The recent conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh has many military officers still sitting up and taking notice. And they don’t like what they’re seeing. In the conflict, Azerbaijan used drones purchased from Turkey and Israel to great effect. It decimated large concentrations of Armenian troops and armored vehicles including T-72 tanks and advanced S-300 air defenses. It also used drones to scout out targets for artillery, rocket, and missile fire. Armenia was unable to counter the drones.

Azerbaijan’s armed forces were numerically and technologically inferior. Nevertheless, they achieved a decisive victory. And drones were a major contributing factor to it.

As a result, analysts, have called the conflict, perhaps mistakenly, “the first drone war.”

Armenia had older Russian SCUD and Tochka missiles, newer Iskander missiles, and multiple rocket launcher systems (MRLS) purchased from China, mostly incapable of countering small drones. Further, its drone fleet was homegrown, smaller, and only used for reconnaissance.

In contrast, Azerbaijan used gas and oil revenue to modernize its arsenal. It bought upgraded, more accurate Israeli LORA ballistic missiles and EXTRA (EXTended Range Artillery) guided rockets. Its drone fleet was much superior to Armenia’s. It had purchased the Turkish TB2 and several Israeli loitering munitions, also known as “suicide” or “kamikaze” drones, including the Harop, Orbiter, and SkyStriker UAVs. The Turkish TB2 has been used to great effect in Libya and Syria.

Pentagon Fears the Effectiveness of Drone Swarms

The leaders in the Pentagon saw this as a clear and present danger. U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) commander, USMC General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. said, during testimony to the House Armed Services Committee on April 20, that “For the first time since the Korean War, we are operating without complete air superiority.”

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Screencapture of an Armenian tank being hit by an Azeri drone. (Azeri military)

A militarily inferior force, for example in the Middle East, could inflict huge losses on a larger force. It is a threat the U.S. and our NATO allies are presently not equipped to address. “These small and medium-sized [unmanned aerial systems (UASs)] proliferating across the AO [(area of operations)] present a new and complex threat to our forces and those of our partners and allies,” McKenzie added. 

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McKenzie told lawmakers that counter-UAS effort is a “top priority” for CENTCOM.

A few days before McKenzie’s testimony, U.S. European Command commander Air Force General Tod Wolters said that the U.S. is urging our European allies to improve their drone defenses

“In Europe, we have to ensure that — from an indications and warnings standpoint — our integrated air and missile defense programs take into account the capabilities of these systems,” Wolters told the House Armed Services Committee. 

We Need a New Approach to Countering Drones

The U.S. already possesses air and missile defense systems that can track and counter inbound threats. Yet, doing the same with drones extremely difficult due to their small size.

Thus, the plan is to develop an integrated system that will take components of existing early warning systems and pair them with a counter system that can engage UASs both kinetically and otherwise.

“There’s a lot of great work being done in the department, we are not there yet,” McKenzie said.

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A Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 armed drone. (Turkish Presidency of Defense Industries)

Furthermore, Western military leaders know that Russia used drones during artillery and airstrikes in the 2014 hybrid conflict against Ukraine. 

The U.S. is working on counter-drone technology Wolters said. Nevertheless, he added, “It’s not good enough. We have to continue to improve.”

Full-spectrum air defense, as well as passive air defense, is now a priority for the U.S.

The U.S. Army recognizes this in its Air and Missile Defense 2028 strategy. “The most stressing threat is a complex, integrated attack incorporating multiple threat capabilities in a well-coordinated and synchronized attack.”