22 / July / 2020 : 16-07

Azerbaijan Threatens Chernobyl-Style ‘Catastrophe’ In Caucasus Drone War

The conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan has erupted into open warfare again. As previously noted on Forbes, there has recently been an alarming build-up of drone air forces on both sides. Azerbaijan has now threatened to use its capability to hit Armenia's only atomic power plant.

At least 16 people have been reported killed in the fighting. Drones have again featured, with both claiming to have shot down enemy drones. Azerbaijan denies Armenian claims to have shot down no less than 13 of their unmanned aircraft. Armenian officials claim that Azerbaijani drones attacked civilian targets in the town of Berd. Fighting now appears to have paused but the situation is tense. In Azerbaijan, thousands of protesters took to the streets to support retaking Nagorno-Karabakh by military force.

The most alarming development is the threat of nuclear “catastrophe” made by Azerbaijani Defense Ministry spokesman Vagif Dargyakhly on Thursday. According to TASS, Dargyakhly stated that their weapons “are capable of hitting the Metzamur Atomic Energy Station with high accuracy, which will turn into a catastrophe for Armenia.”

The Metzamur nuclear power plant was constructed at the same time as Chernobyl in the 1970s. It was shut down in 1988 after a massive earthquake, but reopened in 1994 because of Armenia’s desperate need for energy. It is sometimes described as the world’s most dangerous nuclear plant.

The threat was made after an alleged Armenian threat to the Mingachevir dam, which hold 15 billion cubic meters of water, supplying a vital hydroelectric power plant. Armenia denies any such threat, 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 CEP (the size circle they can hit 50% of the time) these are not necessarily accurate enough to hit something as small as a specific building. LORA ballistic missiles supplied by Israel are claimed to be more accurate (10 meters) thanks to a television-guided terminal seeker supplementing GPS guidance but finding an exact target may be challenging.

Precision attacks on strategic targets have hitherto been confined to the world’s more advanced air forces. This is changing as drone technology proliferates and even minor states can carry out long-range strikes with extreme precision thanks to real-time video. This was highlighted last year when Houthi forces struck the Abqaiq oil processing facility on Saudi Arabia with a wave of armed drones. These only carried small warheads but were accurate enough to punch holes in individual oil storage tanks, starting fires and putting half of the Saudi oil processing capacity out of action at a stroke.  

Both Armenia and Azerbaijan possess small armed drones. Azerbaijan is scrambling to import more and bigger unmanned aircraft. On June 22, the Azeri defense minister confirmed that the country was purchasing 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 proven 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 into a French EDF  nuclear installation near Lyon. EDF downplayed the significance 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 this type of buildings, which contain the highest amount of radioactivity in nuclear plants,” Greenpeace stated.

The situation between Armenia and Azerbaijan remains tense. There is no sign yet of either side carrying out threats to strategic infrastructure, but the potential for a disaster that might spread far beyond the Caucasus has been made plain. The specter has been raised and it is not going to go away.

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