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Azerbaijan Has A Massive Drone Arsenal

December 16, 2021

Nearly a year since it pummeled its neighbor until a tenuous ceasefire brokered by Russia ended hostilities the oil-rich Caucasian republic found itself in another jam. A diplomatic rift with Iran erupted in late September when trucks bound for Europe were halted by Azeri soldiers. The action was justified as an enforcement of border controls. But the effect was unprecedented; relations between Baku and Tehran soured overnight and the latter sent its military on large-scale exercises as a warning. The Iranian saber rattling extended to a massive air defense drill showing off brand new weapons. Refusing to be intimidated, President Ilham Aliyev and his spouse, Vice President Aliyeva, visited a garrison of the “State Border Service” in late October in what was clearly a signal to Iran.

Although the visit wasn’t out of the ordinary the location–the Ghubadli district just minutes by car from the Iranian border–was too obvious. Photos released by Aliyev’s own press service shared by Azerbaijan’s media included images of weaponry kept by the border forces. On the day the Aliyevs showed up multiple Russian-made Kamaz trucks were parked along the edge of a spacious courtyard. Each carried nine box launchers for the Israeli-made Harop loitering munitions supplied by IAI. An aerial photo likely taken by a quadcopter revealed as many as 19 trucks in the courtyard when the Aliyevs toured the premises. This meant a single garrison of the border forces had 181 Harop loitering munitions at their disposal.

The relationship between Azerbaijan and Israel is a mutually beneficial one. Bogged down in a territorial dispute with Armenia since the 1990s, whatever military equipment Azerbaijan couldn’t acquire from Europe was ordered from Israel instead. These span anti-tank missiles, armored vehicles, artillery, small arms, ships, and many other undisclosed exchanges. The IAI Harop is a propeller driven loitering munition Azerbaijan purchased in bulk during the 2010s and first used in combat during battles versus Armenian troops in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2016. The difference between a loitering munition and a cruise missile may seem unnecessary but it’s important to differentiate the two. A loitering munition in its current role is an unmanned aircraft that remains aloft for extended periods, even gathering data on its surrounding environment, before it’s used as a glide bomb against a target. Their advantages over missiles are in being adaptable for whatever kind of launch system and lower acquisition costs.

The IAI Harop in particular is among the better known loitering munitions available for export. Its exact flight range is undisclosed but its data link with a ground control station extends to 200 kilometers. When the Aliyevs visited the border forces in Ghubadli they were shown the IAI Harops in their transporters and a row of 14 or more Elbit Systems SkyStriker loitering munitions. There are certainly stockpiles of loitering munitions kept in other bases and this means the arsenal could reach thousands by now. Other types of armaments at the border forces garrison included a mechanized company equipped with BMP-1’s IFVs, MT-LB APCs, and T-72B tanks. The Turkish-made Otokar Cobra I and protected 4×4’s were displayed. When it came to portable weaponry these spanned the AGS-30 automatic grenade launcher, the 73mm SPG-9 recoilless rifle, 2S12 120mm mortars, and the ZSU-23-2 towed anti-aircraft gun. The reader should note except for the ZSU-23-2 all these are manufactured under license at a state-owned plant run by MODIAR, the Ministry of Defense Industry.

Successive years of high military spending transformed Azerbaijan’s fledgling post-Soviet armed forces into what looks like the best equipped among the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Israeli-made UAVs they possess include the IAI Heron, IAI Heron TP, the IAI Searcher, and the IAI Harop and Harpy loitering munitions. The Elbit Systems Hermes 900, Hermes 450, and SkyStriker loitering munitions are in service too. The Israeli manufacturer Aeronautics helped establish a production facility for three of its UAVs, the Aerostar, Orbiter and Dominator. Turkish-made UAVs are flown by Azerbaijan’s military such as the Baykar Bayraktar TB2 UCAV that wrought havoc on Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020.

Despite Aliyev’s not so subtle dig at Iran in late October the unfavorable military balance with his country’s southern neighbor can’t be ignored. When it comes to numerical size Iran’s army is the largest in the Middle East and Central Asia. The Islamic Republic’s fleet of locally made unmanned aircraft are combat proven and backed by a credible air force and a ballistic missile inventory. The tension that gripped Baku and Tehran dissipated in November when new bilateral agreements were laid down and the fiery rhetoric vanished.

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