Edward J. Erickson: "Azerbaijan's victory in Karabakh: Turkish drone success or operational art?

Edward J. Erickson: "Azerbaijan's victory in Karabakh: Turkish drone success or operational art?

How do we explain Azerbaijan’s stunning strategic victory in the fall of 2020 in what has come to be called the 44-Day War, or the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War? Some regional specialists simply observed, “The bigger and better equipped Azerbaijani army, backed by Turkey, overwhelmed the smaller and obsolescent Armenian force.” However, the most pervasive and widely held explanation today asserts that the use of Turkish and Israeli drones was such a tactical game changer that an Azerbaijani victory was preordained, Lt. Col. Edward J. Erickson, PhD, U.S. Army, retired, writes for The Military Review.

In 2020, the Azerbaijani armed forces successfully conducted a joint operation to seize geographically and politically important parts of the Karabakh region from the Armenian army. The Azerbaijani strategic objective to recover large portions of Armenian occupied territory proved achievable. Moreover, the unfolding Azerbaijani campaign design clearly demonstrated the hallmarks of operational art by effectively balancing ends, ways, and means. Operationally, the Azerbaijani armed forces’ joint planning, preparation, and combat effectiveness proved decisive compared to that of its Armenian opponent. Azerbaijani success was achieved through an extended period of Turkish military assistance that was a critically important combat multiplier for the Azerbaijanis, but it was also enabled by the acquisition of selected capabilities and capacities chosen by Azerbaijan. Ultimately, the success of Azerbaijan’s 2020 campaign in Karabakh was the result of a sustained period of professionalization in its military institutions and complementary acquisition decisions.

The early phase of the campaign

In late December 2020, after the end of hostilities, Aliyev announced that the Azerbaijani offensive had carried the name “Iron Fist.” II Corps, under the command of Maj. Gen. Mais Barkhudarov, conducted the army’s main effort, attacking southwest into the lower Aras Valley. The main effort tracks with the assignments and location of the army’s general support artillery and rocket brigades, which were needed to weight offensive operations. Additional supporting attacks were conducted by Lt. Gen. Rovshan Akbarov’s III Corps and Maj. Gen. Hikmet Hasanov’s I Corps against Armenian fortifications in the Republic of Artsakh’s mountainous north and northeast respectively. The army’s SOF units, under the command of Lt. Gen. Hikmat Mirzayev, appear to have deployed mostly in the II Corps zone of operations. The offensive operations of II Corps seemed designed to seize control of the Aras Valley floor, while the supporting attacks of the I Corps and III Corps seemed designed to tie down Armenian army units from deploying south to reinforce the ongoing battles in the Aras Valley. These forces were under the overall command of Col. Gen. Karam Mustafayev, who is listed on the Azerbaijani Ministry of Defense webpage as the commander of the Combined Arms Army. Lt. Gen. Ramiz Tahirov served as Mustafayev’s counterpart commander of the Azerbaijani air force.

The Armenian press reported that three high-ranking Turkish generals participated in the conduct of planning and executing the campaign from the Baku headquarters, but this is unproven. The author’s opinion is that it is very likely that the Azerbaijani general staff received advice in real time from the Turks, but it is unlikely that Turkish generals were actually in command of the campaign.

On the first day of the war (27 September 2020) army artillery and air force UAs targeted the Armenian Osa (SA-8) and Strela-10 (SA-13) mobile short-range air defense systems and subsequently targeted S-300 launchers, 2K12 SAM batteries, and long-range air defense radars. Like coalition campaigns in Iraq in 1991 and 2003, this gave the Azerbaijanis free rein to employ their large fleet of UAs to the fullest extent. On the ground, the Azerbaijani combined arms units (infantry, tanks, artillery, and combat engineers) made contact with the defenders along the contested parts of the LoC and attacked the Armenian fortified positions. This was very costly, and early reports indicated that the Azerbaijanis suffered heavy casualties in both personnel and equipment (tanks and armored vehicles). The Armenians struck back by shelling and rocketing Azerbaijani cities and towns; Barda, Shamkir, Sabkirkend, and Horadiz were all hit hard. The Azerbaijani cities of Ganja and Terter (Tärtär) as well as the contested town of Ağdam (Aghdam) would be shelled repeatedly during the next two weeks.

The destruction of Armenian equipment, especially tanks and armored vehicles, from precision strikes by the Turkish drones and the loitering munitions, was covered by the international media. For the first three days, the opposing armies hammered away at each other, with then Azerbaijanis bearing the brunt of the losses during attacks on heavily fortified Armenian positions. Within Karabakh, Azerbaijan launched paralyzing interdiction attacks along the Armenian tactical (or battlefield) lines of communications.  Cumulatively, the behind-the-lines destruction of logistical nodes, supplies, and munitions rapidly affected the frontline Armenian combat troops as they began to run out of these vital commodities with which to fight and sustain thenselves.

