By SEVAN ARAZ
Amid a catastrophic defeat in the 2020 Artsakh War, the Armenian government faces the complex challenge of rebuilding its armed forces and shoring up the country’s defense capabilities. The recent conflict laid bare glaring military capability gaps and acute failures in Armenia’s defense doctrine and security planning. This oversight was particularly evident in the Armenian military’s lackluster preparedness for high-tech warfare. As part of a comprehensive reform program, the Armenian Armed Forces is poised to prospectively burnish its technological edge, a mainstay of military might. To achieve this feat, a recalibrated approach towards defense acquisition and innovation is necessary. Yet sustaining Armenia’s long-term military competitiveness will demand an imaginative, adaptive strategy for defense innovation management.
Lessons of the 2020 Artsakh War
Among other deficits, Armenia’s harrowing defeat in the 2020 Artsakh War was attributed to technological inferiority. Azerbaijani capabilities eclipsed those of Armenia across all domains (air, land, maritime, space and cyber). Legacy systems and bulky military hardware fielded by Armenia proved fodder to rapid Azerbaijani-Turkish assaults. And with a commanding advantage in airpower—enabled by a hefty arsenal of UAVs, missile platforms and rocket artillery—Baku pummeled Armenian defenses, shifting the conflict in its favor.
These combat disparities were compounded by shortcomings in technology adaptation. In the chaos of war, militaries must adapt existing technologies and develop new ones to prevail on the battlefield. Armenia fell short of this challenge. The country’s military leadership failed to rapidly muster and deliver technical solutions to remedy debilitating capability gaps (i.e. counter-unmanned aircraft systems and secure battlefield communication networks). Despite these systemic flaws, front-line units displayed impressive adaptability, creatively repurposing technologies to repulse adversaries’ capabilities.
As the Armenian government reflects on wartime lessons and ponders reform, the defense technology portfolio is poised to occupy a prominent slot in the post-war security agenda.
Defense Industrial Base and Acquisitions Governance
In recent years, Armenia has aimed to burnish its defense industrial posture—and underpinning institutions. This reform drive gained momentum in 2015, with the adoption of the Military-Industrial Complex Law. The law stipulated the re-establishment of a Military-Industrial Committee under the purview of the Ministry of Defense. (Its predecessor committee was abolished in 2001.)
In May 2019, the Pashinyan administration amended the Military-Industrial Complex Law. These legislative revisions were spurred by an institutional shakeup, which integrated the Military-Industrial Committee into the then newly-minted Ministry of High-Tech Industry. The amendment package codified these changes, marking the defense technology portfolio as the domain of the Ministry of High-Tech Industry. Local observers applauded the move, deeming the Ministry of High-Tech Industry as better positioned to jumpstart the defense industrial base.
The current remit of the committee includes: fostering a domestic defense industry, crafting military-technical policy, promoting scientific research with national security applications, and furnishing the technological needs of the Armed Forces. The committee also assists newly-formed defense companies and promotes private investment in the defense industrial sector.
Acquisition organizations are another critical cog in defense innovation management ecosystems—and the primary vehicle for tech readiness. The mechanics of the Armenian defense acquisition system remain understudied, hampered by a lack of transparency. Armenia’s botched wartime performance raised a flurry of concerns as to the merits of recent acquisitions. Moving forward, the military’s acquisition decision-making process and procurement choices warrant further research and scrutiny.
Despite Armenia’s ostensible efforts to shore up its defense industrial governance, the war threw into sharp relief a perturbing reality—the inefficacy of the country’s defense ecosystem. The Armenian Armed Forces were woefully ill-equipped to wage combat against well-furnished Azerbaijani forces. Recent big-ticket acquisitions foundered. And, as previously noted, the Armenian military lacked adaptive capacity. This flurry of shortcomings relays a system wallowing in crisis—and in need of reform.
These technological follies catapulted defense innovation to the forefront of the post-war agenda. Officials regularly broach the strategic portfolio, floating reforms and policy proposals. The Armenian military is dashing to test and field new military technologies, such as domestically-produced combat drones. The nonprofit sector is also joining forces, with a host of initiatives. These include the Foundation for Armenian Science and Technology’s Unit 1991 Training Course, Union of Advanced Technology Enterprises’ Armath Airborne UAV Educational Lab Program, and Armenian Wounded Heroes Fund’s Innovation & Education Lab.
While these efforts are welcome, improving defense innovation management and the tech readiness of the Armenian Armed Forces will require sustained stewardship. To achieve this, the Armenian government must adopt a recalibrated strategy—animated with fresh policy initiatives and institutional underpinnings. The following recommendations are possible planks of such a strategy.
