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The game changer

The first Turkish armed drone, the Bayraktar TB2, lands at Gecitkale air base in northern Cyprus on 16th December 2019


The first Turkish armed drone, the Bayraktar TB2, lands at Gecitkale air base in northern Cyprus on 16th December 2019

Just a few hours after the peace deal was announced, the mob brushed aside the lax security, smashed its way into the main chamber and called for the head of the prime minister. Thousands had rushed to the steps of the parliament in the Armenian capital of Yerevan to voice their anger at Nikol Pashinyan, who had just explained on Facebook why he signed an agreement ending his country’s disastrous 44-day war with its neighbour Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh. “I made that decision as a result of an in-depth analysis of the military situation and the assessment of the people who know the situation best,” he stated. “This is not a victory, but there is no defeat until you recognise yourself as a loser.”

The crowd, and the country as a whole, very much saw it as a defeat. From the late 1980s tens of thousands have been killed and hundreds of thousands more displaced by war and tit-for-tat pogroms over Nagorno-Karabakh, a swathe of landlocked territory inside Azerbaijan. When it was part of the Soviet Union, the area in the South Caucasus had been an ethnically Armenian province within the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic. But as communism collapsed, the Armenian Christians of Nagorno-Karabakh sought self-determination and union with Armenia, against the wishes of Azerbaijan and the minority Muslim Azeri population who also lived there. A brutal full-scale war for control of Nagorno-Karabakh, known as ‘Artsakh’ in Armenia, began at the end of 1991. By the time it ended in 1994 an estimated 30,000 people were dead.

Whole towns and cities were emptied of Azeris including Agdam, today one of the world’s largest ghost towns, leaving ethnic Armenians as de facto controllers of a state within a state, with its capital in the region’s biggest city, Stepanakert. Armenian forces had also captured a further seven surrounding districts from the now-independent state of Azerbaijan. The UN recognises Nagorno-Karabakh as Azerbaijani territory and so it remained in limbo: an unrecognised republic and an archetypal, seemingly intractable frozen conflict. Hostilities would occasionally flare up along the border but the trenches which marked the line of confrontation had barely moved for nearly three decades – until now.

In little more than a month Armenia’s military and the Artsakh Defence Army, had been routed. Armenia lost 70 percent of the territory it controlled, including the strategic town of Shushi, which sits above Stepanakert. When Shushi fell, Pashinyan was forced to accept the peace deal, in part to prevent the loss of Stepanakert. The agreement formalised Azerbaijan’s gains, allowing as many as half a million people displaced by the original war in the early ’90s to return home. It was also agreed that a corridor would be opened between Azerbaijan and its exclave Nakhchivan, which is surrounded by Armenia. Two thousand Russian troops would keep the peace in the most contentious areas. The deal provoked fury back home.

“Armenia was ill-prepared to compete in this new world. It had just lost the first drone war”

While the mob rioted inside the chamber of the Armenian parliament, hundreds more ransacked government offices looking for Pashinyan, chanting: “Where is Nikol? Where is that traitor?” One man smashed Pashinyan’s brass nameplate from the wall using a fire extinguisher. Pashinyan wasn’t there, but Ararat Mirzoyan, speaker of the Armenian parliament, was found by protesters outside the building, dragged out of his car, stripped and beaten unconscious. Meanwhile Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, saw scenes of jubilation as crowds waved flags, honked car horns and chanted “Karabakh!”. But victory had not come as a surprise – they had been primed to believe it was all but certain thanks to their new trump card.

Since the start of the conflict, large electronic billboards around Baku had shown high-definition footage from the battlefield. The silent videos were mostly taken from cameras onboard Azerbaijan’s newly acquired fleet of Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Each day the Azerbaijan Ministry of Defence released footage on its website of the latest attacks: eerie, macabre images showing small blobs of Armenian troops going about their business unaware that they were being watched silently from up to 27,000 feet. Seconds later, the screen would flash bright white as a missile from a TB2 hit its target. A graphic of the blue, red and green Azerbaijani flag fluttered in the top left corner.

