Did Azerbaijan’s use of Israeli weapons make the war worse or better?

The larger question that emerges is whether the systems resulted in less casualties for both sides, either by accelerating Azerbaijan’s victory, or forcing Russia to come in as a peacemaker.

Demonstrators supporting Armenia hold a sign protesting Israel's sale of arms to Azerbaijan in the military conflict over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, in Brussels, Belgium October 7, 2020 (photo credit: REUTERS/YVES HERMAN)
Demonstrators supporting Armenia hold a sign protesting Israel's sale of arms to Azerbaijan in the military conflict over the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh, in Brussels, Belgium October 7, 2020
(photo credit: REUTERS/YVES HERMAN)
Recent reports by Itai Anghel on Channel 12’s Uvda program, as well as an international arms sales report by SIPRI, illustrate how important Israeli arms sales to Azerbaijan have been over the last decade.
Israel was the source of 69% percent of Azerbaijan’s arms imports in the last five years, the report said, and Anghel revealed the large role that Israeli drones like the Harop played in the war between Azerbaijan and Armenian fighters last year.
While Armenians said Azerbaijan shelled civilian areas, including a historic church, and caused many thousands to flee, there are ongoing questions on whether the war’s worst aspects were reduced by precision drone strikes, and whether it might have lasted longer and led to more intense fighting without the advanced Israeli systems that Azerbaijan has reportedly acquired.
According to Middle East Eye, Azerbaijan also was able to use an Israeli interceptor system to shoot down an Armenian Iskander ballistic missile.
“An Iskander ballistic missile was launched by Yerevan directly into the capital days before the ceasefire,” the official said, according to the report. “It was concerning for Azerbaijani officials. But a missile defense system operated by the Azerbaijani military, an Israeli-made Barak-8, shot it down.” Azeri officials told Anghel that they also used hundreds of Israeli Harop drones.
The Harop is a kamikaze drone, basically a munition that is more akin to a cruise missile. It can “loiter,” which is why it is called a loitering munition, meaning it can fly around looking for targets and then proceed to strike. A cruise missile can’t do that.
This means that Harops can be fired in swarms, from vehicles that pack them in stacks of nine, and can be used to hunt down air defense systems, artillery or armored vehicles. Israel Aerospace Industries pioneered these types of drones, which began with Harpy decades ago. The concept of these drones initially was to go after radars that support air defense systems. If you can blind the radar, you can cut away air defense systems.
Things have progressed now so that these kinds of munitions don’t just have to hunt down radar, but can use artificial intelligence and better target recognition and video from electro-optics to locate all sorts of targets.
Usually, when the military plans an operation, they may already have a target list they want to hit, but as war begins, a military needs to find mobile targets or what is known as “time-critical” targets.
That may mean a vehicle or missile launcher that is hiding and only emerges once a day so drones loitering overhead at all hours can be useful, whereas manned aircraft or other systems may not be able to find the time-critical target.
Azerbaijan doesn’t have a large air force with fifth-generation planes like the F-35, so relying on advanced Israeli systems that are unmanned gave it unique capabilities. The controversy is whether Israel can be accused of selling munitions to a country that used them improperly, or whether Israel even has a stake in this conflict.
The larger question that emerges is whether the systems resulted in fewer casualties for both sides, either by hastening Azerbaijan’s victory, forcing Russia to come in as a peacemaker, or reducing civilian casualties by providing better precision guidance.
The report of the use of an air defense system to stop a ballistic missile may be important, because it may mean the war did not expand to a “war of the cities,” of the kind that took place in the 1980s between Iran and Iraq.
It does appear the war last year had fewer casualties than the one fought between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the 1990s. Armenians lost homes and have had to flee some areas, and the result was a setback and loss for Armenians. It is a disaster and tragedy for them.
However, from a military or defense viewpoint, it appears many countries are learning the lessons of Azerbaijan’s use of drones and air defenses to execute a quick victory over an adversary that had a vast amount of equipment. Azerbaijan used drones to accomplish what the US-led coalition accomplished against Iraq in 1991: pulverizing ground forces with minimum casualties to its own forces.
The use of air defenses to stop ballistic missiles is also a strategy Israel seeks to employ with its multi-layered systems. The Iron Dome, for instance, has had some 2,500 interceptions with higher than a 90% interception rate over the last decade.
This has enabled Israelis to go about their lives more peacefully than in the 1991 Gulf War when Scuds were fired at Israel, or in eras such as the 1980s and early 2000s when terrorists fired rockets at Israel. The implications for defense strategy are clear, and it appears countries like Azerbaijan, with Israeli technology, have learned those lessons.
Arms sales will always be controversial, but there is no evidence that Israeli arms in the hands of the Azeris were used in a way that was worse than had Azerbaijan acquired arms from other states. Whether that is good for Israel’s image as a supplier of high-end defense technology, or also hurts Israel’s long-term relations with Armenia, remains to be seen.
For those on the ground under the buzzing drones, the war was frightful. However, using precision weapons like loitering munitions ostensibly gives a military the ability to hit only military targets. It also means that if they did hit civilians, there is added evidence that it was on purpose.
The full reports from the conflict last year remain to be published, illustrating how efficient the weapons were and whether civilian casualties were avoided.