When you were voting, I studied the drone. When you were having coronavirus, I mastered electronic warfare. While you wasted your days at the firing range in pursuit of vanity, I cultivated force projection. And now that the world is on fire and the barbarians are at the gate you have the audacity to come to me for help.
--Anonymous Redditor, 2016 [translated by AmericanNewt8
A new kind of warfare has taken the world by storm this year. While most of us were preoccupied with the election, the coronavirus, and the other exciting events that have taken place over this year when decades happen, a small number of people have kept a close watch on distant battlegrounds in the Middle East; where the face of war has changed since January in ways that few would have predicted--and with it the region as a whole.
1. In the Beginning
But let's go back a ways; to the ancient world of circa 1980. Drones were not a new technology in any sense of the word--but they weren't particularly of interest beyond hobbyists, target drones
, and occasional odd military projects like the D-21 reconnaissance drone
. However, things were changing with the introduction of digital cameras and increasingly capable processors and transmitters as computers rapidly developed--and so it was only a matter of time before someone took advantage of that. That someone was the Israelis. Israel has a high level of technical expertise, large defense needs, but a relatively small industrial base, so it often pioneers technologies of this sort, and so it did with the Tadiran Mastiff
This innovation quickly proved to be of significant utility in the First Lebanon War. Besides spotting Yasser Arafat, leader of the PLO, they played a crucial role in the still-infamous "Bekaa Valley turkey shoot"
in which Israeli aircraft supported by UAVs destroyed a massive quantity of top-of-the-line Soviet hardware--almost 90 Syrian aircraft and 29 surface-to-air missile batteries at the total loss of minor damage to a pair of F-15s and one UAV shot down. Electronic warfare and AWACs control also proved crucial in this conflict, which in many ways paved the way for the successes of Desert Storm and the 2003 Iraq invasion; and reportedly shattered the self-confidence of the Soviet Union in its air defenses.
Since that first incident; UAVs have become an increasingly prominent part of the arsenal, particularly of the United States; though Israel and China also manufacture numerous UAVs and theirs are more popular in the export market due to lower prices and fewer scruples about "human rights" or "political stability". UAVs have become key reconnaissance assets and popular for precision-strike counter-insurgency missions. However, neither the United States nor China can claim credit for the latest developments--and Israel, at best, has played a peripheral role. The nation that everyone is watching now is Turkey.
For most of history, Turkey; or at least the geographical area of Anatolia, was a great power of some shape or another. The modern Turkey, however, rejected the idea of empire and foreign adventurism under Ataturk; the father of the Republic. While it has generally tended towards the West--directed in that way both softly by the allure of Europe and drive for modernization; and with great force by the military, which has tended to depose any government that even hinted at reintroducing religious or Middle Eastern aspects back into the aggressively secular Republic, Turkey has not been a particularly major player in the past century. Despite joining NATO for protection against the Soviet Union--which despised Turkey's chokehold on the Bosporous--it never had much appetite for interventionism.
In the era of the "Great Convergence", where nations seem to be returning to historical norms of influence and power, it should be no real surprise then that Turkey has become more assertive. It has grown much wealthier thanks to its association with Europe; and that wealth is actually created by the Turks, not dug up out of the ground like it is in much of the Middle East. It is more educated; more progressive [this of course being a rather relative term] and, importantly, much better at fighting, than most of its neighbors.
Turkey has been working to build a domestic armaments industry with great success
--barring a handful of key items like jet engines which hardly anyone can manufacture well, Turkey can do most things. In between indigenous development and picking up knowledge from South Korea, China, Ukraine, and so on, Turkey has one of the world's better arms industries--I'd say it's about reached the level that South Korea was at ten or twenty years ago, which is pretty good. Its drone program, however, started because of a different problem.
The Turks wanted drones back in the early 2000s for what we in the business call "reasons". Evidently the United States saw through this; because, despite allowing Turkey to license-assemble F-16s and build parts for the F-35, it did not sell Turkey drones for fear that they would be used against the Kurds
[a perception that proved to be correct as Turkey has indeed used its UAVs against Kurdish insurgents]. As a result, Turkey decided to do it themselves, and started building up their own drone program from scratch. By the beginning of 2020, Turkey had a large drone program and advanced electronic-warfare equipment. But nobody was really paying attention to their drone program; it was a sideshow of limited interest compared to the big players, that would presumably be of some utility but not a game-changer. I mean, their premiere drone literally used an engine made for homebuilt aircraft and was the size and weight of a smart car. Nothing too impressive. That is, until January.
