Results from the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

This six-week war is now over. It was effectively a two-week war with a four-week poorly maintained ceasefire. Now I gather a more permanent ceasefire is in place, with 2,000 Russian troops placed between the warring factions. Russia is not entirely a neutral player here, having somewhat favored Armenia while Turkey supported Azerbaijan. But as Azerbaijan clearly won this round (and this has been going of and on since 1988) and took territory, then I suspect it is resolved for now. The president of Azerbaijan is touring the battlefield (his conquests) while the government of Armenia is in turmoil with several ministers resigning. Most governments don’t do very well after they lose a war and are usually replaced.

The big story from this war was the extensive use of drones and loitering munitions. These things trashed dozens of tanks, probably well over a 100. There are multiple videos of them, and some people have assembled body counts based upon these videos. I gather Armenia has stated that their losses are 2,317 killed, with other reports indicating 21 captured and several hundred missing. There are also losses from the Republic of Artsakh. Azerbaijan also suffered hundreds of losses and it may have been as high as 1,500, based upon an interpretation of a statement from the President of Azerbaijan. There were also Syrian fighters or mercenaries, which an outside agency reported 293 deaths. There were also civilian casualties. Overall, it looks like this conflict resulted in the deaths of at least 4,000 people and maybe over 5,000.

Losses in latest Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict

It does open a few questions. 

  1. Is that main battle tank antiquated?
  2. Are drones the air force of the future?
  3. Is this simply the result of conducting a war with air superiority?

This last point is important. Is what happened to Armenia in this war any different to what happened to Iraq in 1991? How does the efficacy and efficiency of the air campaign in the 1991 Gulf War compare to this conflict? The answer to this question certainly influences the answer to the first two questions. Is this just another example of the advantage of air supremacy, or is there a bigger lesson here?

The second point about drones also needs to be examined in some depth. It does not appear that Armenia had an effective air defense or good countermeasures against the drones. What would have been the difference if they did? Azerbaijan does have an air force, which took some loses, but their primarily prosecuted their air-to-ground campaign using drones. This may have been the poor mans or the cost-effective way of doing this. They could purchase a lot of relatively inexpensive drones and effectively prosecute and air-to-ground campaign to a degree that they could not have done using considerably less expensive manned aircraft. This does lead to the question, is an air force of drones much cheaper in the long run than an air force of manned aircraft? In the end, budget is always a limiting factor, so do drones simply give you more bang for the buck? So, from an analytical point of view, we are not just looking at a comparison of which is better, an air force of mostly drones or mostly manned aircraft; but also which is cheaper. This is potentially a fairly complex piece of analysis.

All this eventually gets to the first question, which is “Is the main battle tank antiquated?” I am not sure how you answer that question until you have answered the other two questions. 


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Christopher A. Lawrence
Christopher A. Lawrence

Christopher A. Lawrence is a professional historian and military analyst. He is the Executive Director and President of The Dupuy Institute, an organization dedicated to scholarly research and objective analysis of historical data related to armed conflict and the resolution of armed conflict. The Dupuy Institute provides independent, historically-based analyses of lessons learned from modern military experience.
Mr. Lawrence was the program manager for the Ardennes Campaign Simulation Data Base, the Kursk Data Base, the Modern Insurgency Spread Sheets and for a number of other smaller combat data bases. He has participated in casualty estimation studies (including estimates for Bosnia and Iraq) and studies of air campaign modeling, enemy prisoner of war capture rates, medium weight armor, urban warfare, situational awareness, counterinsurgency and other subjects for the U.S. Army, the Defense Department, the Joint Staff and the U.S. Air Force. He has also directed a number of studies related to the military impact of banning antipersonnel mines for the Joint Staff, Los Alamos National Laboratories and the Vietnam Veterans of American Foundation.
His published works include papers and monographs for the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment and the Vietnam Veterans of American Foundation, in addition to over 40 articles written for limited-distribution newsletters and over 60 analytical reports prepared for the Defense Department. He is the author of Kursk: The Battle of Prokhorovka (Aberdeen Books, Sheridan, CO., 2015), America’s Modern Wars: Understanding Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam (Casemate Publishers, Philadelphia & Oxford, 2015), War by Numbers: Understanding Conventional Combat (Potomac Books, Lincoln, NE., 2017) , The Battle of Prokhorovka (Stackpole Books, Guilford, CT., 2019), The Battle for Kyiv (Frontline Books, Yorkshire, UK, 2023), Aces at Kursk (Air World, Yorkshire, UK, 2024), Hunting Falcon: The Story of WWI German Ace Hans-Joachim Buddecke (Air World, Yorkshire, UK, 2024) and The Siege of Mariupol (Frontline Books, Yorkshire, UK, 2024).
Mr. Lawrence lives in northern Virginia, near Washington, D.C., with his wife and son.

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  1. Phillips Payson O’Brien in “How the War Was Won: Air-Sea Power and Allied Victory in World War II” (Cambridge Military Histories) (2015) did a very good job of showing just how much money was spent in WW2 on navel and air power by the major combatants. In the case of Germany, this is often underestimated because the amount of production on anti-air defense isn’t factored in.

    Then you have all these studies/discussions of how the various air campaigns were not as effective as stated at the time.

    I think what is going on in Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict helps illustrate the reality.

    Let us say that drones, as presently constituted are halfway between artillery and air. Sufficiently unique that they constitute their own category of weapon system.

    In WW2, when one side spent very little on air/anti-air they were crushed: maybe at cost, but crushed nonetheless. This is best seen in the early campaigns with Norway being a particularly acute example.

    As the war continued, you got into something more of the Red Queens (both sides running ever faster just to maintain parity) with the allies pulling ahead, but figuring in anti-air spending, or self imposed mobility restrictions (night movement only) never having a completely free run of it.

    So what we have in Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict is what you had in early WW2. One side is almost completely lacking in a weapon category system in both the attack and defense category. So you are seeing weapons systems, that may not be fully formed, but are working at absolute maximum potential.

    The MBT is probably analogous to the early WW2 naval ships that had limited air defenses. Particularly before the allies made heavy use of proximity fuses. Relatively small amounts of aircraft (dive bombers in particular) could inflict incredible amounts of damage. But by the end of the war, these ships (at great cost) could survive much larger, very expensive kamikaze attacks well enough to continue their mission.

    The drones’ communications links are already being challenged, and close air systems are coming online. The Red Queen’s Race is getting started.

    So MBT may need to change from their current behemoth configuration or figure out some better defensive measures, but they aren’t necessarily outdated. It isn’t as if a German tank in late WW2 could expect to sit out in the open and not get plastered by a variety of systems.

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