Attack Drones Dominating Tanks as Armenia-Azerbaijan Conflict Showcases the Future of War

·8 min read
Emil Filtenborg
Emil Filtenborg

STEPANAKERT, Nagorno-Karabakh—Stretched on a gurney, a soldier lies wrapped in gauze. Fifty percent of his body is burned, even inside his throat and lungs, says one of the paramedics in the back of the ambulance, which is making a seven-hour drive from Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia’s capital Yerevan. War broke out almost one month ago between Azerbaijan and Armenia over a disputed border territory.

The ambulance snuck out of Stepanakert in between air raid sirens, as Azerbaijani shelling of the city picked up again after a six-day break. Only the soldier’s burned lips, a small part of the nose and his burnt eyelashes are showing. His hopes of survival are tied to a beeping respirator and the two paramedics constantly injecting him with morphine and saline solutions.

Reporters have been kept away from soldiers and the direct impact of the war in recent days, but plans scrambled by the reinvigorated shelling of Stepanakert lead to The Daily Beast suddenly finding ourselves in the back of this ambulance, being given an accidental glimpse at the human consequences of the war.

Kamikaze drones purchased from Israel have been used to devastating effect by Azerbaijan. These small craft also known as loitering munitions are able to surveil targets including tanks, artillery installations or troops before blowing themselves up. Larger Turkish drones are also flying high above the disputed region and launching missile strikes.

While the soldier in the ambulance has been unable to tell medics how he was so badly wounded, his head injuries and extensive burns are consistent with what they have seen with drone strikes, one doctor at the hospital in Stepanakert told The Daily Beast.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>The ambulance is forced to stop as paramedics work to keep the soldier alive. </p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Emil Filtenborg</div>

The ambulance is forced to stop as paramedics work to keep the soldier alive.

Emil Filtenborg

“He was damaged on the front line,” says one of the paramedics in the ambulance, “We see many of these injuries. We need help here. We need to stop the war. It is terrible what is happening.”

Before leaving the war zone and entering the relative safety of Armenia, there is a problem with the respirator. A female paramedic starts pumping air into the wounded soldiers’ lungs manually. As they are about to lose the soldier, the ambulance comes to a full stop, while the driver is trying to get the motorized system running again. Shelling can be heard in the distance.

The mountains cause the sound to echo, making it hard to tell whether the shelling is close or far, but that does not hide the discomfort of the crew forced to pull over in the midst of another bombing.

A Bloody War In the Making

The war in Nagorno-Karabakh, which was almost entirely controlled by the self-proclaimed Republic of Artsakh, broke out on Sept. 27. Artsakh is a small mountainous pocket in the Caucasus which is internationally recognized as part of Azerbaijan but has been claiming independence for almost 30 years. The population is almost entirely ethnic Armenian and the breakaway state is supported by Armenia. The republic declared independence after the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, which lasted from the late 1980s to 1994, claiming 30,000 lives.

Since then, the dispute over the region has continued. The two sides fought a four-day war in 2016, but the current battles are the worst fighting the region has seen since the devastating war in the ‘90s. Armenia says it has lost around 900 servicemen, while Azerbaijan does not declare its death toll. However, according to Russian President Vladimir Putin, nearly 5,000 people have already died, and there are several reports about the huge loss of military hardware such as tanks on both sides despite two ceasefires negotiated in Moscow with Russia as the main mediator.

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>Everywhere in Stepanakert windows are shattered, cars and buildings are destroyed. </p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Emil Filtenborg</div>

Everywhere in Stepanakert windows are shattered, cars and buildings are destroyed.

Emil Filtenborg

The ceasefires have already been broken and the crisis is of global significance. Nagorno-Karabakh is located next to regional superpowers such as Turkey, which support Azerbaijan militarily and politically in the conflict. At the same time, Russia has a defensive pact with Armenia, making the situation tense. The Republic of Artsakh is also located next to Iran, a major player in the region.

“We must be attentive that the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan does not become a regional war,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said, according to BBC.

The war is also attracting increased attention in Washington, D.C. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had leaders from both Azerbaijan and Armenia over for seemingly fruitless talks, while Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), among others, has called for an immediate ceasefire.

“Azerbaijan’s aggressive actions, fully supported by Turkey in Nagorno-Karabakh and against Armenia, must stop,” said Markey. “Since Azerbaijan continues its attempts to resolve this conflict through the illegal use of military force, the international community will be left with no choice but to move to recognize the independence of the Republic of Artsakh.”