The Libyan conflict is a deeply convoluted one that is difficult to explain. In essence; Libya has been in some sort of civil war since Gaddafi was deposed in 2011, but the most recent division is between the GNA, or Government of National Accord--the UN-recognized government of Libya located in Tripoli--and the "Tobruk Government" which acts as a rubber-stamp body for Gaddafi wannabe General Haftar. Haftar started off this year with things looking pretty good. After breaking the second cease-fire agreement in as many years, flush with cash and support from the United Arab Emirates, Russia, and France, Haftar was on the move, pushing for Tripoli itself. It was going to take a while, but nothing could stop Haftar from defeating the ragtag GNA militias.
Nothing, that is, until Turkey unexpectedly showed up because of a completely different dispute over rights to the seas around Cyprus. Libya [the GNA to be precise] was willing to delineate its boundary with Turkey in a way which cut off Greek and Cypriot claims, and, in return, Turkey arrived after a highly contentious vote in the normally placid Turkish Grand National Assembly, with Syrian mercenaries in tow; but also a large number of drones--mostly the Bayraktar TB2
-- and KORAL land-based standoff jammers
What happened next was a deep humiliation for Russia in particular. Russia and the UAE had supplied General Haftar with a number of its premiere short-range air defense system, the much-vaunted Pantsir
which was designed to shoot down UAVs, cruise missiles, and other small munitions. Unfortunately, the Pantsir proved much worse at shooting down Turkish drones than serving as target practice for them. Estimates suggest 23 systems were destroyed
[Turkey even captured one system and presumably picked it apart for intelligence] while perhaps ~16
Bayraktar TB2 drones were destroyed--which doesn't sound terrible until one remembers that those drones caused significantly more destruction than the air-defense systems and come in at a third of the price; and becomes even less favorable when one realizes that as the conflict went on the ratio flipped increasingly in favor of the Turks. Ultimately, the Turks achieved their goal, with Haftar being pushed back to Sirte and another cease-fire agreement being signed. This conflict, however, has contributed significantly to the increasing rift between France and Turkey, and their respective relations with Russia.
Russia likes to test its luck--to see what exactly it can get away with. Invading Crimea, shooting down a civilian airliner, attempting to murder exiles with Novichok. Often, it does get away with it. But when nations actually push back, they often find great weakness--for instance, the infamous incident where Americans killed 200 Russian "mercenaries" in Syria
after Russia denied they were Russian soldiers, or when American cyberwarriors shut down Russian trolls during the 2018 election
. Nowhere is this more illustrated than in Syria, where, early this year, a "Syrian" airstrike killed 29 Turkish soldiers
even though Russian involvement was an open secret.
What followed was not the usual vague condemnation and angry letter-writing that one might have expected. Instead, Turkey responded with a substantial escalation of force, again largely done by drones. Ultimately, around 200 Syrian government soldiers were killed in this short offensive--along with 45 tanks, 33 artillery pieces, 33 transport/utility vehicles, 20 armored vehicles, a pair of Su-24 aircraft that attacked a Turkish drone, and several SAM systems, which again proved largely ineffective against Turkish drones. While the conflict stopped before it went any further, the lesson was clear: Turkey was willing to escalate beyond where Russia was willing or able to respond, and there wasn't anything they could do about it.
Besides having a nice moral--extremely hard pushback is the best way to respond to Russian provocation, because they aren't expecting it and can't fight back since they lack effective escalation methods
--this conflict proved again that Turkish drones were highly effective even against a state actor [albeit a weak one, like Syria]. The world watched--but nowhere else as closely as Azerbaijan.
