Why Armenia is acquiring Pinaka multiple launch rocket systems from India

“Armenia may find its most realistic strategy not in destroying Azerbaijan's forces per se, but in focusing on degrading supply and logistics”

Armenia has become the first foreign customer for India's Pinaka multiple launcher rocket system (MLRS) following Yerevan's order of at least four batteries for a reported $250 million. The deal was revealed in late September, shortly after the most severe clashes between Armenia and Azerbaijan since the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war. It also followed Ukraine's successful use of similar American-made M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) against Russian forces in eastern Ukraine in recent weeks. 

But why has Yerevan chosen this particular system, and why now? Armenia already has many Soviet-era MLRS, such as the BM-21 Grad, BM-27 Uragan, and BM-30 Smerch. It even has thermobaric MLRS, such as the Russian TOS-1 and the indigenous N-2 it developed. 

Furthermore, in the 2020 war with Azerbaijan, Armenia's air defenses proved highly vulnerable to Azerbaijan's Israeli-built Harop loitering munitions. Weakening these defenses enabled Azerbaijan to destroy hundreds of Armenia's Russian and Soviet-era main battle tanks using armed drones, such as Turkey's well-known Bayraktar TB2, and accurate artillery bombardments pinpointed by drones. In the latest round of clashes in mid-September, footage emerged purportedly showing two Azeri Harops attacking two of Armenia's Russian-built S-300 air defense missile systems. 

On the surface, these disastrous developments strongly suggest that Armenia should be focused on improving its air defenses to more adequately defend against such threats rather than obtaining more MLRS. They might also indicate that Yerevan should generally start gradually transitioning from an arsenal of primarily Russian military hardware to Western weapons systems. After all, Russia will likely face significant supply chain issues for the foreseeable future due to the Ukraine war. 

However, procuring Indian military hardware has another aspect that shouldn't be overlooked. 

"Armenia is trying to build multiple security partnerships with rising powers such as India to help it offset the reality of Russia as a weakened patron," Nicholas Heras, Director of Strategy and Innovation at the New Lines Institute, told Gercek News. "The Pinaka system is a complementary system to what the Armenians already have, but it's not about the weapons. It's about building the security partnership with New Delhi."

India and Armenia also have a convergence of interests. In September 2021, Azerbaijan hosted a joint military exercise with its allies Turkey and India's neighbor and rival Pakistan, dubbed the "Three Brothers." New Delhi and Yerevan have a common strategic interest in counterbalancing this emerging tripartite military alliance. 

In a Sept. 29 article for India's Economic Times newspaper, Pranab Dhal Samanta did not mince words when he wrote that: "The emergence of Azerbaijan as a successful symbol and a possible template for Turkey-Pakistan military cooperation is a warning signal India can no longer ignore, especially in the backdrop of Azerbaijan's fresh attempt for a military offensive on Armenia earlier this month." 

Furthermore, Samanta pointed out that Turkey and Azerbaijan "have been resolute supporters of Pakistan's position on the Kashmir issue of late" while Pakistan "has always supported Azerbaijan's line on the Nagorno-Karabakh territorial dispute with Armenia." 

Given this backdrop, an expanded security partnership between Yerevan and New Delhi makes a lot of sense, as does the former's purchase of the latter's MLRS in that context. But that doesn't necessarily mean that Armenia cannot also seek arms elsewhere to diversify its Russian arsenal further. 

"The Armenians are also exploring partnerships with the United States, but Armenia has to hedge and remain in the good graces of Putin because Russia is close and the United States is far away," Heras said.

He also pointed out that Armenia is "most vulnerable to Azeri air and intelligence-gathering systems, and the Pinaka system will not help with either of those." 

"The Pinaka is effective at making it challenging for the Azeris to consolidate gains if Azerbaijan were to try to expand a territorial footprint inside Armenia proper," he said.

Matthew Orr, a Eurasia analyst with the risk intelligence company RANE, believes that Armenia most likely acquired these systems as a means to diversify its arms purchases and general security dependence "away from a previous near singular reliance on Russia."

"The MLRS is an understandable choice because it is useful in both a defensive and an offensive role, as Armenia may well have to engage in counteroffensives should Azerbaijani attacks on Armenia continue," Orr told Gercek News. "Furthermore, India is still a major purchaser of Russian arms and is likely willing to sell such systems to any partner willing to purchase them, particularly given that the Indian system in question is based on older Soviet systems and generally cheaper than more modern MLRS systems supplied by other countries."

Armenia is undoubtedly watching developments and tactics used on the Ukrainian battlefield closely, especially Kyiv's successful use of HIMARS against Russian forces. 

"Armenia could see Ukraine's tactics and strategy as instructive for continued hostilities against Azerbaijan's generally larger and better-equipped force," Orr said. 

"Specifically, Armenia may find its most realistic strategy not in destroying Azerbaijan's forces per se, but in focusing on degrading their supply and logistics to make them less capable of offensive actions, similar to what Ukraine's strategy has focused on," he added. 

There is a more general reason that Armenia hasn't actively sought to upgrade its military with Western weaponry and transition away from that "near singular reliance" on Moscow. 

"Armenia has not sought large amounts of Western weaponry because NATO member Turkey would have strongly objected to this, because Western weapons are generally more expensive, and because arming Armenia prior to the 2020 war would have been in direct conflict with the West's official stance regarding the status of Nagorno-Karabakh and the Armenia-Azerbaijan borders," Orr said. 

"Though the situation has changed since 2020, many Western nations remain reluctant to arm Armenia so long as Armenia still remains closely politically, economically, and militarily tied to Russia," he added. 

Orr also believes that the difficult and expensive process of transitioning military gear is "clearly a factor, meaning that it remains largely impractical for Armenia to purchase Western systems, while there remain too many political restraints to the West supplying such systems as military aid to Armenia."

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