He Is About to Die

Back in the ambulance, the soldier is fighting for his life. Occasionally he seems to regain consciousness for just long enough to gasp with pain. Before the ambulance took off towards the Armenian capital Yerevan, the stream of ambulances carrying wounded soldiers with empty stares and missing limbs from Stepanakert had been temporarily forced to stop. The air raid sirens started screaming over Stepanakert for the first time in several days, as Azerbaijani forces struck the city with what was reportedly both airplanes and artillery. Doctors, nurses and patients ran to the basement in one of the city’s hospitals while explosions were heard nearby, shaking the bunker.

One doctor in the bunker, who did not want to give his name due to restrictions on speaking to the media, told The Daily Beast that around 1,000 soldiers and 300 to 400 civilians had been declared dead at three hospitals in Artsakh, to his knowledge. These numbers point to far more casualties than the 900 officially reported by the Ministry of Defense in Artsakh, especially as some soldiers’ bodies are never retrieved from the front line.

“We see many soldiers with burn and head injuries,” says the doctor pointing to a room in the bunker where a soldier with severe brain injury is undergoing surgery. “The Turkish drones used by Azerbaijan are often giving the soldiers brain damage.”

He is referring to the Azerbaijani use of Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drones, which are penetrating the Artsakh defenses, despite assistance from Armenia.

“We Cannot Shoot it Down”

Open source analysis gathered by Forbes magazine has tracked the destruction by drones of around 200 tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, and armored personnel carriers, plus 300 soft-skinned military vehicles as well as radars, short-range air defense systems, and missile launch vehicles.

The Armenians have no such drone army with which to strike back at Azerbaijaini targets.

In an interview with The Daily Beast, Suren Sarumyan, a spokesman for the Artsakh Defense Ministry, claimed that the Republic of Artsakh has been able to shoot down several drones but he accepted that the unmanned aerial assault vehicles were taking a toll.

“Drones do make an impact on the front line, but our soldiers are among the strongest in the world because they stand firm and fight hard,” said Sarumyan, “The secret to that is that our soldiers defend their home, and it is very difficult to defeat them, even with all the world’s drones.”

<div class="inline-image__caption"><p>The Republic of Artsakh claims to have shot down many drones but they were only able to show The Daily Beast engine parts, which are difficult to identify. </p></div> <div class="inline-image__credit">Emil Filtenborg</div>

The Republic of Artsakh claims to have shot down many drones but they were only able to show The Daily Beast engine parts, which are difficult to identify.

Emil Filtenborg

While the military claims they can shoot down drones such as the Bayraktar TB2, Vladimir Vartanyan, a military analyst who is part of the press department of the Republic of Artsakh, disagrees.

“We can see them on our radar, but [the Turkish drones] fly too high for us to shoot them down,” he said. He explained that much of the Artsakh defenses are remnants from 1991 to 1994 and badly in need of an upgrade “We use everything that we have now because this is total war,” he said. “In my opinion, we need to buy some Russian systems, which have experience in shooting down these drones in Syria.”

With Azerbaijan reported to be making large territorial gains in the southern part of Nagorno-Karabakh, Vartanyan said: “It is essential that we start to shoot them down very quickly.”

Azerbaijan has previously confirmed that it is using Turkish drones in the war, according to Middle East Eye.

Ian Williams, an expert in missile defense and missile proliferation at the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told The Daily Beast that what we see right now in Nagorno-Karabakh is the evolution of warfare.

“We have for a long time declared tanks to be dead without it happening. However, the Armenian tanks have not done well in the current crisis,” said Williams. “Drones are relatively cheap for countries that would not normally be able to afford air support. The current crisis shows us what kind of damage they can do to an opponent without drones.”

He Might Not Make it

A paramedic holds the soldier’s head as the ambulance makes its way up and down through the mountains. The respirator is working again, and the sound of it pumping air into the soldier’s lungs resumes. On the way to Yerevan, one of the paramedics gets the news that a friend has died near the front line. An atmosphere of grief descends on the ambulance as reports continue to come in of air attacks in several cities in the Republic of Artsakh.

As Yerevan approaches, the soldier starts to move his arms involuntarily while his chest spasms. The situation is eased by another morphine shot, but the paramedic shakes his head when asked whether the soldier will be safe once he reaches the hospital in Armenia’s capital.

“The injuries might just be too much,” he says.

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