The Bayraktar TB2, as well as some Israeli-made Heron “suicide” drones  –  which lock on to and then crash into a target  –  smashed Armenia’s military hardware. Nagorno-Karabakh’s Soviet-era air defences were obliterated. Its artillery and tanks – anywhere between a third and a half of Armenia’s total arsenal – were destroyed. Officially around 2,500 Armenian soldiers were killed, although the true figure is likely to be double that. For a country the size of Armenia, with a population of under three million, losses at that level are proportionally worse than that suffered by American troops in Vietnam. “If it wasn’t for the Bayraktars, the war would have had an absolutely different outcome,” says Dr Artyom Tonoyan, an Armenian-American academic at the University of Minnesota who specialises in ethnic conflicts in the South Caucasus. “That was the game changer, by any metric. If you look how Armenian armour was decimated within the first two weeks of the war, and most of it by Bayraktars… it’s a miracle that the Armenians lasted 44 days.”

The footage piped onto Baku’s streets and packaged up to go viral on social media didn’t just give Azerbaijan a propaganda coup – it also heralded a new type of state-vs-state drone conflict.

The war in Nagorno-Karabakh saw Turkey, a long-time ally of Azerbaijan thanks to their shared Turkic identity and history, emerge as a global drone power with the potential to compete with the US, Israel and China, and to change the balance of power in complex theatres of war. “This military technology was believed to be exclusive to a small number of powers. That is not the case any more,” says Sam Brownsword, an academic and contributor to Drone Wars, a UK-based NGO that advocates for a ban on the use of armed drones. The Nagorno-Karabakh war, he says, was almost a shop window for Turkey, advertising its drones’ efficacy to the rest of the world and opening the possibility that other frozen conflicts might now start to heat up as other mid-sized states – priced out of acquiring the market leading, US-made Predator and Reaper drones – acquire much cheaper Turkish-made UAVs. “The success in Nagorno-Karabakh shows that Turkey is the most advanced new developer of armed drones,” says Brownsword.

Armenia was ill-prepared to compete in this new world, fighting a 21st-century conflict with 20th-century equipment. It had just lost the world’s first drone war.

A house burns in the village of Charektar, 14th Nov 2020. Some in Nagorno-Karabakh set their homes ablaze then fled to Armenia after parts of the territory were handed to Azerbaijan in the peace deal


Xatire Celilova’s flat in Terter, Azerbaijan, destroyed by Armenian shelling, 10th Oct 2020

Selçuk Bayraktar was making an assured pitch, even if the crowd at his demonstration appeared a little underwhelmed when they finally saw what he was talking about. It was 2005 and the then-26-year-old Turkish engineer, taking a break from his second Master’s degree at MIT, was telling a crowd of government officials and defence contractors in Ankara about his big idea: that Turkey could become the world leader in military drone technology. “If this project, and the likes of it in the field of UAV technology, gathers support, Turkey may become the world number one,” he said confidently. “I’m telling you. Because I, and people like me in the lab I am working at, are designing aircraft that will fly in ten years.”

At MIT Bayraktar had been working on cutting-edge drone and unmanned flight technology with the aim of helping to future-proof his father’s company, Baykar, which began life in the mid ’80s as a manufacturer of car parts. He believed it was time for Baykar, and Turkey, to adapt to a new world. It was this that had led to the unveiling of his latest drone, an olive green, hand-launched mini-UAV, no bigger than a torso. The mini-UAV was thrown into the air and, controlled by a man on the ground, it steadied itself then circled the nonplussed crowd before landing with a series of bounces. “It is a big opportunity for Turkey,” Bayraktar concluded. It was an opportunity that the gathered military deal-makers couldn’t see. With no contacts in Turkey’s notoriously nepotistic defence-contracting industry, no one took him, his father’s car-parts company or his drone seriously. Everyone passed on the opportunity. Bayraktar returned to the US to finish his studies but came home a few years later after graduating. He was appointed chief technology officer at Baykar, and continued to develop his UAV. By that point Turkey was starting to come around to his way of thinking. And then the facts on the ground forced a change.

