On the first day of the second Nagorno-Karabakh War in 2020, the Azerbaijani military destroyed 50% of Armenian air defenses and 40% of its artillery with unmanned aerial systems. This happened in 15-20 minutes. During the following six weeks, more than a thousand other Armenian military systems were likewise destroyed. Retired U.S. Army Colonel John Antal presents these striking facts in his book 7 Seconds to Die, illuminating the importance of unmanned systems during the Nagorno-Karabakh war.
Armenia had no choice but to surrender to Azerbaijan’s overwhelming use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and aerial loitering munitions (LMs) after only 44 days of fighting. In the first phase of the war, Azerbaijan successfully deceived, blinded, and destroyed critical elements of the Armenian defense network with UAVs. In the second phase, Azerbaijani forces took apart the Armenians’ remaining ability to react with a deadly combination of precision fires, UAVs, and LMs. The Azeris often allowed these weapons to operate autonomously in predetermined ‘strike zones,’ resulting in rapid top attacks that were not slowed by human decision-making. This immobilized the Armenian defenders and frustrated counter-attacks because their electronic warfare and artillery units could not support them. Finally, Azerbaijan’s II Corps, supported by special forces, maneuvered to the geographic center of gravity – The hilltop city of Shusha. Once the Azerbaijanis seized Shusha, the Armenians surrendered.
Colonel Antal clearly explains the results of combining Reconnaissance and Strike assets. The Azerbaijani effectively used video-equipped UAVs and LMs to enable sensor-shooter integration. They raised their situational awareness by video-recording strikes and used that footage to win the concurrent information battle. Armenia tried to deny their losses, but the Azeris simply uploaded video footage onto social media to prove their claim. Antal assesses that it will be nearly impossible in the future to hide in a battlespace. The author’s solution to this predicament is to use unmanned systems that can jam UAV transmissions or act as decoys, and to use multi-spectrum camouflage to hide. He does not immediately offer a practical solution to this evident challenge. Also, his focus is clearly on tanks and large formations. Light infantry and special forces are sometimes overlooked in his analyses.
In the end, though, Antal does offer many valuable solutions. He draws many practical lessons from the 2020 conflict in the Caucasus. More than once, he mentions the common truth of fires without maneuver being indecisive, and maneuvers without fires being fatal. Most of his predictions, however, are based on groundbreaking research in artificial intelligence, metamaterials used as cloaking devices, and brain implants that enhance human cognitive abilities. Antal posits future wars will be fought at the speed of thought. While reading this, one would hope the author is wrong because that future looks eerily like the one in the grim Terminator movies, where AI robots turn against humanity. His arguments, though, are compelling and valuable when contemplating the future of warfighting.
The author sometimes introduces terms that must be defined for the non-military reader. He also cites some tactics and techniques that are difficult for a general audience to comprehend, but 95% of his book suits every reader. Antal can describe a complex counter-UAV tactic in half a page, which is admirable. His breakdown of the Nagorno-Karabakh war is a real page-turner, without compromising his serious analysis.
How to create foresight and seize the initiative are Antal’s most significant messages in his book. The reader will feel like they have been on a thought expedition, exploring the future of warfare. The book is clearly not just about the war in Nagorno-Karabakh or unmanned systems. The author’s absorbing descriptions of the 2020 conflict in the Caucasus and other wars, some even from ancient times, enable the audience to clearly discern what factors lead to success in battle. Without outthinking an enemy, fighting the next war will be what a defeated Armenian soldier felt: ‘We cannot hide, and we cannot fight back.’ (p. 135).
Official Azeri data from Operation Iron Fist, as the Azerbaijani titled their invasion of Nagorno-Karabakh, has yet to be released. Antal is transparent about this early in the book, and the reader will feel this is fine. The book is carefully put together and has several maps, a thorough index and bibliography, and an appendix with research questions for further study. The depth in which the author analyzes the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia and his insights into the future of warfighting are illuminating and beneficial for both policymakers and military leaders.
While Antal shows that Azerbaijan has a well-funded military and support from Turkey, it remains unclear what led Azerbaijani leadership to embrace this high-tech means of warfighting with such tactical deftness. It is also unsure why Armenia failed to adjust their tactics since the First Nagorno-Karabakh War in 1994, even though they got a taste of Azerbaijan’s capabilities in the Four-Day War of 2016. There is the factor that Azerbaijan’s main effort was assigned to II Corps, led by Major General Hikmet Mirzayev, who was only 44 years old at the time of the invasion. This might suggest that younger military leaders convinced their older superiors to transition their armed forces into a modern fighting force that embraced new technologies and tactics.
NATO commanders and staff could learn about these new technologies in combat from the thorough analysis in 7 Seconds to Die. John Antal asserts that ‘the ability to see, decide and engage in multiple domains, and dominate the ones that matter during the decisive periods, is the essence of war in the 21st century’ (p. 132). Antal also reminds the reader of the balance between humans and weapons on the battlefield when he quotes World War II U.S. General George S. Patton Jr.: ‘Untutored courage is useless in the face of educated bullets.’ (p. 32).
Lieutenant-Colonel Dave van Dijk, Royal Netherlands Marine Corps, master’s degree candidate at the Naval Postgraduate School (USA/HDV)
7 Seconds to Die
A Military Analysis of the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War and the Future of Warfighting
by John Antal
Havertown (Casemate Publishers) 2022
180 pp. - ISBN 9781636241234