Artsakh is; or perhaps more aptly was,
an Armenian state--not recognized by any other state--within the borders of the former Azerbaijan SSR. It emerged out of the First Nagorno-Karabakh War, one of the nastier conflicts resulting from the breakup of the Soviet Union. In short; the Soviet Union put an ethnically Armenian area in the Azerbaijan SSR that was semi-autonomous; called Nagorno-Karabakh, that Armenians viewed as rightfully part of Armenia. When the Soviet Union broke apart--even before it had done so completely--Armenia and Azerbaijan were already engaging in low-level fighting; and in scenes reminiscent of the Partition of 1949, Azeris living in Armenia fled the country--as did their Armenian counterparts in Azerbaijan.
Then, as the Soviet Union properly collapsed, both sides geared up for war. The Soviet Union had left quite a lot of stuff lying around as it collapsed; and Azerbaijan ended up with the bulk of it due to the disposition of Soviet forces. Both sides bought black-market weapons and armaments from conscript soldiers in the confusion of the the collapse. And then they went to war.
The result was a years-long, brutal conflict that killed tens of thousands of people--in two relatively small countries--and, despite Azerbaijan having more equipment, more men, and more foreign support--from Turkey, which never had much love for Armenia and was building ties with the Turkic peoples of Central Asia [of whom the Azeris are one], and from Israel, who saw a potential new partner in a dangerous region. Armenia had some support from Russia, largely due to connections through a shared religion, nervousness about the Turks, and feelings among the Russian elite that were more sympathetic to Armenia.
However, against all odds, the Armenians emerged victorious. In 1994, with the Armenians poised to break out of the mountains and attack the heart of Azerbaijan, and Azerbaijan exhausted from years of war, a cease-fire was signed.
From that day onwards; both nations began preparing for the return of conflict. It was only a matter of time. Armenia had not only taken Nagorno-Karabakh, they had taken large portions of ethnically Azeri land as well, including sites that were of paramount cultural and historical importance to the Azeris. They also engaged in ethnic cleansing, and to this day Azerbaijan, at least nominally, has hundreds of thousands of refugees from the conflict.
In the intervening years, however, things changed. In particular; Turkey rose to a newfound regional prominence, and Azerbaijan, though being careful to always maintain a measure of proximity to Russia sufficient to not cause its rulers concern, slowly drifted towards Turkey and Israel. Ties with Turkey stretched to a mutual defense agreement. Ties to Israel included offering potential basing in Azerbaijan
, the sale of oil [not many nations would sell Israel oil until recently] along with shadowy intelligence connections--Mossad operations in Iran are believed to be launched out of Azerbaijan [for a number of reasons, Iran and Azerbaijan don't like each other very much]. And Azerbaijan, noted for its oil reserves as far back as the Second World War; collected large revenues which it sunk into military spending. Meanwhile, Armenia, despite making large purchases from Russia, fell behind in military readiness, and in its economy--not helped by the fact that, because of a mix of pro-Azeri Turkish policy and Armenian distrust and even hatred of Turkey [thanks to the fact that Turkey argues over whether even discussing "those unfortunate events of 1915" is okay], the Turkish border remains closed--meaning that trade can only go via Iran or Georgia.
Meanwhile, the peace process dithered on, with occasional small skirmishes breaking out. The regular theme was that Armenia would hand over the Azeri-majority [now unoccupied] territory it captured, and Nagorno-Karabakh would, in return, be recognized, or become autonomous, or something of the sort. The Minsk Group led these efforts; though not particularly well--all three members had significant biases. The Russians were pro-Armenian though not anti-Azeri [mostly, they were in favor of the status quo, which favored them], the French were pro-Armenian [on account of disliking Turkey and having a politically influential Armenian population much like the Cubans in Miami], and the Americans were sufficiently pro-Azeri that they created manuals like this
and defending the fictional nation of Atropia [which just happens
to be an oil-rich, pro-Western autocracy that is exactly where Azerbaijan is] against foreign invaders became a meme among the US military
--you can buy "Atropia Veteran"
swag, and it became so transparent that Europeans complained about "defending autocrats" in the exercise and Turkish officials complained that "Limaria" [Armenia] included areas that should have been in "Kemalia" [Turkey].
