18 November 2020

The war in Nagorno-Karabakh has big lessons for the British Army

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War is a great teacher. In its classroom, armies learn new tactics, discard old doctrines, and often replace their pre-war commanders with remarkable rapidity. The school of war, however, comes with exceptionally high tuition fees. Rather than paying, far cheaper to simply observe other people’s wars and learn from those – especially when you’re as poor as the British Army.

The recent war in Nagorno-Karabakh, fought between Armenia and Azerbaijan, may well be an unusually fruitful seminar for the armies of the West. Fought between two semi-modernised, relatively evenly matched forces, a war that featured some remarkable displays of innovative high-tech weaponry ended the old-fashioned way, with the conquest of territory by ground troops. The lessons of this conflict should deeply influence the ongoing Integrated Review of the Army – although a persistent culture of British exceptionalism may yet get in the way.

That Azerbaijan, the richer and much more populous country, should win a war is not surprising. The manner of that victory was more so. The war in Nagorno-Karabakh will be remembered above all for Azerbaijan’s use of unmanned aerial systems [UAS] which gave rise to many of the infamous ‘snuff videos’, broadcasting the destruction of Armenian men and arms to a worldwide audience. UAS played a role in the destruction of well over a hundred Armenian tanks. It may be too early to declare that the age of the tank is over, but the age of the drone is well and truly here.

As Turkey showed in Idlib, Russia in Ukraine, and now Azerbaijan in Nagorno-Karabakh, UAS have reshaped the modern battlefield. Small enough to avoid radar detection but large enough to carry devastating payloads, systems such as the Israeli “Harpy” self-sacrificing loitering munition and the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drone enable the detection and destruction of high-value targets deep in the enemy rear at a surprisingly low cost. Not only can this type of UAS destroy targets worth many times its own value, but the cost of intercepting them can also be extraordinarily expensive. The US Army using a multi-million dollar Patriot missile to destroy a drone worth a few hundred dollars is an extreme example, but one that illustrates a wider point: even relatively unsophisticated forces can now procure effective weapons systems in far greater quantities than even the world’s richest country can buy counter-systems.

But perhaps the even greater value of the drone comes not from its own ability to destroy, but from its use as a reconnaissance asset, enabling old-school unsophisticated cheap artillery to suddenly effect devastating long-range precision strikes. As Jack Watling at RUSI rightly puts it, the modern battlefield is not just more lethal than it ever was, but also much more transparent. It is the prospect of drone-enabled massed Russian artillery that threatens to invalidate traditional Western concepts of warfare, which prize rapid, decisive movements, and seek to avoid attritional exchanges. Now traditional armoured manoeuvre units must constantly operate in fear of being splattered, even when a very long way from the ‘front line’.

Without getting too deep into the tactical weeds, this summary illustrates that the holes in the British Army’s current arsenal are very severe indeed: minimal short-range air defence and electronic warfare capabilities – both critical to fight enemy UAS – and no loitering munitions of its own. Much of its artillery is outranged and obsolete, while its malfunctioning reconnaissance drone – Watchkeeper – stars in a charmingly forthright NASA case study of failed public sector technology development.

Dismounted infantry have arguably fared even worse than armoured vehicles in Nagorno-Karabakh, but even revitalised British armoured brigades will suffer enormous losses before even reaching a modern battlefield if they are not supported properly by the right assets. Even in a lower intensity war against a weaker power than Russia, the Army could easily find itself in some very bloody situations as Turkey, China, and Russia spread their technologies around the world. Nor can a shrinking RAF always be relied on to assure the Army of air superiority, as modern integrated air defence systems continue to proliferate.

Absent a significant increase in funding – hard to imagine in the post-coronavirus world – the Army will simply not be able to update its current capabilities while also acquiring the new ones it so badly needs. There will have to be some very difficult prioritisation decisions. Although the Army probably cannot afford to do without tanks, much of the rest of the armoured vehicle modernisation program looks vulnerable to cancellations and delays. What is the point of expensive armoured boxes if buying them means you cannot afford the very technologies needed to help them survive?

Although the Nagorno-Karabakh war has demonstrated the value of quantity and having a large number of fighting troops available in a high-intensity conflict marked by serious losses on both sides, the Army simply cannot afford to both modernise and maintain itself at its current size. Something will have to give. Surely, at least in the short term, better an Army of 60,000 with a well-funded modernisation plan than one of 75,000 with no clear pathway to a better future?

While generating a division (the ambition of the 2015 Defence Review) from such a small force would be challenging, generating a truly competitive division, able to defeat a serious foe, simply cannot be done from the current force. Better to restrict our ambition and aim to generate one or two truly solid brigades, than continue to kid ourselves about what the Armed Forces can really do when push comes to shove.

War is a fine teacher, but also a hard one, and while British politicians and generals alike may well be able to lie to the public and even themselves, one day a test will come that no amount of cheerful bluster about a “reference Army” or “world-class Armed Forces” will enable them to pass.

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Jonathon Kitson is an independent researcher and forecaster.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.