Turkey’s new interest in fully unmanned drone technology was primarily about taking out hard-to-reach Kurdish positions in the south-east of the country. Since 1984 Turkey has fought an insurgency against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party [PKK], a Kurdish group considered a terrorist organisation by almost everyone in the West. But the PKK were virtually untouchable in their mountainous territory. The US had made a technological leap forward with its Predator and later Reaper drones, deadly UAVs that were used to devastating effect in Afghanistan and Iraq, usually with huge collateral damage. Footage from US drones flying over PKK positions had been passed to Turkey, as a Nato member, but that wasn’t enough. Often PKK militants had taken up new positions by the time Turkey had moved its assets into place to launch an attack.

In a 2009 US diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks, the US ambassador to Turkey at the time wrote a briefing note to Admiral James Stavridis, at that point Nato’s supreme Allied commander for Europe, explaining just how desperate Turkey was to get its hands on American-made drones. “Turkey seeks to acquire, on an urgent basis, its own UAV capability to be able to continue anti-PKK ops without US assistance,” ran the cable. “The administration has made clear that we support this goal in principle, and Turkey has pending requests to acquire armed Predator and Reaper UAVs. Provided these sales win congressional approval…”

The congressional approval never arrived, leaving Turkey reliant on Israeli-made drones. But then came the 2010 Gaza flotilla raid, in which Israeli special forces stormed a six-boat “Gaza Freedom Flotilla” full of unarmed activists determined to break the sea blockade of Gaza. Ten Turkish citizens were killed, souring relations with Israel, which controlled around 60 percent of the global UAV export market. The two developments saw Turkey seek to build its own indigenous armed-drone programme, a tough challenge given that the market is dominated by the US, China and Israel.

“Bayraktar’s drone was an olive green, hand-launched mini-UAV, no bigger than a torso”

Baykar won a competition to supply Ankara with a handful of small UAVs. It was the foothold Selçuk Bayraktar needed. In 2014, less than ten years after his failed pitch in Ankara, the Bayraktar TB2 made its maiden flight. A year later the company had successfully tested hitting a target with a missile whilst the TB2 was in the air. Within two years, according to Sibel Düz, an analyst from the Turkish security think-tank SETA, TB2s had killed 405 PKK militants in the south-east of the country. It was now fully operational, with a top speed of 220km per hour, the ability to fly for 27 hours straight and space for four laser-guided rockets. The firm had become vital for Turkey’s security and was soon to be of personal interest to president Recep Tayyip Erdogan – in 2016 Bayraktar married Erdogan’s youngest daughter, Sümeyye.

Turkey is now in a tiny club of countries, alongside the US and China, that make and export armed drones. The key moment in proving its products’ effectiveness on the battlefield came in February 2020, when 33 Turkish soldiers were killed in Idlib, Syria, by the forces of Bashar al-Assad. The furious response, Operation Spring Shield, saw a swarm of TB2s attack ground forces in Syria. According to official Turkish sources 3,136 ‘regime elements’ were killed and three aircraft, eight helicopters, 156 tanks and two airports were destroyed.

The TB2’s introduction into the Libyan civil war on the side of the UN-recognised government was instrumental in breaking the siege of Tripoli in June 2020. “I can tell you Turkish drones have been effective on the battlefield,” says Shaan Shaikh from the Missile Defence Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). “And not just against Armenian forces. Look at Syria, Libya, how they’ve been used, and how they’ve been effectively taking out Russian-made air defences in those countries. And the Russians have been understandably upset with this.”