Ultimately, by 2020, a few things had changed. After victory in clashes in 2016, and purchases of new arms, Azerbaijan was confident that it wouldn't fail due to military incompetence like last time. Armenia had elected a new leader, more distant from Russia [especially since he came to power in a 'color revolution'], complicating any Russian response. Not only that, but Armenia had begun settling in territory that was formerly ethnically Azeri, and had attempted to rewrite history so the land they had taken was somehow always Armenian, making a land swap less tenable--especially after the Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh was renamed to the Republic of Artsakh. Domestic protests about a lack of action on the issue further spurred action, but perhaps the most decisive factor was Turkey's drone-fueled rampage and Russia's no good, very bad year elsewhere [from the domestic economy to the chaos in Belarus].
So at the end of September 2020, they went to war.
6. Curb-stomp battle Course of the conflict by Liveuamap
Initially, the war looked like it was serious, but not out of line with previous escalations. Azeri and Armenian forces clashed along the border--but then Azerbaijan made a major incursion along the southern border, which is flat and nearly completely unpopulated, and through the rest of the war pushed through there until they ultimately cut the single road leading to Nagorno-Karabakh from Armenia when they recaptured Shusha. At that point, Armenia capitulated.
While the exact details of why this happened are of relatively little importance, what does matter is what drones did. Armenian air defenses proved completely defenseless against the onslaught of Azerbaijan, with even larger and heavier systems like Russia's S-300 being destroyed by Turkish-manufactured drones. Even the An-2, a literal Soviet 1940s cropdusting biplane, proved lethal to air defenses when rigged with the right equipment
As a result, Azerbaijan swept across Armenian forces with drones, targeting anything larger than a bicycle, destroying tanks, artillery pieces, and surface-to-air-missile systems alike. While initially Azerbaijan didn't advance, they pursued a strategy of attrition against Armenian forces--and were quite successful at it. Nowhere was safe for Armenian infantry--even miles behind the front, drones were still a risk. After a few weeks of this, Azerbaijan began their offensive. This was interrupted by several ceasefires, the most successful of which lasted around fifteen minutes.
In the meantime, Armenia and Azerbaijan engaged in tactics reminiscent of the War of the Cities. Armenians made rocket attacks on Azeri civilian targets, and even ballistic missile strikes with SCUDs and Tokchas against Ganja
, an Azeri metropolis, with later attacks also taking place against Barda and other targets. Virtually all sources agree that Armenia conducted a deliberate policy of targeting civilians in retaliation from the advance of Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan, meanwhile, adopted what I would characterize as a callous indifference to Armenian civilian lives. We have relatively little documentation on exactly what they did, but it is likely that major war crimes were committed against Armenian prisoners. However, we do know that rockets and cluster munitions were used against civilian areas of Stepanakert.
By and large, though, Azerbaijan's government is mindful of global sensitivities and would rather avoid making itself a bigger villain than it has to be.
By the first week of November, despite appearances, it had become clear Armenia was losing. While they still held most of the territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, Azeri forces were rapidly closing in on the major road [1 of 2] that connects Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia proper. Armenian forces were demoralized and lacked heavy equipment. Civilians fled; with most of the population of Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, fleeing before the road was cut. Analysts had few doubts that, within another few weeks, before winter arrived, Azerbaijan could take all of Nagorno-Karabakh.
But fortunately, several factors coincided. First, Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan realized the situation Armenia was in, and presumably began talking about peace. President [and resident dynastic autocrat] of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev had achieved most of the territorial gains he wanted, but as far as I can tell had little to no interest in making his country notorious for what would surely be the ethnic cleansing of tens of thousands of people. Russia was interested in making sure that any
deal possible happened that could salvage its privileged position in the region. And since Azerbaijan had acheived its major goals, Turkey was alright with suing for peace as well.
The final impetus was provided by the Azeris taking Shusha, the second-largest city in the region [and one of tremendous cultural importance to the Azeri people], and, at around the same time, the Azeris accidentally shooting down a Russian attack helicopter on the border.
The ultimate deal was incredibly
favorable to the Azeris, which should be expected given that they could have taken the rest of the region with relative ease. It involved Armenia vacating most of Nagorno-Karabakh
and all the ethnically Azeri land they had taken, bar the Lachin Corridor. Of particular importance to Turkey, and to the Azeri economy, was that the deal created a corridor through Armenia to Azerbaijan's western exclave, and hence to Turkey, for transit. While still an indirect route, it is nowhere near as difficult as traveling around through Georgia. Russia also got to pretend like it still mattered by deploying a few thousand peacekeepers for what seems likely to be a limited time.
