Inspired by the British attack on the Italian fleet at Taranto a year before, on Dec. 7, 1941, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto directed six Japanese aircraft carriers to launch an air raid against the U.S. Navy base at Pearl Harbor where they would sink six and damage three battleships, and damage several light cruisers and destroyers, all at a cost of only twenty-nine aircraft. Naval vessels are prohibitively expensive, none more so than capital ships like battleships. In economic terms, this was probably the most lopsided battle in human history.
Even as the smoke was clearing, the world was coming to realize that the reign of the battleship was over. Never again would the pinnacle of naval warfare be one side’s fleet maneuvering to “cross the T” of the enemy’s fleet (as the British Grand Fleet did twice against the German High Seas Fleet at the Battle of Jutland in the Great War). From that day forward, battleships were effectively relegated to be floating artillery in support of amphibious assaults on beaches.
Pearl Harbor was not the first great paradigm shift in warfare. Examples abound, from the use of stirrups by Mongol cavalry to the English longbow at Agincourt, from the introduction of steam-powered ships in the early 1800’s (our nuclear-powered ships today are powered by steam) to the first ship sunk by a cruise missile in the Falklands War. The world’s militaries have just witnessed another such shift.
The tank has ruled the battlefield for 102 years, from the last great battle of WWI in 1918 until 2020, but no longer. The U.S. Army is estimated to have just under 6300 tanks, all of which have just been made obsolete. This is one example of what now rules the battlefield:
The cost of that Turkish-made unmanned drone is about $5M USD. The cost of the newest version of the venerable M1 Abrams main battle tank is about $20M USD, not counting the cost of the lives of the soldiers inside. And if the graphic above is any indication, each drone can kill two tanks. Per mission.
Research by Forbes indicates that Armenian losses currently include nearly 200 armored vehicles and over 300 soft-skinned vehicles, all destroyed by unmanned drones. To be sure, the tanks destroyed by the drones were relatively geriatric Soviet-era T-72’s, but the top armor of tanks is always the weakest — and that’s where the drones’ missiles always strike.
We also know that Turkey has used its drone force to destroy dozens of tanks and other armored vehicles and artillery in northern Syria, and has positioned itself as one of the world’s major producers of armed drones and unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAV’s).
Just as bomber pilot Billy Mitchell demonstrated in 1921 that battleships were too vulnerable to air attack, forward-thinking military leaders have known for years that the battlefield utility of the tank was drawing to an end. Of course there are deniers who, in the words of Mark Twain, claim that “the report of the death of the tank has been greatly exaggerated,” but the evidence says otherwise. To the drone operator, a tank is a big, slow-moving target easily seen in infrared, and throughout all military history, whoever holds the high ground has a big advantage.
The current war between Armenia and Azerbaijan is in fact a continuation of an on-off conflict that has continued since the late 1980’s. What is new is the technology at use, and how both nations are being used as proxies: Armenia is a Russian ally (though Russia is selling advanced munitions to both sides) and Azerbaijan is building close ties to Turkey. Most students of Asian history know that Russia, desirous of the Bosporus Strait that allows travel between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, has long wanted to establish control over Turkey. Even twenty years ago, one would think that in such a proxy war, it would be no contest, that whoever mighty Russia backed against Turkey would win in short order. But Azerbaijan’s sustained military successes enabled by Turkish drones may well soon bring Armenia to the bargaining table.
Nor is this the only proxy conflict between Russia and Turkey. Just this week a cease-fire was signed between the warring sides of the Libyan civil war. The Turks had been supporting the government, whereas the Russians had been supporting the rebels. Turkey and Russia are also facing off against each other in the ongoing Syrian civil war.
But in any case, in all three conflicts, the unmanned combat drone is playing a major — and perhaps even a decisive — role by economically providing crucial reconnaissance and tank-busting firepower. And right now, Turkey seems to hold the advantage of the high ground.