air defense systems are “sharpened” for high-speed objects. It is not so easy to change the radar settings: restrictions on low-speed targets were introduced for a reason but to avoid false flares from objects on the surface, birds, etc.
  • Probably, it was Bayraktar, in terms of the combination of visibility and speed, that turned out to be a very successful model for confronting Soviet and Russian-made military air defense systems. So, the more expensive and large (and having their own active ‒ that is, emitting ‒ radar) Turkish Anka-S drones in February-March 2020 made in Syrian Idlib much fewer sorties than Bayraktar devices, but suffered comparable losses from the fire with the land: two Anka (one confirmed by photographs of the wreckage) versus three to five Bayraktar (two confirmed by photographs).
  • The working height of drones like Bayraktar (6 kilometers) and even more so Reaper or Chinese Wing Loong is simply inaccessible for old military air defense systems and most portable anti-aircraft missile systems (MANPADS), which was demonstrated in Karabakh, where the Armenians mainly used such complexes.
  • The latest Russian Igla-S MANPADS can theoretically shoot down such a drone at the limit of the range, but the ability to independently detect a target at such a distance, and even more so to hit it with a missile with a thermal head, is questionable.
  • Modified military air defense systems “Pantsir” and “Thor”, on which the Russian ground forces are rearmed, obviously have much better chances in the fight against medium drones, but the Turks have demonstrated in Syria and especially in Libya that they can win in a confrontation with individual modern complexes of Russian production. Probably, the use by Turkey of the Koral electronic warfare system, which suppresses enemy radars, interferes with the detection of future military drones.
  • The military of many countries claim that their systems have no problems in the fight against drones like the Turkish. Many troops have consistently conducted successful drills over the past two years to counter UAVs of various sizes and types. However, such statements cannot be trusted. So, for example, following the results of joint Russian-Armenian drone countermeasures in the summer of 2020, a few months before the conflict in Karabakh, it was announced that the Armenian army “should not be afraid of the Turkish Bayraktar.”
  • The potential effectiveness of countering air defense and medium attack drones looks even worse if we compare the cost of anti-aircraft missile systems and the missiles they use with the price of the drones themselves. Thus, the Bayraktar complex of four drones, control systems, stocks of bombs and missiles, and advanced communications panels for troops at the front costs about five million dollars. Thus, the loss of each drone individually will cost its owner less than a million dollars. The missile for “Pantsir” used to cost 70 thousand dollars (now, probably a little less; there is no more accurate and recent data); a rocket for a more efficient “Thor” ‒ 300 thousand dollars.
  • Potentially the most effective military air defense system in the fight against drones ‒ modifications of the longer-range Buk air defense systems (one of these launchers shot down a Malaysian Boeing in Donbas in 2014) with a powerful radar ‒ is even more expensive. Probably, the cost of one Buk missile is comparable to the cost of a Bayraktar UAV.
  • One way or another, manufacturers have recognized that combating drones (especially small ones) with expensive missiles is possible, but economically ineffective.
  • Considering that the complexes themselves are also suffering losses, the situation becomes quite sad. Thus, each Pantsir-S1 anti-aircraft missile system was supplied under a contract with the UAE at a price of about $15 million (with 48 missiles in ammunition). A significant part of the complexes sold by the UAE then ended up in Syria, where they collided with Bayraktar in 2019-2020 and suffered heavy losses. Russia, for example, is now using the more modern Pantsirey model, which is likely to be more expensive even for the Russian army. The penultimate model of the more powerful and efficient “Thors” in 2012 cost the Russian Defense Ministry about $13 million per launcher.
  • Besides, it should be borne in mind that launchers and other equipment of air defense systems are by no means unmanned, so political losses associated with the death of crews should be added to the possible economic losses.
  • The same applies to the use of manned aircraft against drones: as the 2008 war in Georgia showed, Russian fighters are capable of detecting and shooting down even small drones (in that case, Israeli-made reconnaissance UAVs). However, the probable losses of manned aircraft during the fight against drones ‒ from enemy air defense or aviation fire ‒ look unacceptable.

Another way to combat drones is the means of electronic warfare (electronic suppression) and electronic warfare (electronic warfare). Prototypes seem to do a good job with the makeshift terrorist drones in Syria; however, their ability to disable larger UAVs associated with operators with powerful and jam-resistant radio signals has not been proven.

