How Nagorno-Karabakh fails the arms stress test for future Israeli wars

IAI Harop UAV at Paris Air Show 2013 (Julian Herzog)

Conventional lessons for unconventional foes: Israeli weapons have been thrust into the spotlight since hostilities began between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the latter an ally of Israel. The importance of Israeli weapons in the conflict is clear. The benefits to Israel? Less so.

While the mostly vague security relationship between Israel and Azerbaijan has existed since the late ‘90s, recent years have illuminated their cooperation. Arms sales have increased, now including advanced drones and missile defense systems, making up at least 60% of Azerbaijan’s arms procurement.

Israel has faced great criticism for supplying arms to Azerbaijan, both internally by the Armenian-Israeli community and from Armenia itself, which has recalled its ambassador to Israel as a result of Israeli military aid to Azerbaijan.

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During the last month, footage was constantly distributed via Twitter by the Azerbaijani Ministry of Defense. Videos of airstrikes against Armenian equipment and troops were released for analytical and propaganda purposes. While Armenia also released similar footage, its production was at a significantly smaller scale.

As Azerbaijani forces advanced territorially, it was evident they had the upper hand in the conflict, given visually confirmed losses on the Armenian side. This can be partially ascribed to the use of Israeli-made loitering munitions and theater quasiballistic missiles, but the targets of these arms are more important than the weapons used to destroy them.

Azerbaijani-operated Israeli loitering munitions have destroyed dozens of Armenian tanks, armoured vehicles, advanced rocket launching systems, and artillery equipment. This places the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict perfectly into the parameters of conventional warfare – a situation Israel hasn’t faced since 1985.

Israel’s enemies have adapted to unconventional means and strategies used in asymmetric warfare, having realised that a conventional war with Israel will likely be unsuccessful. Gone are the days of dogfights and massive troop mobilization. Israel’s wars in recent history have been primarily attempts at curbing non-state actors’ rocket fire towards Israeli towns, at both northern and southern fronts.

One such Israeli foe, Iran, operates by arming militant proxies in Gaza, and, more alarmingly, Hezbollah, with its precision guided missile program. The IDF estimates Hezbollah has over 130,000 rockets and missiles. Only a small percentage of these are guided, mainly as a result of the IDF’s “war-between-wars” campaign to stop the production and shipment of the guided missiles to Hezbollah and the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) on Israel’s northern borders.

Although Israel considers Hezbollah and the direct Iranian IRGC formation in Syria to be one of the most critical threats to state security due to their more modern capabilities, the chances of them rolling tanks into the Golan is highly unlikely.

Currently, the main threat from these groups is their use of unconventional attacks. These attacks, including unguided rockets, digging tunnels into Israeli territory for kidnappings, and their potential use of precision missiles, have not been seen in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.

It is crucial to understand none of these groups have or plan to use conventional warfare means against Israel. They operate almost entirely as guerrillas or by launching rockets towards Israeli territory.

As it stands, Israel’s air superiority, combined with extensive intelligence gathering, allows it to keep the precision missile program at bay. During actual conflict, advanced air defense systems would be the key to combating this threat. It does remain unclear if the loitering munitions, like those used in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, may work versus an unconventional adversary.

Just as Israel’s enemies adapted to more unconventional methods over the years, they may attempt other new strategies that Israel is currently unprepared to combat. Israel must continue to adapt and develop new means to combat various new threats.

The recent wave of favourable diplomatic relations between Israel and its neighbours further pushes the possibility of a conventional war into the realms of impossibility. Lebanon and Syria are the only state actors on Israel’s borders still considered enemies. With both impoverished by sanctions or civil war, neither are in any shape to confront Israel conventionally.

The lessons Israel’s security establishment are learning from the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is not nearly as important as many analysts claim. While intelligence and military cooperation with Azerbaijan remain of paramount importance, it is necessary to view developments through the ever-evolving lens of Israeli military and security strategy and adjust accordingly.

About the Author
Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian made Aliyah from London in 2005. He served in the IDF and is currently residing in Be'er Sheva as a B.A student of Communications and Middle Eastern Studies.
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