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Armenia-Azerbaijan: militarization of the conflict

Photo: aztv.az

As Armenian army obtains Iskander short-range ballistic missiles, Azerbaijan is set to buy new strike systems and develop its defense and industry facilities. Actually, Iskander systems will hardly put an end to the protracted Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict. It appears to be just prologue of a more severe military and political confrontation around Nagorno-Karabakh.

The conflict over Karabakh has not de-escalated; it is in a latent stage now. Baku has a new stimulus to raise the ante in the game for even more militarization of the region. Yerevan and Stepanakert, in turn, should not get too excited about “the breakthrough by means of Iskanders” and the economic problems of their oil-rich neighbor. Although Azerbaijan is experiencing certain financial deficit and had to cut its military budget for the next year, this will hardly make it enter the path of “peacemaking.” Quite the contrary, it may well upgrade its combat readiness for resumption of large-scale military actions in the conflict area. Azerbaijan will be increasing its military capacity within the coming years, unless there is political force-majeure, since it considers the peace process inherently useless.

Azerbaijan’s military strategy on Karabakh is quite perceptible (1). The delivery of Iskander systems to Armenia has made no tangible changes here. Baku needs to outshoot Yerevan and Stepanakert taken together. With heavy strikes along the Line of Contact of troops around Nagorno-Karabakh Azerbaijan sets a task to not just to break through the defense and cut behind the adversary. With an unprecedented heavy attack from all types of weapons, Azerbaijan’s commandment hopes to achieve a psychological effect on the civilian population of the “separatist regime.” For the military strategists of Azerbaijan, an exodus from Karabakh is comparable to destruction of the deeply echeloned defense of the adversary.

In April, when Defense Minister of Azerbaijan Zakir Hasanov threatened to attack all the populated areas of Stepanakert with all the existing strike systems, he was testing the possibility of an “all-out attack” in case of a large-scale war. To target Karabakh with all its firepower, Azerbaijan needs more than just prevalence over the Armenian side by the quantity of striking systems. Baku will have to reckon with the known factors on the ground and in the air, for instance, the secure airspace over the conflict zone defended by the Armenian side and some new nuances in the military balance.

The Iskander systems have a reduced range of 280 km, payload of about 480 kg, with 10m-30m minimal probable miss distance. It is a deterrent weapon that attains strategic importance on the relatively not large theater of operation around Nagorno-Karabakh. Although, according to well-informed sources, the use of Iskander systems against Azerbaijan was expressly stated by Moscow and Yerevan, the latter was actually given a complete freedom to use it, in case Baku poses a direct threat to the security of the civilian population of the capital city of Karabakh. Pursuing the abovementioned psychological effect on the civilian population, Azerbaijan risks running into much more serious problems deep in the rear of its own forces. The recent changed in the power balance make Baku pay more attention to its defense, not just the striking power. For instance, the media has been recently flooded with reports that Azerbaijan is set to buy Israeli-made Iron Dome air defense systems. At present, Azerbaijan weighs option of a proper response to Armenia’s “Iskander challenge.” Baku weighs many options, starting from wider military-technical cooperation with Russia up to acquisition of additional striking systems from Turkey and establishment of local production of advanced types of weapons. Turkey has completed the supply of T-300 Kasirga (Hurricane) artillery systems to Azerbaijan, which does not give the edge over Armenia’s Iskander systems. Anyway, along with what Azerbaijan has accumulated during the previous years, Hurricane systems look rather impressive.

To recall, during the recent years, Russia supplied to Azerbaijan Smerch missile systems, 152mm SP artillery platforms, Msta-C howitzers, the 2S31 Vena 120mm SP mortar cannons, TOS-A1 Solntsepek heavy flame thrower systems. The striking arms imported from Russia and other countries comprise long-range artillery with high damaging capacity and indiscriminate effect. According to the survey published by the Azerbaijan APA news agency yet in December 2012, in 2001-2011, Azerbaijan acquired mainly missile and artillery weapons - more than 450 systems of various calibers, including about 120 heavy mortars, up to 70 rocket-propelled artillery, 3 tactical ballistic missiles Tochka-U (120km range), more than 100 self-propelled artillery weapons, as well as various howitzers. With an arsenal comprising Smerch, Solntsepek, Tochka-U, 2C7 Pion, 2A36 Giacint-B, 2C9 Nona-S, T-122 Sakarya (Turkey) and Lynx Extra (Israel), Azerbaijan’s military command planned to hit targets deep in the territory of the adversary. Up to 55% of the artillery Azerbaijan purchased during the past decade are systems with 40-150km targetable range, another 22% have 20-40km range of fire (2). Generally, during the last 12 years, according to Azerbaijani sources, Baku acquired about one thousand (!) pieces of missile and artillery systems from abroad.

