The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan has again erupted into open war. As previously noted in Forbes, there has recently been an alarming build-up of drone air forces on both sides. Azerbaijan has now threatened to use its ability to attack Armenia’s only nuclear power plant.
At least 16 people have been reported dead in the fighting. The drones have appeared again, and both claim to have shot down enemy drones. Azerbaijan denies the Armenian claims of having shot down no less than 13 of its drones. Armenian officials claim that Azerbaijani drones attacked civilian targets in the city of Berd. Fighting now seems to have stopped, but the situation is tense. In Azerbaijan, thousands of protesters took to the streets to support the reconquest of Nagorno-Karabakh by military force.
The most alarming event is the threat of nuclear “catastrophe” made by Azerbaijani Defense Ministry spokesman Vagif Dargyakhly on Thursday. According to TASS, Dargyakhly stated that his weapons “are capable of hitting the Metzamur nuclear power station with high precision, which will become a catastrophe for Armenia.”
The Metzamur nuclear power plant was built at the same time as Chernobyl in the 1970s. It was closed in 1988 after a massive earthquake, but reopened in 1994 due to Armenia’s desperate need for energy. It is sometimes described as the most dangerous nuclear power plant in the world.
The threat was made after an alleged Armenian threat to the Mingachevir dam, which contains 15 billion cubic meters of water, supplying a vital hydroelectric power station. Armenia denies any threats, saying they never attack civilian targets and have not suggested hitting the dam.
“Statements of this kind are a crime,” Armenian Defense Ministry spokesman Artsrun Ovannisyan told reporters.
While Azerbaijan does possess a handful of long-range ballistic missiles, which Dargyakhly mentions, with 30-meter CEPs (the circle of size that they can reach 50% of the time), these are not necessarily precise enough to hit something so small. as a specific building. Israel-supplied LORA ballistic missiles are claimed to be more accurate (10 meters) thanks to a television-guided terminal finder that complements GPS guidance, but finding an exact target can be challenging.
Until now, precision attacks against strategic targets have been limited to the world’s most advanced air forces. This is changing as drone technology proliferates and even minor states can carry out long-range attacks with extreme precision thanks to real-time video. This was highlighted last year when Houthi forces attacked Abqaiq’s oil processing facilities in Saudi Arabia with a wave of armed drones. These only carried small warheads, but were precise enough to drill holes in individual oil storage tanks, start fires, and put half of Saudi oil processing capacity out of action in one fell swoop.
Both Armenia and Azerbaijan have small armed drones. Azerbaijan is struggling to import more and larger drones. On June 22, the Azerbaijani defense minister confirmed that the country was buying armed drones from Turkey, which is providing financial assistance to buy weapons. The drones involved may be the Bayraktar TB2, which Turkey has exported to other nations and which has reportedly been shown to be highly effective in Libya and Syria, notably destroying Russian-built air defense systems with guided missiles.
In 2018, Greenpeace emphasized the risk of drone attacks on nuclear power plants by crashing a Superman-shaped drone at a French EDF nuclear facility near Lyon. EDF played down the importance of the event, saying it had no effect on security, but Greenpeace believed they had made their point.
“This action again highlights the extreme vulnerability of these types of buildings, which contain the highest amount of radioactivity in nuclear plants,” Greenpeace said.
The situation between Armenia and Azerbaijan remains tense. There are still no signs that either side is making threats to the strategic infrastructure, but the potential for a disaster that could extend far beyond the Caucasus has become clear. The spectrum has been raised and will not disappear.