Each day brings new reports of the horrors of the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region. As attempts to broker ceasefires flounder, both sides have doubled down, ratcheting up the brutality. From artillery barrages and missile strikes, the war is now increasingly being fought in the trenches, as waves of volunteers, ex-soldiers and others respond to nationalist appeals from both governments and rush to the front line. This grinding war of attrition highlights an important fact that should not be overlooked. One feature of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is the widespread Azerbaijani use of drones , which hover above the battlefield and rain down death on command. But their use is also upending conventional military theory, which suggests that they can bring conflicts to a quick, victorious and relatively bloodless end. This misperception has been fuelled by their success in asymmetrical warfare in a variety of theatres. The United States , for example, has used the most efficient and expensive combat drones to carry out remote assassination missions from Africa to Afghanistan. Militant groups such as Hezbollah and the Houthis have also taken advantage of inexpensive and widely available commercial drones re-engineered as stand-off weapons – flying bombs that can hit targets at a distance without endangering operators. Nagorno-Karabakh conflict offers insight into the new art of war The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is different. Azerbaijan has deployed Turkish military drones and Israeli loitering munitions (otherwise known as suicide drones) at medium range – in other words, in the middle of a fight, as conventional air power – inducing fear in the opposing camp, but paradoxically rallying defenders to the cause. In this regard, drones represent a dangerous new trend – a small state that acquires them in numbers and deploys them as a sort of expanded air force can significantly increase its power-projection capability. This removes some limits to its aggression. As has happened with cyberweapons, drones have ended the monopoly of rich nations in visiting violence on their foes. For countries such as Azerbaijan, which only has a few fighter jets, inexpensive drones have dangerously altered the perception that their military capabilities are limited, leading to greater aggression. The promise of warfare without risk increases the chances of conflict escalation. In fact, Azeri drones breaching Armenian airspace could have ignited the first Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV)-induced casus belli. Baku’s use of a “drone air force” has also dramatically changed the equation: It has tilted a marginal military power imbalance into a possibly decisive one, putting Yerevan on its heels. Why possibly? While effective so far, the use of drones in an all-out conflict between two armies has thrown up some unexpected results. While combat drones are generally bad news in any conflict, they are easy prey for short-range air defence systems. The number of drones Armenia has claimed to have shot down is set to increase in the coming weeks. As its armed forces overcome their initial drone-induced shock, the effectiveness of UAVs will be cut, although not completely lost. Questions have also arisen because of the large numbers of armour lost. Both sides have lost a number of tanks, and the drone menace has increased the need for electronic warfare systems and short-range anti-aerial defence for armoured formations. But poor training and tactics have contributed to losses. One well-viewed video from the conflict shows a column of Azerbaijani tanks crossing open ground slowly while grouped closely together being picked off easily by Armenian artillery. Taking a step back, several big-picture developments can also be divined from this faraway conflict. First, drone sales in the ravaged Caucasus should be seen in a broader political-military context. Increased military drone transfers and training from Turkey imply not only better economic deals for the Turkish military-industrial complex, but have also expanded Ankara’s diplomatic toolkit for building new security relationships and a new security architecture with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at its helm. Similarly, Israel has been asked by both Armenia and its own citizens to reduce its weapons sales to Azerbaijan. As with Turkey, such sales serve commercial and strategic purposes. In Tel Aviv’s case, they go hand in hand with its effort to constrain Iranian ambitions – Azerbaijan is a close ally, and a Muslim one at that. It is thus unlikely that Israel will stop the sales. These developments signal an increasingly complex strategic rivalry in the Middle East . Next, attention should be focused on the evolution of drone warfare. The next step is probably the introduction of UAV swarms that saturate air-defence systems. Drone swarms have not appeared in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, as they are not yet available on the market. Nevertheless, Chinese CH-901 and US Coyote tube-launched drones are already moving from the testing phase to production. Armenia and Azerbaijan accuse each other of breaking ceasefire Finally, despite the effectiveness of drones in conflicts from Syria to the Caucasus, their inability to become a decisive force confirms that wars still need to be ended with boots on the ground. However, this issue should not just be viewed through a tactical lens. In Nagorno-Karabakh, the use of drones has raised all sorts of questions, including their propaganda value, as well as the ethical and legal aspects of this form of warfare. One notion that must be consigned to the dust heap is the Cold War mentality that technological development has reduced the propensity for war. The other is the widespread adoption – among a generation of warriors or diplomats for whom “precision strikes” are an article of faith – of the idea that technology can deliver a rapid, bloodless and decisive victory. Too many times, scientific developments, considered a silver bullet, have become a poisoned chalice instead. Dr Alessandro Arduino is principal research fellow at the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore, specialising in the roles played by private military contractors and technology in modern warfare.