Israeli-built Harop drone shot down by Armenian forces in April 2016. Image courtesy Karabakh Defense Army
Israeli-built Harop drone shot down by Armenian forces in April 2016. Image courtesy Karabakh Defense Army

Gen. Levon Mnatsakanyan, commander of the Karabakh Defense Army, has identified armed drones as the top security challenge for his personnel. “We are taking active and passive measures to address this challenge,” Mnatsakanyan said during his January 24 press conference in Stepanakert.

In military terminology, active measures refer to ground to air firing systems and electronic warfare, while passive ones have to do with engineering solutions intended to make frontline positions less vulnerable to attacks from the air.

Additionally, Mnatsakanyan acknowledged for the first time that Armenian forces now field armed drones as well. It is known that Armenia is producing armed drones domestically, but the details have been kept secret.

Azerbaijan began importing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) from Israel almost ten years ago. In September of 2011, an Israeli-built reconnaissance drone was brought down in Armenian-controlled territory for the first time. More reconnaissance drones were brought down between 2014 and 2016, including those built by Armenia. Both sides also used video footage shot from drones for public relations.

During April 2016 war, Azerbaijan for the first time used Israeli-built suicide drones to attack Armenian forces. They are called ‘suicide’ drones since they perform the same function as guided munitions, detonating upon impact.

As a result of these attacks, at least three military personnel and nine volunteers were killed in four separate incidents. Additionally, several drones were brought down by ground fire. The drones were used only on one day of fighting (April 4), but still caused more than 15 percent of all of the Armenian deaths in the 4-day war.

An Armenian reconnaissance drone brought down by Azerbaijani forces in March 2017.

In July 2017, Azerbaijan launched one or two smaller armed drones at Armenian frontline positions injuring two servicemen. These were reportedly operated by Israeli Aeronautics company personnel, resulting in a police investigation and suspension of the company’s export license. The investigation continued into 2018.

Most recently, on January 20, the Karabakh army reported attempts by Azerbaijani forces to use commercial multi-copters to drop mortar mines and grenades on Armenian positions; those attacks did not cause casualties.

Recent years have seen proliferation of drone use in wars, as technologies became more accessible. Increasingly, drones are used to attack high-value targets. For instance, earlier this month a swarm of about a dozen armed drones attacked the main Russian air base in Syria, killing two servicemen and damaging planes. Previously, drones may have also been involved in attacks on ammunition storage facilities in Ukraine.