As for Azerbaijan’s military-industrial complex, there is certain progress here too. For instance, Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defense Industry implements guided bomb units projects to become, as they say, independent from the foreign supplies in the given segment. Some prototype models were exhibited yet during ADEX-2014 military industrial exhibition in Baku. Part of them resembles the project of Soviet era, but developers say the exhibited prototypes are either modernized or completely new models. They develop ammunition that can be launched outside the area of the adversary’s air defense. These are 50kg and 75kg FAB50/75KAB guided bomb units whose implementation was launched in 2012. Now these models are undergoing laboratory testing. Both are equipped with combined inertial/satellite navigation systems (GPS and/or GLONASS). FAB-50 contains 23kg explosives and 3,500 performed fragments 6g each. The altitude is 200m-10,000m. The striking range is 8km for low altitude bombing and up to 25km for high altitude bombing. The striking range can be increased to 50km by means of special rocket boosters (3).

Along with replenishment of the already full arsenal, Baku will hold large-scale drills, including together with its Turkish ally (4).

At the same time, political risks of a new war for the so far sustainable power of President Ilham Aliyev are high as never before. The external forces are gradually getting used to the idea that in the visible future there will be no settlement to the protracted Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict on the basis of concessions. Besides, the U.S. and Russia has focused on Syria, which is a temporary factor that has postponed the enforcement of what Moscow and Washington agreed upon in Vienna earlier in May (In Vienna they discussed Karabakh: unveiling the “formula of concessions” EADaily’s article published on May 30). The enforcement of the arrangements was postponed but still on agenda of the peace process.

Another matter that president Aliyev has retained his power for years to come through the recent constitutional amendments. Now his generals cannot foresee all the consequences of the military settlement of the conflict objectively. A range of questions arise and the answers to them are not encouraging for Baku. First, Azerbaijan no longer hopes for a full military success with ousting of the Armenian troops and the civilian population of Nagorno-Karabakh from the conflict zone. Even for the world’s most well-organized army it is very difficult to turn the surprise effect into a victory in the battlefield – to make a blitzkrieg. Azerbaijan’s armed forces so far learn from their own mistakes. Before the April “mini-war” and the September demonstration of “Iskanders,” the most realistic scenario for the Azerbaijani military command and the political leadership was regaining of two regions around Nagorno-Karabakh that are partially under control of the Armenian forces. These are the Aghdam and Fizouli regions of the former Azerbaijani SSR. However, this scenario seems no longer realistic after the Armenian sides armed with dangerous weapon and the apathy of international mediators become evident (Kerry: There are still no conditions for Nagorno-Karabakh conflict settlement, article published on September 30).

The success of Azerbaijan’s operation to regain control over part of the territories around Nagorno-Karabakh is quite doubtful even considering the current prevalence of its fire power. If they failed to do it in April when there was certain surprise effect and did not use all the strike systems (first of all, the systems on airborne platforms), a blitzkrieg would hardly be effective for Baku within the coming months and years. The most pragmatic scenario for Azerbaijan’s leadership is further arming amid rhetoric about the “won April war” and demonstration of “such proofs for the own population” as about 8sq.km positions regained from the Armenian side. So far, Baku cannot afford more.

Meantime, Yerevan and Stepanakert must stay alert. The statements of the U.S. secretary of state who is due to leave his post are not that important. Washington will return to its active diplomatic efforts on Karabakh, which may create more problems to the Armenian authorities. No U.S. Administration will leave the processes in the South Caucasus to discretion of Moscow. Washington’s demonstrative apathy (perhaps, deliberate efforts to mislead) may pursue a goal to give Baku time to “pull itself up.” Afterwards, during a new wave of large-scale military conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, it will try to finally shatter Russia’s positions in the region.

(1) Yet in the spring of 2010, when SIPRI published an expert report on the military expenses on the South Caucasus countries, the author of the survey Paul Holtom wrote that Baku is acquiring new types of weapons, buys Israeli-made drones and keeps making militarist rhetoric against Armenia, which speaks of its preparations for potential resumption of the armed conflict over the lost territories.

(2) Azerbaijan purchased 450 pieces of ordnance in the past 10 years, http://apa.az, 28.12.2012

(3) Azerbaijan: assessment of the capacity of the national military industrial complex// Executive summary of armstrade.org., Sept 2016.

(4). On October 3, large-scale drills were held Nakhijevan, Azerbaijan. According to the Defense Ministry of Azerbaijan, the drills involved army units, manpower of the departments and headquarters under the group of troops in the Azerbaijani enclave bordering with Turkey. “With the use of the advanced missile and artillery systems, aircrafts and other weapons and military hardware, the units will fulfill such tasks as destruction of deep military strategic targets of the adversary,” the defense ministry said.

Vyacheslav Mikhaylov for EADaily

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