Azeri forces have alleged converted old Soviet-era AN-2s into drones, flying them over the conflict zone of Nagorno-Karabakh as apparent surface to air missile bait.
Half a dozen Azeri AN-2s have been recorded being shot down over the contested territory of Nagorno-Karabakh last week as the intense fighting in the region raged. The aircraft, which are hopelessly obsolete for modern war, seem to be just flying to their deaths, but there is likely an intelligent play behind them. Footage released shows the aircraft flying low and slow, and in one instance tracer fire from various weapons can be seen flying all around.
The AN-2, which has been in the service of a multitude of nations since 1946, is a light aircraft intended to serve in many roles. But militarily is used for light transport and paratroopers. In 2020, it appears a new self-destructive role has been found for the dozens of AN-2s still with the Azerbaijan Air Force. It appears the aircraft are being easily shot down by Armenian air defenses, but in doing so, their positions are revealed to much more modern and significantly deadlier drones.
However, images from crash sites leave questions about if these aircraft are just mindless drones. Whilst no pilots have been found, one image shows an unexploded bomb amongst the wreckage. It is likely that while these aircraft are sent on suicide missions, they still intend to cause damage.
Despite high losses, satellite footage from Yevlax airport in Azerbaijan shows approximately 62 airframes on the ground. Meaning that the Azeris are unlikely to run out of aircraft before their adversaries run out of air defense platforms beyond MANPADS and anti-aircraft guns.
The latest satellite imagery suggests that a significant number of the AN-2s at Yevlax airport have left with just 26 aircraft currently visible. How many have been deployed operationally and how many may have been lost is unclear.
The Azeris are likely to continue to use their AN-2s as these old airframes are seen as largely useless and decisively obsolete. Their loss means little and the potential return of their use as decoy drones to lure out Armenian air defenses far outweighs their loss.