It appears that the culmination point of the early parts of the campaign was reached on 3 October, by which date the Armenians had lost hundreds of tanks, artillery pieces and multiple launch rocket systems, and unarmored trucks and vehicles. Moreover, they had lost a large number of ammunition depots, a dozen command posts, and large amounts of munitions and food supplies in truck convoys destroyed along the lines of communications.

On 3 October 2020, Aliyev’s office made a public announcement noting that villages near Talish, Fizuli (Füzuli), and Jabrayil had been liberated. Aliyev also announced that Armenian riflemen were abandoning their positions under heavy Azerbaijani fire in Agdere (Ağdärä). Importantly, Aliyev congratulated I Army Corps commander Hikmet Hasanov on the liberation of Madagiz (Mataghis). Two days later the government announced the liberation of three more villages in Jabrayil. It is evident from the content and tone of these announcements that the war had already shifted in favor of Azerbaijan.

By 7 October, the Azerbaijani Ministry of Defense reported that Armenian regiments in the Aras Valley were suffering serious shortages of food, fuel, and ammunition, causing widespread desertion. Over the next two days, the ministry reported more villages liberated, and that Armenian units attempting to withdraw or move during the daytime were invariably attacked from the air and destroyed. Throughout this period and in the following weeks, the Armenians continued to pound Azerbaijani towns and cities with ballistic missiles and rockets. The Armenian Army launched counterattacks to regain territory that failed badly. The Azerbaijani armed forces clearly had the operational and tactical initiative at this point in the campaign. By 10 October, Azerbaijan had liberated Jabrayil and many of the surrounding villages, in effect penetrating the Armenian’s main line of defense. Azerbaijani media reported that after abandoning qualities of armored vehicles and equipment, defeated Armenian regiments withdrew northward toward the town of Hadrut. Advances were also announced in the Khojavand and Fuzuli districts and, in the Aras Valley, II Corps pushed toward Zangilan.

The Azerbaijani army closely pursued the retreating Armenians toward Hadrut and, by 13 October, had seized the heights overlooking the town. The details of the battle are not clear, but within two days, the Azerbaijanis controlled the town and the surrounding high ground. This victory put Azerbaijan in a tactical position to advance on the Lachin corridor. However, the army had to finish clearing the Aras Valley in order to assure the advance could be safely supported logistically. Conventional assaults cleared Khojavand (Martuni) and Fuzuli. A brief Russian-brokered humanitarian cease-fire on 18 October did not materially slow the Azerbaijani advances. By 20 October, II Corps had liberated Zangilan and its hinterlands and, on 23 October, Aliyev announced that the Angband (Aghband/Ağbänd) Settlement had been liberated, assuring that one hundred percent of the Iranian border was secured by the army. We can infer from these announcements that II Corps had achieved control of the upper and lower Aras Valley. Thus, near the end of October 2020, the Azerbaijani armed forces successfully completed, but at great cost in soldiers and equipment, the first phase of the campaign.

The final phase of the campaign

The actual architecture of command in use by the Azerbaijani army during the 44-Day War remains unclear. However, it is known that Azerbaijan formed a “Joint Corps” under the command of SF Lt. Gen. Mirzayev for the final phase of the campaign. The Joint Corps was composed predominantly of Mirzayev’s SF units and would be termed by NATO planners as a special purpose task force. In any case, Azerbaijani SF pushed north from Hadrut taking the village of Chanakhchi (Avetaranots) on 29 October, putting them within twenty kilometers of Shushi and the Lachin corridor. However, the existing road network did not connect Hadrut with the corridor directly, forcing the lightly equipped SF to attack west across rugged mountains. Azerbaijani attacks to seize Lachin itself failed in the face of determined Armenian resistance.61 Nevertheless, by 4 November, the Azerbaijanis had cut the Lachin-Stepanakert road three kilometers south of Shushi.

The final assault began on 4 November and, according to the media, it was very bloody. Supported by conventional army artillery and air force precision strikes, Azerbaijani SF scaled the high ground to the west of the town the next day and entered the town of Shushi itself on 6 November. Two days later, Aliyev announced the victory while Mirzayev’s SF soldiers pushed their perimeter several more kilometers north of Shushi and attacked east to seize the town of Suşakand. Azerbaijan’s armed forces’ victory at Shushi signaled the completion of the campaign and led to the termination of the war on terms dictated by Azerbaijan.