The Bayraktar has become a prestige export product for Turkey. The British military is now considering purchasing armed Bayraktar drones, which cost roughly $5 million to make, instead of Reaper drones which can cost more than six times that amount. As Düz wrote in a recent SETA report on the country’s drone industry, its successes in battle “have enabled Turkey’s products to be labelled as ‘combat proven’ and have given Turkey a highly prestigious reputation in the worldwide drone market.” In mid-June 2020 it was announced that Turkey had a new export customer. The Azerbaijani parliament had approved a budget to buy several TB2s. The country’s defence minister, Zakir Hasanov, travelled to Ankara to seal the deal, and to thank its “brotherly” neighbours for subsidising it.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan signs a Bayraktar TB2 military drone during his visit to an unmanned aircraft system command centre in Batman, Turkey, 3rd February 2018

In July 2020, Dr Tonoyan felt that war was coming back to Nagorno-Karabakh. It was public knowledge that Azerbaijan had bought the TB2 drones but it was a much smaller-scale Armenian drone that helped set the wheels of war in motion. Armenia is thought to have a handful of domestically produced drones, including a “suicide” drone and two small-scale reconnaissance models – but at close quarters small drones, if targeted well, can still prove deadly. As CSIS’s Shaan Shaikh points out, Houthi forces in Yemen have inflicted military losses on Saudi Arabia by using cluster munitions attached to the sort of drones “you can buy off Amazon that cost maybe a couple of hundred bucks”.

A skirmish over a remote outpost in the northern Armenian province of Tavush led to an Azeri general being killed in a strike near the border. It was the first time a general had been killed on either side of the conflict. Although details on the method of attack have not been confirmed, Dr Tonoyan believes it was likely to have been a precision strike from some sort of UAV. It was, he says, a “cold shower” for the Azerbaijani leadership, especially long-time president Ilham Aliyev.

Since Aliyev took power in 2003, replacing his father, Azerbaijan has grown rich (or at least the oligarchy has grown rich) thanks to its natural gas and oil reserves. At the same time the country has become increasingly authoritarian. There is little press freedom and scant civil society. Reporters Without Borders ranks Azerbaijan 168th out of 180 countries on its Press Freedom Index. “Not content with crushing all forms of pluralism,” it wrote in its most recent report, “President Ilham Aliyev has been waging a relentless war against his remaining critics since 2014.” Those few activists who still operate are often jailed on spurious charges.

In 2017 the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) released a investigation alleging that Aliyev’s family had spirited away billions of dollars through a complex offshore vehicle, and used some of that money to pay European politicians to launder Azerbaijan’s poor human rights record. Opposition at home or abroad is not tolerated, but the death of the general sparked a spontaneous reaction. “Azerbaijanis poured onto the streets,” says Dr Tonoyan. “During demonstrations people usually call for peace, but this was a demonstration calling for war.” As many as 30,000 protesters filled the streets of Baku on 14th July. A group even managed to storm the parliament. These protests, and the increasingly provocative rhetoric over Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenian politicians, including from the prime minister himself, led Aliyev to give the demonstrators what they wanted earlier than he had planned.

The time was ripe for a move in Nagorno-Karabakh. The US under Donald Trump had disengaged from the region and was preoccupied with its own elections. The EU was dealing with Covid and Brexit negotiations. “The X-factor was the Bayraktar drones,” says Dr Tonoyan. “The other X-factor was the full strength of Turkish diplomacy and military [power] thrown behind Azerbaijan. The entire thing essentially hinges on Turkey.”

Turkey and Armenia have a long and complicated relationship. Today there is a furious debate over whether the deaths of as many as one million Armenians at the hands of Ottoman government forces in 1915 should officially be referred to as a genocide. “Armenian advocacy on genocide recognition has really gotten under Erdogan’s skin,” says Dr Tonoyan.