1. Truth Commission: An independent commission would be charged with investigating the military, diplomatic and intelligence failures around the 2020 Artsakh War. As part of a comprehensive failure analysis, Armenia’s wartime technology shortcomings must be logged and scrupulously assessed. The findings of such an inquiry would help determine urgent capability gaps, while framing Armenia’s pending defense innovation agenda. (In July, Alen Simonyan, now Speaker of Parliament, announced plans to set up a commission to investigate the circumstances of last year’s war. At the time of publication, the composition, purview and autonomy of the commission remains unclear.)
2. Needs Assessment: To launch an innovation overhaul, the Defense Ministry must first conduct a formal, in-depth needs assessment. This survey would seek to catalog current military capability gaps and identify applicable technological solutions. To better understand the present and future needs of the Armenian military, the Ministry should survey stakeholders across the chain of command.
3. Research and Development: Increasing R&D funding is key to rejuvenating Armenia’s science and technology sector—and managing future innovation challenges. Domestic R&D spending remains insufficient. According to a 2018 survey, Armenia’s R&D expenditures stood at a mere 0.2% of GDP, in stark contrast to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average of 2.4%. As Armenia mulls tech priorities, it should prioritize dual-use R&D (i.e. research with both civil and national security applications).
4. National Security Innovation Organization: An organization, affiliated with the Ministries of Defense and High-Tech Industry, would be tasked with cultivating a defense innovation ecosystem, which is critical to the long-term competitiveness of the Armenian Armed Forces. Such ecosystems are composed of networks of actors: government agencies, academia, industry, startups and venture capital firms.
To maintain pace with its well-endowed adversaries, Armenia must effectively tap and leverage its innovation capital, hence the purpose of the proposed organization. It would aim to link and channel nodes of ingenuity to address the innovation challenges facing the Armenian defense establishment. For instance, the organization could establish programs that enable universities to develop solutions to the country’s emerging threats.
5. Cyber and Defense Acquisition Subcommittee: A subcommittee that would report to the Standing Committee on Defense and Security of the Armenian parliament, to boost legislative oversight over defense technology matters. The group’s purview should include cybersecurity, IT policy, emerging technologies, and defense acquisitions. The subcommittee should also be mandated to submit an annual report on the state of Armenia’s defense industrial base and trends in defense acquisition.
6. Defense Innovation Board: An independent advisory committee—composed of personalities from industry and academia—that would provide advice and recommendations on ways to catalyze innovation across the Armenian Armed Forces.
7. Rapid Acquisition Organizations: The establishment of rapid acquisition organizations is essential to swiftly meet the needs of troops and close capability gaps. These organizations must create channels that enable warfighters of all ranks to submit requests for urgently-needed capabilities and the capacity to fulfill such requests.
8. STEM Talent: Managing STEM talent is a major challenge for militaries. Personnel deficits are perhaps the greatest impediment to tech readiness. To remedy such talent shortfalls, the Armenian Armed Forces must recalibrate its approach to talent management and professional military education.
The Defense Ministry could improve its tech posture by augmenting talent pipelines to recruit, train, develop and retain individuals with the expertise to accelerate innovation across the Armed Forces. For instance, the Ministry should expand career pathways tailored to service members with STEM backgrounds. This way, the military could build the capacity of its digital workforce and retain talent in the long-term.
Integrating STEM courses into professional military education curricula is also vital to expanding talent reserves. Conscripts should be versed in the tenets of computer science, mathematics, engineering, physics and other STEM fields. This will narrow gaps in the tech talent pipeline, while fostering critical thinking skills.
9. Innovation Hubs: To expand capacity for technological adaptation, the Ministry of Defense should furnish military bases with innovation hubs (i.e. technology workshops). These nodes of innovation would enable units to develop, test and field improvised solutions on-site, while imparting troops with much-needed technical expertise. Hubs could also double as makeshift manufacturing sites in wartime.
10. Rapid Adaptation Drills: Rapid technological adaptation will not happen effectively in wartime without practice. Therefore, the Ministry of Defense should organize regular exercises in partnership with the Ministry of High-Tech Industry and the private sector to help improve their ability to collaborate under tight timelines.
These recommendations provide a preliminary roadmap for improving Armenia’s defense innovation policies. Securing a technological edge is critical to the competitiveness of the Armenian Armed Forces. Yet reforming the military’s technology ecosystem in isolation will not resolve the country’s festering security woes. Armenia now faces the daunting challenge of reconstructing its depleted armed forces. Doing so will require reckoning and stewardship, as well as greater institutional capacity. The post-war period offers an unrivaled opportunity for such reflection and reform.