Drone footage, released by Azerbaijan of a drone strike on an artillery position in the fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh, appears to show an Israeli drone in the frame.
Social media user AbraxasSpa, who documents defense related issues, posted a still from the video “Orbiter 1k confirmed in use.” Rob Lee, another social media user who posts about defense issues, also noted the same “Orbiter UAV” in the video of an Armenian D-30 howitzer being struck. The footage was apparently taken by one drone of an airstrike on the artillery position and the second drone flew in front of the video as the attack unfolded. That means several drones were being used at the same time over the same target.
Orbiter 1K confirmed in use pic.twitter.com/HnPJprbQHf— Abraxas Spa (@AbraxasSpa) October 1, 2020
While there is no confirmation about the use of this Orbiter drone, it is worth taking the two social media accounts as an example of a larger discussion about Azerbaijan’s use of drones.
New TB2 UCAV video from Azerbaijan with strikes on 4 D-30 122mm howitzers and a fifth target from long distance that is hard to ID. 401/https://t.co/Ffv54wJIcT pic.twitter.com/abGR1erZNl— Rob Lee (@RALee85) October 1, 2020
The Orbiter 1K is an Israeli drone made by Aeronautics which the Drone Databook in the US asserts was sold to Azerbaijan in 2011. It is what is called a “loitering Munition,” which means it is designed more like a cruise missile to slam into a target and self-destruct on impact. Some media call these “kamikaze drones” or “suicide drones.”
In essence they are not different from cruise missiles, except that they can fly around in circles or return to base, or “loiter” over the target and wait to strike. The Orbiter 1K is a proven munition based on the Orbiter 2B, the company website says, and it has a fragmentation warhead that weighs 3kg. With a wingspan of only 3 meters and a range of 100km., it is not a very large weaponized drone. It is launched from a kind of catapult, like many similar drones.
The Orbiter 1K, whose image was posted online, is significantly smaller than the Turkish Bayrakter TB2, a drone that weighs 650kg. and forms the backbone of Ankara’s drone army that has now been used successfully in Syria, Iraq and Libya. It has a 12 meter wingspan. The Bayraktar can launch a MAM-L munition, a guided bomb, that weighs 22kg. It can also carry the MAM-C munition, an 8.5kg. bomb that has a 2.5kg. warhead. In short, the MAM-C is basically similar to the warhead of the Orbiter 1K.
Why does this matter? On September 30, a video of Azerbaijani Presidential Foreign Policy Advisor Hikmet Hajiyev was posted by journalist Barak Ravid. He said that if Armenia is scared of the drones Azerbaijan is using, then Armenia should stop its occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Asked if the drones are Israeli, he said “some of them.” Asked how many Azerbaijan has, he said he didn’t know the exact amount but noted the strength of Baku’s drone arm. Israeli “loitering munitions,” or what are called “kamikaze drones,” reportedly make up a portion of Azerbaijan’s arsenal. The Drone Data book in 2019 reported that Azerbaijan has the Aerostar, SkyStriker, Orbiter 1K, Orbiter 3, Harop, Heron TP, Hermes 450 and Hermes 900. It said that the Aerostar, Orbiter 1K and Orbiter 3 were licensed for production by Azad systems.
According to SUAS news, in 2011 the Azeris got “Israeli UAV’s built under license.” The report said that the “Israeli Aerostar and Orbiter 2M UAVs are being manufactured by Baku’s Azad Systems, a joint venture between Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry and Aeronautics Defense Systems in Israel.” According to reports, the export licenses linked to some drone sales were suspended, but Defenseworld said that in February the company was allowed to export them again. In another controversy, linked to the license suspension, an Israeli drone was reportedly demonstrated to Azerbaijan in 2017 in an “alleged attack on Armenia,” according to EurasiaNet. Radio Free Europe reported in October 2018 that Israel accused the dronemaker of “bombing Armenian soldiers at Baku’s request.”
Another report notes that in 2016 Azerbaijan used an Israel Aerospace Industries Harop drone in an attack. Armenia complained to Israel at the time and a video appeared online of an alleged drone in an attack. The overall picture is that Azerbaijan vastly expanded its drone arm in the last decade. The amount of drones it has is unknown. Flights from Azerbaijan to Israel have been documented by social media users, including an article from Haaretz noting that a Ministry of Defense plane from Azerbaijan landed twice in Israel after fighting broke out earlier this week.