But more pressing geopolitical concerns were likely to have been at play for Turkey – namely countering Russia, both in Syria, where the nations are on opposite sides of the conflict, and in the South Caucasus, where Russia has historically been the dominant force. “Turkey is a middleweight boxer with the punch of a heavyweight,” said Dr Can Kasapoglu, a leading Turkish military expert, during a recent interview with a Polish think-tank. Turkey, he said, is “a nation redefining a broader hinterland, not with an imperialist, but post-imperialist geopolitical calculus”. In other words, Turkey wants to exert power in its spheres of influence. “If Syria is going to be redefined, if Iraq is going to be redesigned, if the strategic picture in the Caucasus is changing… Turkey wants to have more say on that,” he said.

“President Ilham Aliyev has been waging a relentless war against his remaining critics”

The second Nagorno-Karabakh war began on 27th September 2020. Each side blamed the other for starting it. Both were accused of war crimes, shelling civilians and using cluster munitions, which are banned by most countries. Within a month Azerbaijan had seized back 1,500 square kilometres of territory. But it was the videos of drone strikes that stole the show. Azerbaijan didn’t just have the military edge with its Turkish drones versus Armenia’s small domestically made fleet. It controlled the optics too. “You see this propaganda battle between Azerbaijan and Armenia,” says Shaan Shaikh from CSIS. “But the TB2 camera was better than the Armenian drone cameras. And so it was just easier for Azerbaijan to use that footage. Armenia tried, but it’s just not as good quality… It wasn’t ready for prime-time.”

The video footage of the TB2s doing their work was both horrifying and mundane. The absence of sound and the distance at which it was filmed – just far away enough so that the targets were anonymous and bloodless – disconnected the viewer from the reality of what they had just seen, like watching war play out on a PlayStation. On YouTube you can find compilations of TB2 kill videos set to an ambient electronic soundtrack. One video in particular stood out. The Azerbaijan Ministry of Defence released footage on 28th October showing a TB2 circling a patrol of Armenian soldiers resting in a forest clearing, later geo-located by open-source researchers as farmland around the village of Qirmizi Bazar, 30km south-east of Stepanakert. The group is hit by a first missile, leading to panic among the survivors. The TB2 tracks them as they run for their lives. A few dozen men eventually think they have found safety in the opening of a large storage building. The TB2 fires again and destroys it. The footage was posted on the Azerbaijan MOD’s website under the title: “The enemy forces who could not resist the accurate fire strikes of our units and fled from the battlefield were destroyed – VIDEO.”

Yet the success of Azerbaijan’s drones in inflicting huge losses posed an important question: who was actually controlling the UAVs? Turkey denied any direct involvement in the conflict. “I really don’t believe that Azerbaijan could have got the drones flying in the air as quickly and operated them as well as they did without direct support from either the company [Baykar] or from the Turkish armed forces,” says Chris Cole, the director of Drone Wars. His organisation keeps track of UAV crashes to gauge how successful different drones, and their pilots, are in various conflicts. According to their Drone Crash Database, only two TB2s were shot down during the conflict.

The danger of Azerbaijan’s success, Cole believes, is that other small and mid-sized countries will be looking to replicate it, which means greater danger for civilians. In 2019, Ukraine purchased six TB2s, with a potential 50 more on the way, in the hope of gaining the upper hand in its stalemate against Russian forces in the east of the country. Countries around the South China Sea are buying drones to counter what they see as China’s growing belligerence. “Drones are lowering the threshold for the use of force and enabling much more warfare. That alone increases civilian casualties and lethality,” says Cole. “They also lower the political cost. You’re not risking your own forces. So if you take that economic and political cost away, it makes it much easier to launch a war.”

Professor Missy Cummings, a former fighter pilot and the current director of the Humans and Autonomy Laboratory at Duke University in the US, was not surprised by the developments in Nagorno-Karabakh. “UAVs are not complex aircraft; the hardware and software is mature and they are [becoming] substantially cheaper to build,” she says. “Given that the world is in a global competition for much more complex aircraft like commercial human-carrying drones, I think it is naive to think that the TB2 represents some amazing development – this is just part of the expected growth trajectory of such technologies.” Yet UAVs like the TB2s will have a profound effect on the capabilities of many smaller and mid-sized militaries. “This tech will democratise warfare. It allows countries without huge defence budgets to start flexing their muscles both offensively and defensively,” says Prof Cummings. “I think it is great that Turkey and other countries can develop [it] since that will hopefully help the US defence industry to shed some of its dead weight in terms of outdated thinking and archaic technologies.”

