The rise of the machines

Jonathon Last’s newsletter for The Bulwark is always a bracing read, and never more so than this morning when he pointed to a piece about the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. My eyes have been glazing over at this story for weeks – 44 days, in fact. But it turns out that “the entire shape of modern warfare is changing right before our eyes”. One side had fleets of main battle tanks, robust missile defenses, and extensive dug-in positions. “The other side had a bunch of cheap, disposable drones.”

There are no prizes for guessing who won. Last points to these pars from a report in the Washington Post, and if you think long enough about them, they’re a little bit terrifying.

Azerbaijan used its drone fleet — purchased from Israel and Turkey — to stalk and destroy Armenia’s weapons systems in Nagorno-Karabakh, shattering its defenses and enabling a swift advance. Armenia found that air defense systems in Nagorno-Karabakh, many of them older Soviet systems, were impossible to defend against drone attacks, and losses quickly piled up. . . .

Azerbaijan, frustrated at a peace process that it felt delivered nothing, used its Caspian Sea oil wealth to buy arms, including a fleet of Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones and Israeli kamikaze drones (also called loitering munitions, designed to hover in an area before diving on a target). . . .

In the early stages of the war, Azerbaijan used 11 slow Soviet-era An-2 aircraft that had been converted into drones and sent them buzzing over Nagorno-Karabakh as bait to Armenian air defense systems — tempting them to fire and reveal their positions, after which they could be hit by drones.

Azerbaijan used surveillance drones to spot targets and sent armed drones or kamikaze drones to destroy them, analysts said. . . .

Their tally, which logs confirmed losses with photographs or videos, listed Armenian losses at 185 T-72 tanks; 90 armored fighting vehicles; 182 artillery pieces; 73 multiple rocket launchers; 26 surface-to-air missile systems, including a Tor system and five S-300s; 14 radars or jammers; one SU-25 war plane; four drones and 451 military vehicles.

Azerbaijan, the group concluded, had visually confirmed losses of 22 tanks, 41 armored forced vehicles, one helicopter, 25 drones and 24 vehicles. The Washington Post.

I’ll give JVL the write off, since he earned it:

This is a revolution in military affairs and it’s not going to stop at air-to-ground conflict. We’re going to see drones equalize naval conflicts, too, making it even more expensive to project power across oceans.

If there’s a “good news” when it comes to drone warfare, it’s that the drones aren’t autonomous yet. But that’s coming, too.

The world around us is less stable than we think. And it’s becoming more so every day.