Azerbaijan celebrated. As far as anyone was concerned, they had won. Turkey also celebrated--they had, in their view, not only supported the Turkic Azeris in a victory against the Armenians, but also won a battle against Russia to see whom was the real dominant power in the Caucasus. Russia didn't celebrate, but felt that it had at least maintained some sort of influence in the region when initially things looked like they might ultimately sideline Russia entirely. Armenia, however, unsurprisingly, was enraged, and rioters smashed government buildings and forced Prime Minister Pashinyan into hiding; however, it looks like the Armenians realize that they really had no chance of winning and aren't going to resume the conflict.
8. What Now?
In a strange twist of fate, there is some speculation that peace is now more
likely than it was before the war. In particular, some think that Turkey will be interested in finally coming to terms with the Armenians and opening its border with Armenia--which would significantly reduce Russian influence in the region and promote economic development--and some speculate that Azerbaijan may now be willing to make a lasting peace deal since it has, essentially, all that it wants.
This war chronicles one of this year's themes--the decline of Russia, and rise of Turkey. I would expect to see more conflict between them in the future, and I'd expect to see, in a strange historical irony, Turkey coming out on top. Russia has not had a very good year at all and I think this conflict is really just the latest example of how far it has fallen in its military capabilities and political influence despite what Putin shows off.
Small drones are now the obsession of every military planner, as is trying to figure out a way to shoot them down reliably. Already a number of nations have expressed interest in buying the Turkish drones that had such a decisive impact on these conflicts. It seems likely that this will especially transform lower-end conflicts where foreign powers can now intervene without risking more than a few million dollars in equipment, and where local powers can now field their own drones and precision-guided munitions while being, for the moment, largely unopposed.
Whatever the ultimate impact, though, it is undeniable that this change in warfare has been one of the more important and interesting bits of 2020 thus far, though it's behind some truly massive things. Unlike the coronavirus, or Donald Trump, however, these trends are probably with us to stay for a while. I don't think we've heard the last of the drone-warfare revolution yet.
Background info. Me (40m), primary job is teaching online for a foreign company on their timezone (12-13hr ahead of me). Moved in with my mom November 2019 to save money before moving overseas (since I can work from anywhere, thought I'd walk the world a bit). One way ticket bought for April 5, 2020, world shuts down due to plague two weeks before (as is my luck).
Decided to use lock down to turn my photography hobby into a photography side business. Bought a new camera, sold my old one. Started to book models to build my portfolio. Started with the black hole that is Craigslist to get some shoots in to have my profile approved on Model Mayhem, then posted castings and started using dating sites to find talent. With the exception of twice, the model this post is about being the second, i make it a rule to always do public shoots with anyone I haven't worked with before (for both their security and mine). By and large, I've worked with a lot of talented, awesome people, have a nice portfolio growing, and improving on both my shots (I was a double major of tv/film and photography in college so I know the basics of shot composition and camera settings from that) and directing (which I'm still fairly shit at).
Being that I'm staying at home until it's safe to travel, I don't have much in thr way of privacy nor do I have a lot of evening/night availability on account of having to go to sleep around 8pm to be awake to teach starting around 4am, I can't really book anything after 3-4pm since shoots tend to run an hour and a half to two hours. And knowing that I was going to be losing all privacy to do any shoots at home after Thanksgiving, I wanted to try and get one or two more more risqué shoots done (boudoiartistic nude. I don't want to veer into the porn territory).
The model in question replied to a casting I posted on MM. We move the convo over to ig so she can see my recent shoots and we get to talking about her rates (the casting was listed as "rates negotiable"). She tells me her rates, which are lower than market value for that kind of shoot, so a minor red flag there. I see on her ig that a) she lists herself as being sign with a very popular website for alternative models (which a cursory Google search shows that she is a "hopeful" and only did one shoot for them three years ago) and it lists her onlyfans. I tell her that if she wants to sell any of the pics on her onlyfans, we can discuss licensing fees (I'm not releasing the copyright). She says no, that maybe after the first shoot then maybe she'll hire me for OF stuff. Perfect.
