Azerbaijan’s Possible Reactions to Armenia’s Iskanders: Defense Versus Offense

In recent weeks, Armenia has been showing off the sophisticated new weapons it acquired via a $200 million credit line extended by Russia. And most notably, on September 21, during a parade in Yerevan commemorating the 25th anniversary of Armenian independence, the Armed Forces showcased Iskander theater ballistic missiles (see EDM, September 26), which Armenia bought independently of Russian credit. Despite a lack of consensus among defense experts on who really controls these Armenian Iskander missiles—Moscow or Yerevan (see EDM, September 28)—the fact remains that their acquisition has tangibly increased Yerevan’s deterrence capabilities. Many Azerbaijani analysts were surprised by Armenia’s acquisition of the Iskanders, but most believe Moscow sold this advanced weapons system to Yerevan following Armenian losses in the “Four-Day War” against Azerbaijani forces this past April (see EDM, April 6). The sale of the Iskanders was thus designed to calm anti-Moscow rhetoric among the Armenian public and strengthen the authorities’ capacity for political maneuver.
Particularly surprising was the Azerbaijani leadership’s conspicuously muted reaction toward Russia with regard to the sale of the missiles to Armenia. In the past, officials in Baku have either condemned such developments or made public demands of Russia to limit the proliferation of such weapons to the conflict area in and around Karabakh. For example, earlier this year, Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov declared, “[while] supplying weapons to Armenia, Moscow should prevent the transfer of ammunition to the occupied territories of Azerbaijan” (APA, March 18). Azerbaijan’s present restraint may be due to two intertwined reasons. First and foremost, for Baku, a few Iskander missiles do not significantly change the regional military balance, and a vehement government reaction could be interpreted as a sign of weakness in the eyes of public. Second, Baku likely believes the best response is to acquire its own weapons capable of countering the Iskanders.
In this respect, Azerbaijan may follow one of two possible approaches in response to Armenia’s new ballistic missile acquisition. The first is the “defensive approach”—that is, acquiring weapons to neutralize the asymmetrical offensive capabilities of Armenia created by the Iskanders. In the event of all-out war, Iskander missiles would presumably aim for Azerbaijan’s strategic-level targets—namely, on-shore energy infrastructure and especially the Sangachal terminal, which is the heart of the country’s oil and gas flow. Back in 2012, Azerbaijan countered Armenia’s ballistic-missile threat posed by Scud and Tochka-U missiles, which have a range of 300 kilometers, by purchasing S-300PMU-2 air-defense batteries, capable of simultaneously launching 12 interceptor missiles (see EDM, April 12; Bellingcat.com, October 20, 2015). In addition, Azerbaijan acquired the Indian-Israeli-produced Barak-8 missile-defense system (News.az, March 27, 2012). But in order to more effectively defend its strategic assets from an Armenian Iskander strike, the Azerbaijani authorities could try to purchase Russia’s upgraded S-400 air- and missile-defense system.
Another option would be to avoid relying on Russian-made weapons and instead choose an alternative like the United States’ Patriot air-defense system or the Israeli-made David’s Sling. The possibility of purchasing Patriots is currently almost nonexistent due to the US’s refusal to sell any weapons to either Azerbaijan or Armenia; moreover, the missile system is prohibitively expensive. The more realistic option would be the Israeli David’s Sling. Existing Azerbaijani-Israeli military cooperation has enabled Baku to acquire a number of modernized weapons from this state in recent years (see EDM, May 11, September 26). However, the David’s Sling system is still in its final phase of development, and so it may be a few years before it actually becomes available for export. Neither the Patriot system nor the David’s Sling system are currently realistic options for Azerbaijan, despite claims to the contrary by some Azerbaijani experts. And Azerbaijan’s current weak economy and budget cuts in defense expenditures further reduce the scope of action in this regard (see EDM, January 22, February 1).
An alternative for Azerbaijan, therefore, would be to pursue an “offensive approach” and acquire its own short-range ballistic missile system as deterrence against Armenia’s Iskanders. In the past, Baku has expressed interest in the Ukrainian-produced Grom-2 short-range ballistic missile, which could replace Azerbaijan’s Tochka-U system (Azeridaily.com, October 1). Like the David’s Sling, however, the Grom-2 has still not reached the stage of full mass production, though it was announced this could begin as soon as 2018 (Sputniknews.com, August 7)
In purchasing its own theater ballistic missiles, Baku would be putting in place a regional mutual deterrence regime—particularly if these missiles are deployed to Nakhchivan, the landlocked Azerbaijani exclave bordering on Armenia, Iran and Turkey. The rationale would become “if you hit me, I will hit you, too.” In other words, if Armenia were to escalate the conflict via ballistic missile strikes, Azerbaijan would respond in kind with a devastating counter-attack. Such a deterrence posture for Azerbaijan is possible even if Baku does not ultimately acquire the Ukrainian Grom-2; in the near future, the country is planning to rely on developing existing production capabilities. Ministry of Defense Industry officials recently declared that negotiations are ongoing to obtain technology to domestically produce ballistic missiles with a range of 280 km (see EDM, September 28). Moreover, Baku’s existing arsenal, including the recently delivered Turkish T-300 Kasırga guided missiles with a range of up to 90–110 km (APA, September 28), is adequate to create an asymmetric deterrence system in Nakhchivan.
Armenia’s newly unveiled ballistic missiles are probably the Iskander-E, whose range is 280 km. In this case, it should be noted that to hit objects near Baku, Armenia’s Iskander launchers would have to be transported to Karabakh since the Azerbaijani capital is located 305 km from the closest point of the Armenian border (Lratkavan.com, September 27). However, deploying Iskanders to Karabakh would severely exacerbate the situation around the breakaway territory, heightening Baku’s potential military reaction toward Armenia and its political response toward Russia.
In general, the acquisition of Iskander missiles by Yerevan will escalate an already dangerous regional arms race, in which third parties are also seeking to benefit. Indeed, Islamabad has reportedly again offered to sell to Baku Pakistani-Chinese-produced JF-17 jets, marketed as the best way to increase Azerbaijan’s stand-off strike capabilities (Quwa.org, September 27). Pakistan has been trying to make this sale since 2007 (Today.az, April 23, 2007). Both Armenia and Azerbaijan are currently acquiring higher-capability weaponry—i.e., short- and long-range missiles—meaning that the two sides are clearly preparing their forces for all-out war.