As Armenia and Azerbaijan trade deadly blows in a battle that has taken a heavy toll on the warring parties' armor, experts contacted by Military Times say it is too early to sound the death knell for tanks.
Some 95 people have been killed – 11 of them civilians – since the fighting broke out, Deutsche Welle reported. This comes only a few short months after at least 17 people were killed during conflict in July.
Located in western Azerbaijan, Nagorno-Karabakh is populated mostly by Armenians, who control the region and seek independence from Azerbaijan and reunification with Armenia.
The decades-old dispute over the province of Nagorno-Karabakh erupted on Sunday with both sides posting videos to their social media channels showing aerial footage of tank kills and other destruction.
The videos show the carnage, a death from above dispatched by drones on the slow-moving Soviet-era armored vehicles.
But the armor experts contacted by Military Times say the issues are more a tactical training failure than a signal that tanks are obsolete.
Because of the diverse terrain, the U.S. Army uses the region in classroom training scenarios, said Nicholas Moran, a major in the Texas National Guard who’s been working with tanks for some 20 years and is a tank historian by trade.
“Army personnel are very familiar with the Caucasus Region,” Moran told Military Times on Wednesday. “It’s a very messy area with a whole bunch of different players, some of whom are in NATO, some of whom aren’t, some are aligned with the Soviets, the Russians. It’s all sorts of bizarre terrain combinations. There’s isolated water, there’s water you can access with big ships, mountains, there’s flat space, oil – there’s lots of oil.”
The number of scenarios the Army can create using the Caucasus Region as an example is endless, Moran said.
"You can have anything from low-intensity exercises to ‘OK, we’re going to send a full on armored corps and take on whoever comes.’”
Moran’s takeaways from the Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict is that there’s a serious lack of air defense in each side’s combined arms system.
“There’s nothing you can do as a tank, per se, to defend yourself against a weapon specifically designed to kill armored vehicles from above,” Moran said. “This has been going on for years. The loitering munitions, even, is like a 30-year-old concept. It’s the first time it’s being used on a large scale. Most modern armies are aware of the threat and they’re developing equipment to counter it.”
The beginning of one video from Armenian Ministry of Defense’s “Arms Media” purportedly shows an Azerbaijani tank rolling point in a column of three and being destroyed by Armenian artillery.
A little past the halfway mark of the video, another tank is shown rolling in front of two other tanks with a group of seven or eight people walking nearby in the same direction. The tank is engulfed in a fireball and the people appear to continue walking undeterred.
Armenia claims its military destroyed 137 of its neighbors tanks, according to Armenak Minasyants, an Armenian official. Azerbaijan has denied many of these claims, and likewise, Armenia has denied claims of battle victory made by Azerbaijan.
In another video, Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defense claims to have destroyed two Armenian tanks. As of Wednesday, Azerbaijan claims to have destroyed 130 Armenian tanks and amphibious combat vehicles in addition to 2,300 of its military personnel.
“Overkills by airpower has been around since World War II," said Moran, speaking of inflated battle damage assessments. "Hundreds killed, no, I strongly doubt both sides have killed hundreds.”
The video evidence published by both sides certainly doesn’t support the claims, Moran said. And not for a lack of current battlefield capability, but neither side has done a good job of shooting down the other’s drones if so many of their vehicles are being destroyed.
“Not only do you see footage of UASs destroying armored vehicles — and I do know that they’re paying particular attention to anti-aircraft vehicles. There have been a number of SA-8s that have been destroyed. But you also can find footage of the air defenses shooting the drones down," Moran said.
What can the U.S. military learn from this conflict? In both videos, the tanks were either rolling or stationary in the open without cover and in close proximity to one another. Is this simply faulty training on the part of Azerbaijani and Armenian military commanders or are tanks generally vulnerable on the modern-day battlefield?
This is modern warfare
The answer is a little of both, if you ask Thomas Spoehr, director of Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense and a retired Army lieutenant general.
“Modern warfare is complex,” Spoehr told Military Times. “It’s just like armor brigade combat teams learn at the National Training Center, you can’t send a company, a platoon of tanks on their own across an open plateau or plain in modern warfare and expect to come out good.”
Part of Army Forces Command, the Army’s National Training Center at Fort Irwin offers units a simulated battlefield and an opposing force in the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment.
“Armor brigades and armor battalions learn that at the NTC the hard way, they send out tanks ahead of time and they haven’t suppressed ATGMs (anti-tank guided missiles), they haven’t sent out infantry ahead of time and they just get rolled up,” Spoehr said. “If you don’t practice this stuff like the Azerbaijanis — and probably the Armenians, as well — haven’t done, modern warfare is really quick and very lethal.”
Neither Desert Storm nor Iraqi Freedom provided good training for the kind of high-tech overhead warfare of today. It’s not the conflicts America’s military has engaged in that have prepared it to properly set the conditions under which protect their high-value assets on the battlefield. It’s the training acquired from the NTC, Spoehr said.
Marines divest from tanks
The Marine Corps doesn’t find tanks to be obsolete, but last year it decided to stop investing in the heavy armor after a series of wargames concluded they were at a strategic disadvantage against precision strikes like the one supposedly carried out in the fight for Nagorno-Karabakh.
The Marines are also looking to shed some weight, said Gen. David H. Berger, Commandant of the Marine Corps, during the Modern Day Marine Expo last week.
“For example, all of the armor, the heavy armor, the M1s, our tank battalions that we are divesting of, they’re going into the Army,” Berger said. “The Army is pursuing longer-range, but much larger, heavier, bulkier systems than we are. But they’re not either-or; we’re going to need both [Army and USMC]. We have to be light and Expeditionary. We need a big heavy, big lethal Army as well.”
Coverage of Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is ‘war porn’
If one were to judge the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict solely based on the coverage that’s come out of it in the past several days, one may ascertain that this is the end of armored forces, said Mike Jason, a retired Army colonel who spent 24 years as an armor officer and commanded a combined arms battalion.
“We’re getting the usual war porn,” Jason told Military Times. “It’s about drawing the wrong lessons when we see these unfortunate, untrained, ill-led militaries that are not very professional with their Eastern Bloc, very expensive armored vehicles and tanks with BMPs that have probably sat in a motor pool for the last 30 years — all of a sudden they roll them out and they have these drones and they’re blowing each other up.”
The two militaries are equipped with technical capabilities that outweigh their overall tactics, which don’t appear to include any combined arms that professional militaries use, Jason said.
“We want to give our commanders all the possible tools available in the toolbox,” Jason said. “The Marines have decided for their particular joint fight, they will not use tanks but they will have light reconnaissance armored vehicles, they’ve got the amphibious vehicles and, of course they have their own air wing attached to their MAGTAFs, so they’re looking in that direction but they will rely on the Army for hard armored formations because it’s more and more a joint fight and more and more combined arms. We put it all together in concert, this symphony of violence all working together in synchronicity.”
Correction: This article was updated to reflect the Army’s Caucuses training scenarios are executed in a classroom setting.
Jared is a freelance journalist, a former Marine and a veterans advocate living in Los Angeles.