On 9 November 2020, Aliyev, Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan, and Russian President Vladimir Putin signed an agreement ending hostilities. They announced that the Russian-brokered agreement would go into effect the next day with Russian peacekeepers deploying to secure the Lachin corridor. Much to the surprise of many, the agreement went far beyond a simple cease-fire; it effectively amounted to an instrument of unconditional surrender with Armenia ceding large areas of Artsakh to Azerbaijan (see figure 3, page 10). Under the terms of the agreement, the areas already liberated by Azerbaijan would remain under its control. Armenia further pledged to withdraw from the Ağdam District by 20 November, the Kalbajar District by 25 November, and the Lachin District by 1 December. There were other clauses as well, with the most important for Azerbaijan being the creation of a guaranteed overland transit link with Nakhchivan and, for Armenia, a Russian-patrolled and guaranteed corridor from Lachin to Stepanakert. This was a stunning and utterly unpredicted outcome that reduced the land area of the Republic of Artsakh by two-thirds and left it isolated and dependent on an easily interdictable corridor. The agreement left the Pashinyan administration significantly weakened politically.

Campaign analysis

Much has been published already about the tactical lessons of the 44-Day War, including predictions about the supposedly diminishing future value of armored vehicles, the value-added of relatively inexpensive UAs and loitering munitions, and the high number of equipment losses incurred when precision strike UA systems and munitions are employed. However, we might keep in mind that many similar predictions were made after the Arab-Israeli War of 1973, suggesting that armor and ground attack aircraft were no longer as survivable on the modern battlefield as in previous wars. I will leave predictions to other authors. Rather, then, what can we say about the Azerbaijani campaign?

First, the effect of the Turkish military cooperation effort over a sustained period has been very successful. The Azerbaijani air force invested heavily in UAs and ballistic missiles, while the Azerbaijani army invested heavily in SF and command and staff training and education (at the expense of its conventional maneuver forces). .

Second, the apparent design of the campaign effectively balanced ends, ways, and means. The army concentrated its main conventional maneuver forces, reinforced by SOF and UAs, in the Aras Valley avenue of approach, where it fought a deliberate series of battles to secure a base from which to advance north. The selection of the Lachin corridor as the obvious operational objective of the campaign put the entire Armenian army remaining in Artsakh in an untenable position of extreme danger. The seizure of Shushi led to an immediate cession of hostilities on terms dictated by Aliyev. In military terms, the Azerbaijani campaign’s objective was geographically oriented rather than force oriented and led directly to the successful conclusion of the war.

Third, the Azerbaijanis leveraged their UA capability tactically, but they also leveraged their UA and ballistic missile capabilities at the operational level of war. Reading Azerbaijani day-by-day news releases from the Ministry of Defense, it is clear that the Armenian forces in Artsakh were weakened seriously through the Azerbaijani interdiction of their operational and tactical lines of communications. It is beyond doubt that many of the Armenian forces in Artsakh ran out of ammunition, food, fuel, and other military supplies at critical moments. This is not a new approach to war, having been used from Normandy in 1944 to Kuwait in 1991. But it is somewhat surprising that the Azerbaijanis even attempted to conduct a deep battle operation. Azerbaijans success was, to a certain extent, evident on the battlefield.

Fourth, the seizure of Shushi achieved that because the shattered Armenian Army did not have the strength to recover the town. Holding Shushi ensured the interdiction of the Lachin corridor, making it only a matter of time before the surviving Armenian forces in Artsakh would have had to surrender unconditionally. The agreement signed by Pashinyan definitively proves this point.

Fifth, in terms of “jointness,” the Azerbaijani air force, army, and navy appear to have fought well together. Air force UAs directly and successfully supported army units in contact. It is clear, for example, that a Joint Corps (a special joint task force) was activated under the command of Mirzayev for the advance and seizure of Shushi. Mirzayev’s Joint Corps combined forces and assets from several services successfully during the final battles of the war.

Lastly, combat is the province of the unknown and of uncertainty, and there is no “sure thing” in war. Within several days of the advent of hostilities, the Azerbaijanis achieved mastery of the battlespace, which gave them freedom of action and the initiative. This is no small accomplishment for any armed force and is, of itself, noteworthy. 

Conclusion

It is beyond doubt that the Azerbaijani armed forces’ successful 2020 campaign owed much more to the careful balancing of operational-level ends, ways, and means to achieve strategic goals than to UAs and drones. Moreover, Azerbaijani joint planning, preparation, and combat effectiveness proved decisively superior to that of its Armenian opponent. Ultimately, the success of Azerbaijan’s 2020 campaign in Karabakh was the result of a sustained period of professionalization of its military institutions and complementary acquisition decisions.

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