Rescuers search for survivors at a site hit by an Armenian missile in Azerbaijan’s second city of Ganja on 17th October 2020. President Ilham Aliyev vowed ‘revenge’ for the attack

A month after the Russian-brokered peace deal was signed, and the Armenian parliament had been stormed by an angry mob, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Ilham Aliyev stood on a dais in central Baku to take in their victory. Thousands of Azerbaijanis lined the streets. As helicopters and fighter jets flew overhead, 3,000 troops marched past. A TB2 trundled by on a large flatbed truck. “From the first hours of the war, we felt the support of Turkey,” Aliyev said in his speech.

Erdogan, meanwhile, urged vigilance. “The struggle carried out in the political and military areas will continue from now on many other fronts.” Almost simultaneously, back in Yerevan, thousands of angry protesters once again tried to storm the Armenian parliament, this time unsuccessfully. The protests against the government and Prime Minister Pashinyan continued into the new year.

The conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh has been refrozen, albeit with the balance of power reversed from the first war. For Dr Tonoyan, the lack of any cost levied by the international community on Turkey or Azerbaijan for their actions means the conflict will ignite again. “I call this conflict the Karabakh War 2.0 but you will see Karabakh War 2.1, you will see Karabakh War 2.2,” he says. “You will probably see Karabakh War 3.0 in two decades or so when Armenia has licked its wounds.”

So far the only real censure seems to have been a successful campaign organised by Armenian diaspora groups in North America to stop US GPS manufacturer Garmin from supplying Baykar. Pressure in Canada also forced the government to suspend the export of camera parts and targeting equipment used by the TB2.

Turkey, meanwhile, is looking towards the next generation of armed drones. Selçuk Bayraktar’s next project is the Akinci, which means ‘raider’ in Turkish. His company has released a slick promotional video showing the countdown to its first test flight. At an arms show at the end of 2019, his president and father-in-law signed the bodywork of an early Akinci prototype, which will be faster, fly higher and carry heavier weapons than the TB2, including air-launched cruise missiles. The most advanced new drones are very difficult to stop. The US is currently working on seven counter-drone measures, ranging from electronic scrambling devices to anti-drone drones. But, for the time being, UAVs will continue to enjoy a significant battlefield advantage.

“We are at the beginning of the drone age,” says Drone Wars’ Cole. “The drones that we have now are really like biplanes compared to modern combat aircraft.” That will change. In the near future Cole believes that significant strides will be made in swarming technology: hundreds, maybe thousands of drones working together to overwhelm a target. The ‘Loyal Wingman’, a resupply drone carrying weapons or fuel that will follow a fighter jet or a boat, will become the norm. There will also be much more autonomy. “The next stage will be a very difficult ethical issue about control over the use of force,” says Cole. “Should we hand that over to machines?
And there are various industries and military manufacturers pushing the envelope on this, because the speed of war is increasing all the time. You have to react much, much quicker. And so they’re handing over the decision-making on this to machines. We think that’s incredibly dangerous.”

Armenia is now scrambling to acquire the kind of armed-drone technology Azerbaijan used to such devastating effect, having realised that infantry, artillery and Cold War-era tactics won’t win back its lost territory. It has a fraction of its neighbour’s resources to deploy: Azerbaijan spent close to $2 billion on military hardware in 2020 while Armenia spent less than a third of that amount. But Armenia’s belated moment of clarity, Dr Tonoyan believes, is likely to have come too late. “There is a well-known Russian saying,” he tells me. “‘A man won’t cross himself until the lightning has struck’.”

The Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 military drone passes the crowd at a military parade to mark the end of the war in Azerbaijan’s capital Baku, 10th December 2020

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