Azerbaijan and Armenian armed forces have been fighting for over a week and a half, and social media accounts linked to their respective defense ministries are engaged in an information war to make it appear as if the other side is losing heavily.
The numbers of tanks, vehicles and weapons each side claims to have destroyed is beginning to outpace some of the numbers on some fronts in the 1967 Six Day War – except with few of the actual gains on the ground to show for it.
Azerbaijan’s social media accounts now claim that it has destroyed up to 250 Armenian tanks and armored vehicles. They also say Azerbaijan has destroyed another 150 military vehicles, jeeps or supply trucks and neutralized 270 artillery pieces and multiple rocket launchers.
Baku also asserts it has hit more than 60 air defense systems, including an S-300 system, and smashed eight armories and 11 command and control centers.
The definition of an “air defense system” may be quite broad, considering some are only basic machine-gun emplacements. Since the numbers all seem to neatly end in a zero, it should be assumed they are estimated, or perhaps exaggerated.
Azerbaijan has released much drone footage showing the destruction of some 40 Armenian T-72 tanks, according to reports. This suggests that while the figures may be estimates or for propaganda purposes, there have been many losses on the Armenian side.
As for the Armenians, they claim to have destroyed whole divisions’ worth of Azeri materiel. Some 127 drones have been shot down, as well as 16 helicopters and 17 planes; four larger Smerch rocket launchers have been hit, and 416 Azerbaijan military vehicles have been destroyed.
The numbers also suggest that both sides have lost more than the Syrians and the Jordanians lost in 1967, although they have not yet outpaced the Egyptian front, where hundreds of Egyptian tanks and thousands of vehicles were destroyed or abandoned during fierce fighting in the Sinai peninsula.
Even if they are remotely accurate, the size of the losses illustrates the size and impact of the fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh. It also illustrates how information warfare and propaganda spread through the media can make it appear that one side, or the other, has suffered devastating losses.
The number of UAVs, for instance, that Armenia claims to have downed is unprecedented. The number of artillery pieces that Azerbaijan says it has struck and air defense systems taken out is also more than in many past wars.
For instance, Israel’s operation in the Bekaa Valley in 1982, designed to suppress Syrian air defense in Lebanon, hit some 29 surface-to-air missile batteries; but if Baku is to be believed, it has now surpassed that number.
Israel destroyed the batteries in around two hours, but it has taken the Azeris a week or so. However, the use of drones by Azerbaijan – particularly loitering munitions, many of them Israeli made – illustrates the effectiveness of these weapons.
The lopsided numbers, whereby Azerbaijan claims to have destroyed much of Armenia’s air defenses, while Armenia claims to have downed much of Azerbaijan’s drone fleet, portrays the face of modern warfare. It is about using sensors to identify enemy positions, vehicles and targets, while the other side uses radar and electronic means to identify threats.
Both sides then seek a technological overmatch to neutralize the enemy’s platforms.
This can result in extremely lopsided conflicts, like the US waged against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1991. Once a side gains control of the air and can hunt down enemy tanks and air defenses, the enemy must rely on long-range rockets and other desperate means. Either way, the use of sensors to find and eliminate targets can make large armored forces vulnerable.
The Azeris and Armenians are now finding out what other countries have learned in past conflicts: no plan survives after contact with an enemy force. Both sides brought different types of forces to the battlefield, but it is not clear whether one side has a major advantage.
Although the Armenians have been pushed back bit by bit, there is still a question when they will feel they have been strained to breaking point on the ground – or if their ability to resist will be enough to wear down Azerbaijan’s forces.