Tyler Rogoway at The Drive, an automotive website, characterizes Israel’s Harop, made by IAI, as a small, maneuverable and nearly impossible to detect, inexpensive weapon. It has a 25kg. warhead. It was the successor to the smaller Harpy drone. In his article he says these kinds of weapons can strike at radar and help suppress enemy air defenses. He wrote that the Harop could go around 600 miles and fly up to six hours. The Telegraph reported that the “suicide drone” was used for the “first time” in combat in 2016 by Azerbaijan against Armenia. It was unclear how they determined it was the first time that this drone was used.
In January 2020, reports emerged that Elbit Systems had sold Azerbaijan the SkyStriker loitering munition. SkyStriker is about the size of a person and can fly for two hours with a warhead that weighs between 5 and 10kg., according to FlightGlobal. It weighs 35kg. overall.
Let us pause for a second now and look at the known Azeri drone arsenal. If we follow the Drone Databook data on their drones, we find the following details. Azerbaijan has a variety of Israeli surveillance drones. The medium-size Aerostar is a surveillance drone, a very traditional one with a twin-tail that has a wingspan of almost 9 meters. Then there is the Hermes 450 which weighs 450kg. and is meant for surveillance with a 6 meter wingspan. It can fly for 20 hours. Azerbaijan reportedly has the Hermes 900 as well, with a weight of 970kg. and 15 meter wingspan, it is a strategic surveillance drone that can stay aloft for a full 24 hours.
It’s unclear how many of these drones Azerbaijan has. A SUAS report in 2011 claimed one was shot down in 2008 by Armenia. In fighting in July of this year, Armenia claimed to have shot down 21 Azeri drones. A website called Bulgarian Military claimed that one of these was the Hermes 900, an expensive strategic drone that Azerbaijan reportedly has in its roster. Many of these reports are impossible to verify.
Looking at the loitering munitions, Azerbaijan appears to have acquired most of these types of drones that Israel has to offer, from Israel’s top companies. This is interesting because countries sometimes like to buy a line of systems from the same company and integrate them. It is unclear how the Harop, Harpy, SkyStriker and Orbiter 1k work together. The Harpy and Harop have a larger warhead of some 25kg. The SkyStriker and Orbiter munitions are smaller. The Bayraktar Turkish armed drone has bombs that are similar to the smaller munitions. Those weapons have been shown to be effective against tanks and other armored vehicles.
Much of this drone warfare takes place in the shadows. This is because Israeli drone manufacturers often don’t release details about their sales, and because countries don’t reveal details about all their drone use. That is because these weapons systems are seen as both clandestine and also controversial. It is not clear why drones are more controversial than using a manned aircraft for surveillance or using a cruise missile against a target. However, the number of articles implying that there is something controversial about their use make countries and makers of drones reticent to discuss them. That doesn’t mean they don’t show off their capabilities.
Drone makers, usually part of larger defense companies, show their drones at arms expos and explain their capabilities. Drones have gone from targeting radar and suppressing air defense to being used in targeted precision strikes. They now run the gamut of capabilities, a kind of instant air force. That makes them ideal for countries like Azerbaijan that have the resources to acquire sophisticated drones but don’t have pilots for F-16s. Drones can be flown by operators who are not pilots and they generally can be based at small runways or launched from trucks or other methods. Much of how they fly is now done by their own computers, meaning the user can point and click to make them work, without having to fly a “plane.” Loitering munitions can attack targets and be called off at the last moment.
Israel’s role in arming Azerbaijan has several dilemmas associated with it. Because of the controversies from 2016 and 2017, the overall picture of Israel-Azerbaijan relations has sometimes been clouded by foreign media reports. However, interviews indicate Azerbaijan is appreciative of Israel’s technology and drones. Having Israeli and Turkish drones operated by the same country is interesting because Ankara’s ruling party has become very hostile to Israel in the last years. It is unclear if there is competition for this drone market since the Bayraktar’s capabilities are very different from the line of Israeli drones Azerbaijan reportedly has. The Bayraktar is supposed to be an Turkish version of the US Predator. If it is similar at all to an Israeli drone it is more like the IAI Searcher series. But the Bayraktar is an armed drone. Israel officials do not have or sell armed drones, which means drones that carry missiles or bombs. Israel does manufacture loitering munitions. Some of these munitions are seen as more similar to anti-tank guided missiles, than a drone.
Questions remain from the recent conflicts between Azerbaijan and Armenia about whether the Israeli systems are effective. Videos appear to show they are. However much of the conflicts are shrouded in mystery about which video is from the camera of which munition. Only in the rare case, mentioned at the start of this article, does one drone happen to catch a second drone on film, and a more complex picture emerges as to how these systems work together. That complex picture may offer lessons for militaries on the best way to use multiple layers of drones, including surveillance drones, and armed drones and loitering munitions.