The Weekly Wire: For Your Situational Awareness 10/30/20
Successes and Shortcomings of UAS in Nagorno-Karabakh
Aaron Lin, Research Associate
Roughly one month into the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, the war appears to be approaching a turning point. Azerbaijani forces are nearing the Lachin Corridor, a critical supply route connecting Armenia with Nagorno-Karabakh. Cutting off this corridor will make sustaining the war effort much more difficult for Armenia and its forces within the Nagorno-Karabakh enclave. Three ceasefire agreements have all failed rapidly, with both sides accusing the other of violating them. As of now, there does not appear to be an end in sight to the conflict.
One of the most notable developments during this conflict has been the high-profile use of unmanned aerial systems (UAS), especially those operated by Azerbaijan. Armenian losses of vehicles, artillery, and air defense systems to Azerbaijani UAS have been heavy and bringing these UAS down has proven to be very difficult. While near daily releases of drone strike footage from the Azerbaijani Ministry of Defense may give the impression that Azerbaijani forces have control of the sky, this has not immediately translated into significant territorial gains. Initial Azerbaijani attempts to advance deep into Armenian controlled territory after an initial wave of UAS attacks resulted in significant losses from artillery and man-portable anti-tank weapons. A quick strike thus gave way to a more gradual war of attrition, with more piecemeal territorial gains that followed drone strikes and constant surveillance. The mountainous terrain has undoubtedly made large advances difficult, and it will continue to do so as the front lines of the conflict have gone past the flatter parts of the region.
For other defense ministries that are undoubtedly watching the unfolding conflict with great interest, the effectiveness of UAS and loitering munitions may lead to a greater desire to integrate more of these systems into their forces. Conversely, the failure of traditional air defenses to stop UAS may lead to greater interest in other ways of bringing them down, such as systems that can interfere with connections to ground control stations. Some reports, albeit unconfirmed, allege that Russia-supplied Krasukha-4 electronic warfare systems have brought down Azerbaijani drones. But UAS are clearly not a silver bullet solution. Boots on the ground are still required to win wars, making investments into man-portable anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons still worthwhile.
Behind this cutting-edge technology is a human element that is still important, particularly with regard to training. Several reports claim that Turkish personnel have been helping Azerbaijan operate its UAS. If true, it could partially explain the degree of Azerbaijani success with the unmanned systems. To be clear, this is not to suggest that Azerbaijani personnel are incapable of operating UAS independently. Rather, it simply demonstrates how experienced operators and advisors can act as a force multiplier, shortening the time needed to train proficient personnel. On the Armenian side, its primary ally, Russia, appears to have largely refrained from sending personnel to fight in the conflict.
The proliferation of these small unmanned aerial systems and loitering munitions may also prove to be a boon to smaller defense exporters. Where the US, Western Europe, and Russia have traditionally dominated defense exports in general, the relatively low-cost unmanned systems in Nagorno-Karabakh have largely been Israeli and Turkish. In addition to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), countries like Canada have already put in place export bans to try to control how their exported defense technology is being used, but these rising defense exporters may make enforcing such control more difficult. Besides Israel and Turkey, China is already a global leader in unmanned technology and has been strongly marketing its own UAS and loitering munitions. China and Israel are not MTCR signatories. Furthermore, the relatively low cost and complexity of these systems compared to something more akin to an MQ-9 means that less experienced forces may be able to integrate these systems into their operations more readily. This will likely make controlling proliferation even more difficult.
On October 26, the United States’ Department of State approved a potential sale of up to 100 Harpoon Coastal Defense Systems to Taiwan. This sale would include up to 400 RGM-84L-4 Harpoon Block II surface launched missiles, four RTM-84L-4 Harpoon Block II exercise missiles, 100 Harpoon Coastal Defense System launcher transporter units, and 25 radar trucks, among other equipment. The sale is valued at $2.37 billion. The purpose of the sale is to enhance Taiwan’s ability to defend itself from maritime-based attack – with China as the most likely potential aggressor. According to the DSCA announcement, the hope is that the improved coastal defenses will augment Taiwan’s ability to deter attackers as well. However, the sale is not yet final, and details could change before a contract is signed.
After failing to join the Franco-German Main Ground Combat System program, Italy is attempting to form its own coalition of partners to create a next-generation European Main Battle Tank. The Polish Ministry of Defense has already received a formal offer and reports indicate that Spain has also received an offer, along with several other European nations. Italy hopes to attract a couple of major partners quickly in order to not fall behind in the go-to-export-market race with the Franco-German program, and then add additional partners as the program develops. The potential coalition would be able to leverage both Spain’s General Dynamics European Land Systems and Italy’s CIO (Iveco Oto Melara) consortium alongside Polish industry and its major demand for upgraded armor against rising Russian aggression.
However, they are not the only nation courting partners in Europe. The South Koreans have already been aggressive in courting the future Polish main battle tank program by offering attractive financing options if the Polish Ministry of Defense were to select the K2 Black Panther. Meanwhile, the Deputy Defense Minister of Italy noted that the Israelis have also been making overtures about a potential bilateral program, but that it was a less likely solution.
The US Marines are about to receive their first six CH-53K King Stallions after Sikorsky Aircraft, a Lockheed Martin company, was awarded a $550.3 million contract for the Lot IV initial production on October 26. The work is expected to be completed by 2024, with first fleet deployment around 2023-2024.
The contract calls for a total of 31 units after two years of delays due to some developmental hiccups (notably with engines re-ingesting hot exhaust and the associated consequences on lifting capacity), but also in a context of recent export hesitancies, from Israel and Germany due to higher acquisition and support costs than previously anticipated. With an increased payload (33.6T or 74,000 lb of MTOW), extended mission range, and velocity up to 170 kts, this heavy lift helicopter is also benefitting from a reduced logistic footprint. The rotorcraft also includes a digitalized cockpit, automatic blade and tail fold for naval operations, and significant improvements to flight safety in degraded visual environments. As being one of its kind in the heavy lift categories, export interests should remain strong, especially in Europe.
On October 27, the French Navy announced it will equip its surface ships with the RAPIDFire short range defense system developed by Thales and Nexter, with the DGA procurement agency confirming that first deliveries are scheduled for 2022. The system combines the CTA 40mm cannon supplied by CTA International with an unmanned turret and optronic fire-control system. Originally developed as a land-based system equipping the French Jaguar reconnaissance vehicle, the CTA 40mm gun can utilize 5 different types of ammunition. The RAPIDFire gun system includes an automatic ammunition handling system enabling the operator to select the correct ammunition type for any specific threat. A further round, the Anti Aerial Airburst is currently under development and will provide additional capability against unmanned aerial vehicles.
Recent images released by the Jordanian Royal Hashemite Court appear to confirm the delivery of 80 French-made Leclerc tanks. The image shows the Leclercs participating in a Jordanian Army tactical exercise called “Salah al-Din Fortress,” which was attended by both King Abdullah and Prince Al Hussein bin Abdullah II. The tanks, which Jordan acquired second-hand, had previously served in the Army of the United Arab Emirates for nearly three decades. Various media reports over the past several months had pointed to this potential transaction, though this is the first concrete piece of evidence supporting those suppositions. The Leclerc tanks are expected to replace the Jordanian Army’s aging fleet of British Al-Hussein tanks and serve alongside a contingent of American M60A3 Patton tanks which recently significant upgrades in 2015.