  • The problem is that it is rarely possible to be sure that the electronic signal device has suppressed the signal of the drone or operator, as well as its navigation system.
  • Modern military drones use GPS and other satellite navigation systems as an option. First of all, inertial navigation systems are used, orientation on an electronic map using altimeters, etc. Using GPS, corrections are made to the readings of other subsystems. To suppress such an integrated navigation system, it is necessary not only to block the reception of signals from positioning satellites but also to transmit signals from “false satellites”, for example, ground stations, to the drone and hope that this will damage the operation of other navigation subsystems.
  • The same applies to the jamming of radio communications: advanced drones can work out autonomous programs (for example, hitting a target or returning to the home base) even after the loss of communication with the operator. The only thing that can indicate that the drone is suppressed is it’s crash or control interception.
  • It is known that interception of control (full or partial) even of modern large UAVs is possible. Iran has demonstrated it more than once. In 2011, it allegedly hijacked an American RQ-170 attack UAV; then Iranian engineers were able to recreate the same drone for the Iranian industry. In 2019, Iran demonstrated a video of interference in the transmission of video from a Reaper UAV, which then crashed. Probably, the drone periodically turns off the encryption of some of the signals (for example, when it is in an environment of radio interference). However, it is unclear whether this “bug” still exists: alas, expensive electronic warfare means can often be neutralized by a simple adjustment of the drone’s algorithms. At the same time, the drones can stand up for themselves: in Karabakh, judging by the video of the Azerbaijani Ministry of Defense, kamikaze drones destroyed the Russian-made Repellent-1 electronic warfare system, designed specifically to combat drones (however, confirmation that the first strike on the system was made by a drone is not on the video).
  • Finally, many countries around the world have realized the dangers of various drones ‒ from “handicrafts” of terrorists to “strikers” produced by developed and even developing countries. Now they are developing countermeasures based on new physical principles: lasers (to disable drones or “heat” them for subsequent destruction by missiles with heat-guided heads); Microwave guns and bombs that disable electronic equipment of drones; fighter drones with nets, shrapnel, cannons, and missiles. However, for the time being, it mainly means against microdrones that reach military tests.

It is increasingly obvious that the fight against drones will require an integrated approach: the creation of new tracking systems for small drones, new specialized radars, and surveillance optoelectronic systems capable of detecting medium-sized drones at long distances and altitudes, new means of destruction and suppression. All of this will not be cheap.

The simplest version of such a system was shown in battle again by Turkey: in Libya, against the single Wing Loong drones of Marshal Haftar (controlled by operators from the UAE), a screen was created from the Koral electronic warfare, long-range air defense on Turkish ships off the coast of Libya, supplemented by strikes from the Bayraktar UAVs on the drone bases enemy. All this costs a lot of money, but sometimes such costs can be justified: when comparing the prices of countermeasures systems and drones, it is necessary to take into account the damage inflicted on the enemy by the UAV.

However, drone manufacturers and users are also moving forward. If Haftar’s forces tried to attack the enemy’s positions in Tripoli with single vehicles, then Turkey is already using the tactics of attacking with “flocks” of drones ‒ both of the same type and different, but complementing each other. This is how, most likely, the Turks struck the air defense of the Armenians in Karabakh. This tactic, many experts say, is the first step towards a real operational and even strategic drone revolution on the battlefield.

What will military science be like after the future military drone revolution?

The popular and rather radical theory of the drone revolution was detailed in October 2020 by former Norwegian Deputy Defense Minister Sverre Diesen in a speech at the Ogarkov Readings conference organized by the Russian Center for Strategy and Technology Analysis.

  • If the progress of future military drones and other robotic systems as platforms for reconnaissance, surveillance, target designation, and high-precision weapons continues, then complete systems of network-centric (remote) warfare will soon be created. By drones, here we should mean not only the current UAVs of an aircraft or helicopter scheme but also high-precision missiles of various classes and guided artillery shells.
  • The armies will be deprived of the main method of warfare ‒ concentration of forces in important areas. It will be impossible under the threat of being hit by high-precision weapons. The ability of troops to maneuver forces will also be limited. Instead, armies will concentrate and maneuver fire.
  • One of the main methods of warfare will be remote “denial of access to territory” operations: in other words, the enemy will be bombed remotely until he retreats or abandons his attack. If the politicians do demand to occupy the territory, this will be done by a small number of mobile forces ‒ after the operation of “interdiction”.
  • The concepts of “front line” and relatively safe rear will be abolished.
  • The old paradigm of the use of terrain will lose its meaning ‒ the hills, which for centuries have been used as the most important points, by occupying which you can get a better view of the terrain (and therefore an information advantage), will no longer play such a role.
  • War on land will be analogous to war at sea, where each mile of space is equal to another of the same mile.
  • Civilian casualties will be no less than in modern wars. This is since an urbanized area will play an important role, in which it is possible to hide means of fire destruction ‒ artillery, etc.
  • Tanks will lose their role as the backbone of the ground forces: they will not be able to endlessly build up protection against high-precision weapons, including cheap and attacking from above. Their place can be taken, for example, by ground armed drones.
  • Command, having access to information from multiple sensors and the ability to strike at great depths, will be able to direct combat operations in real-time. The same applies to politicians, who will be able to make decisions in real-time on delivering “especially sensitive blows”, for example, against the enemy’s policies.

I must say that all these ideas are not new. Skeptics argue that the means of defense ‒ air defense, electronic warfare, systems of active protection of equipment from high-precision weapons, etc. ‒ are capable of evolving no slower than drones. However, for small states that cannot afford complex and expensive defense systems, there will be no choice but to increase the strike power of the drones.

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