Red flag two: she wants a 20 dollar booking fee/deposit to go against her rate. I apologize and explain that I don't do deposits with people I haven't worked with before (because it's 2020 and... You know... The internet) but that I'd be happy to bump her rate up the 20 to compensate and I'd be happy to give her references with models I've worked with previously (an amateur and a professional, both of whom I've worked with a few times, and another professional who also works as a booker for models and aerial artists). She says that's fine and takes the handles of the references.
The week leading up to the shoot, I repeatedly say that the start time will be 1-130pm (I know I'll have the space available, natural light coming into the house will mean I won't have to drag my lights and softboxes around too much, and I can easily get the shots I want within two hours). Repeatedly she agrees. The night before I send one final message with the last details (address) and again, repeat the start time of 1-130pm. Around 1am, she messaging saying it sounds good and will message me in the morning.
The next day, I teach my kids, do some running around to pick up some props for the shoot, then I wait.
11am, Entitled Model (EM): Morning! I'll be getting ready shortly! Are you still available?
Me: absolutely! Still good for 130?
EM: I should be!
She then asks if I have any preference for haimake up, which I don't and that I trust her on that.
11:30, EM: I'll probably be there closer to 2.
Me: (thinking, "here we go") that should still work.
I start getting areas prepped for the shoot (wasn't going to do that until hearing from her as last minute cancelations happen way too much, which is the main reason I don't do deposits with new people). And then... Silence.
Just after 130, EM: I had to run my dad to the hospital because he hurt himself in the garage and had some other running around to do in town. Can we push it back later? Like 3-330?
Me, irritation growing: if you can make it NO LATER than 330, sure. As I said, the shoot should run 1.5-2hr and I need to start doing other things by 530.
EM: Yes, of course. I'm on my way.
230, EM: Hey there's some heavy traffic which is just my luck if I do r answer it's because I'm driving, I feel like such a dick because I'm never late like this.
Now, I spend the better part of 15yrs in transportation and logistics, so Google maps and various state traffic alert systems have been bookmarked for years. She lives an hour or so away and there was ZERO orange or red zones between there and here (plus, I work in her area every weekend for my buddy's landscaping/general labor business. I know where the work zones are).
Just before 4, me: any updated eta or...?
410: I'm about five minutes away.
I'm lurking by the door and see a car drive by, bang a u-ey, and park across the street and I notice TWO people in the car (being the nature of the shoot is more towards the adult side of things, I understand wanting someone close by in case I turn out to be a scumbag, BUT some notice saying that there would be a second person is absolutely a necessity. I do shoots in public so that if the model or companion turn out to be scumbags, then there would be other people around for my safety and the security of my equipment. Can't see someone coming from behind when I'm focused down a camera viewfinder)
415: I'm here. I just have to do my makeup and I want to smoke a cig, then I'll be ready.
I've already knocked back the pics I wanted to get by this point to basically one spot and, if memory served, she was going to be getting ready before she left (based on her messages), but I guess that didn't include makeup.
At 430, when she still wasn't ringing the doorbell, my fucks ran out. I went to the car, handed the meth head looking dude who was driving (she was still doing her makeup in the passenger seat, so she wasn't driving and could have at least given updates) forty bucks, said that I don't have any more time to wait, here's for gas and tolls, went inside, locked the doors, and started breaking down the sets. At 445, with them still parked across the street, I get the message asking about the rest of pay. I calmly and professionally inform her that as no photoshoot was done, why would I pay her full amount?
Then begins the guilt trip: I took off work for this (wonder if she shows up to whatever job she has three hours late and still expects full pay), could have spent the day in the hospital with her dad, drove so far, traffic, she is "constantly booked" so she doubts she can reschedule a shoot with me (which I wouldn't do anyway if this is the first impression)
Again, I say that she agreed on the time and place and that nothing that happened before or after she left her house has anything to do with me. My day was also wasted in waiting for her. I'm informed that that they aren't leaving without being paid. I tell her she's welcome to stay there as long as she wants... Parked in front of the FORMER MAYOR'S house and that there are several cops who live in the neighborhood and it's regularly patrolled due to the city park behind the house where there's regularly a fair amount of fuckery going on.
They left after that.
I did wake up the next day to a seven minute voicemail which I have yet to listen to (a week later) but I highly doubt it contained an apology.