Escalation of the arms race between Azerbaijan and Armenia

In the shadow of the South Caucasus, a region marred by historical tensions and recent conflicts, the arms race between Azerbaijan and Armenia continues to escalate, fueled by geopolitical maneuvers and military acquisitions. Against the background of Armenia's strategic shift towards France and the acquisition of advanced weapons, Azerbaijan responds with its own rearmament, creating conditions for an unstable military balance in the region.

Armenia's strategic turn and military modernization

Armenia's recent moves towards France, a NATO member, signal a significant geopolitical recalibration. The visit of French Defense Minister Sebastien Lecorgne to Yerevan in February 2024 was an important milestone, underlining Armenia's desire for closer ties with Western partners. This diplomatic approach is reflected in Armenia's strategic decision to freeze its participation in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a move that underscores Yerevan's willingness to diversify its security partnerships beyond traditional alliances.

In tandem with its diplomatic maneuvers, Armenia participates in an active process of military modernization, conducted mainly by French and partly by Indian suppliers.

Armenian Defense Minister Suren Papikyan stated that "The Republic of Armenia purchases weapons and ammunition in order to protect its territorial integrity and sovereignty. The weapons and ammunition purchased by the Republic of Armenia are not aimed at aggression against any country," Papikyan said.

However, it is known that any defensive weapon can be used to attack, since at least it protects its troops on the defensive and ensures the safety of the attackers.

Let us compare the potential combat capabilities of the two opposing armies as of February 2024.

According to the French financing bill for 2024, Armenia has already received 24 Bastion armored personnel carriers and is waiting for another 26 armored vehicles, which are currently in production. The draft law specifies the need for the delivery of defensive weapons as soon as possible at the request of Armenia in order ”not to repeat the mistakes made in the situation with Ukraine.”

French Bastion armored vehicles are capable of protecting the crew and military personnel from small arms, machine guns and fragments of artillery shells. The car is equipped with ballistic armor (protecting against bullets and shrapnel), as well as similar ballistic glass. The level of protection, according to the NATO classification, is from the first to the third, that is, the armor of the car can save from bullets, hand grenades, shrapnel and mines. There are no grenades launched from an infantry shoulder-mounted grenade launcher in this list, that is, the Bastion crew will burn from the first shot of an Azerbaijani grenade launcher.

Judging by the photos distributed from Armenia, the French armored personnel carriers are supplied without proper machine-gun weapons.

In October 2023, France and Armenia signed a Memorandum of Intent in the field of air defense. The document was accompanied by contracts for the purchase of three Ground Master radars (GM200), as well as night vision devices. Radar manufactured by Thalès Corporation can detect aerial objects within a radius of 250 km, and night optics are manufactured by Safran Corporation. On February 22, Armenia received a batch of radars and night vision devices, the Figaro newspaper reported.

It is reported that France may supply Yerevan with Mistral short-, medium- and long-range anti-aircraft missile systems. These installations are mounted on a light vehicle (Bastion can be used). They are capable of hitting targets with low thermal visibility, an interception range of up to 8 km, and a target height of 500 m to 6 km. Installations with Mistral are easily hit by any drone. 

The French Armed Forces will conduct courses in mountain warfare for the Armenian Armed Forces in three stages.

However, the effectiveness of these acquisitions in deterring potential adversaries remains the subject of close attention, especially in light of the military buildup of Azerbaijan itself.

Azerbaijan's military expansion and strategic calculations

In response to Armenia's rearmament efforts, Azerbaijan has embarked on its own ambitious military expansion, characterized by a variety of acquisitions and strategic partnerships. After the 44-day war in 2020, Azerbaijan has prioritized strengthening its armed forces, using partnerships with regional allies such as Turkiye and Pakistan to purchase modern weapons and strengthen its defense capabilities.

Expert Fikret Mammadov assessed the new weapons of the two countries. In an interview with Turan, he began with the rearmament of the Azerbaijani army. Immediately after the war, the Ministry of Defense of Azerbaijan increased the number of army-wide special forces, created on the model of the Turkish commando.   To begin with, 3 brigades (about 10,000 military) have been formed and further expansion is now underway.

The Israeli “Hetz-3” missile defense system was purchased, which can intercept ballistic missiles in the exosphere at an altitude of up to 100 kilometers and at a distance of 400 to 2.4 thousand kilometers. They were created as an antidote specifically against Iranian ballistic missiles.

“Akinci” UAVs have been purchased from Turkiye. The main purpose of the purchase is the system's ability to launch SOM missiles with a range of up to 250 km. Turkiye had restrictions on their sale, since the engines were not Turkish, and the manufacturer put a ban on sales to Azerbaijan. Now there is no such barrier, the Turks make the engines themselves.

Recently, it was reported about the purchase of Pakistani JF-17 Block III aircraft (most likely in the amount of 25 units). The planes are quite suitable for war in our region and are certainly better than what we have in service today. A slightly weak radar "sees" targets with an effective scattering area (ESA) of 3 meters at a distance of 115 km, and what is lower, for example, an ESA of 1 square meter at a distance of 85 km.

And American fifth-generation ESA fighters have only 0.0001 square meters, that is, our pilot will see it at a distance of no more than 25 km, and he will see ours at a distance of 225 km. By the time the JF-17 pilot starts rubbing his eyes, he will be shot down by launching a rocket from a distance of 150 km.

But Azerbaijan is unlikely to have to fight with the United States and NATO. The JF-17 Block III will be opposed by Russian fighters (Armenia, Russia and Iran have them). These aircraft will fight with them at a very decent level, experiencing difficulties only with the Su-35. Pakistani aircraft can also be used as missile defense systems to neutralize enemy missiles.

According to their characteristics, the Pakistani fighters fully comply with the latest modifications of the F-16, which Turkey and all other NATO countries are armed with, F.Mammadov noted.

Assessment of the military balance and implications for regional stability

As both Azerbaijan and Armenia continue to strengthen their military capabilities through strategic partnerships and acquisitions, the fragile balance of power in the South Caucasus faces unprecedented challenges. The proliferation of modern weapons and the possibility of miscalculations raise concerns about the stability and security of the region, the consequences of which go beyond the borders of these two countries.

Of particular concern is the risk of unintended escalation caused by the deployment of modern weapons and the potential for increased tensions along disputed border areas. The introduction of modern missile defense systems and unmanned aerial vehicles complicates an already unstable security situation, increasing the likelihood of destabilizing incidents.

In this context, diplomatic efforts to de-escalate tensions and promote confidence-building measures are of paramount importance. International shareholders, including regional Powers and global players such as the European Union and the United Nations, should actively participate in promoting dialogue and reducing the risk of conflict escalation.

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