7 Seconds to Die: A Military Analysis of the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War and the Future of Warfighting by John Antal. Casemate, 2022, 160 pp.
On September 27, 2020, in a remote, landlocked section of the Caucuses, the Azerbaijani military launched an assault against Armenian defenders along the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh line-of-control, reigniting a dormant 30-year-old conflict.
The brief war lasted just over six weeks, in an area of the world most Americans would have difficulty locating on a map, but its impacts on the future of warfare cannot be discounted. In his brief monograph, 7 Seconds to Die, retired US Army Colonel John Antal examines the conduct and implications of the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, bringing to print a discussion heretofore confined to news articles, think tanks, scholarly journals, and military-focused blogs.
Antal’s 30-year career as an armor officer and post-Army career allow him a unique analysis of the war. His premise is simple, the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War was the first war decided by autonomous weapons; marks a democratization of precision weapons and remotely-operated or autonomous systems; and is a harbinger for future conflicts. As a result, Antal argues, US military and political leaders should pay attention to the conflict’s conduct.
Spanning slightly more than a dozen chapters and appendices, 7 Seconds to Die presents the reader information in three themes—the history and conduct of the war, an examination of the autonomous and remotely operated weapons used in the conflict, and noteworthy lessons for military leaders. The first theme covers just a third of the book, the middle three chapters examine the weapons systems, and the bulk of text focuses on lessons and preparing the US military for similar future conflicts.
Although Antal points most of the discussion, analysis, and lessons generically at western militaries, his experiences as a US Army tanker shows throughout the book. He regularly references US Army systems, doctrine, and training, drilling in on American readiness to face threats like those used by the Azerbaijanis. While Antal focuses on the US Army, the current Russia-Ukraine conflict validates the bulk of his analysis, lessons, and questions for further examination, demonstrating how prolific and deadly these systems are—and that’s the point. The Second Nagorno-Karabakh War represents an inflection point in warfare, precision weapons and advanced autonomous systems are no longer the realm of large nation-state militaries with big budgets.
Although Turkey, Israel, and Russia provided most of the Azerbaijanis’ tech, Antal highlights that nations like Iran are steadily providing similar tech to nonstate actors, like the Houthis in Yemen and Hezbollah in Iraq and Syria. This proliferation, he argues, will only begat further proliferation, threatening the most advanced weapons like tanks or advanced surface-to-air missiles. This is where Antal ties the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War to other inflection points in the history of warfare and what makes his argument. The seemingly small and inconsequential conflict between two small and poor nations marks a sea change akin to the shock of the Yom Kippur War made in the US Army in the 1970s. The outcome of that war forced the American military to reexamine how it fought war, resulting in the revolution of AirLand Battle and driving advances in military technology in all war-fighting domains. Again, the ongoing war in the Ukraine provides support to his claims.
Although the current Russo-Ukrainian war validates Antal’s argument, it may be still be too soon to pass judgment completely on the impacts of the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War. Historically speaking, we are still in the earliest phases of learning from the war, and more analysis will definitely occur. That is the difficulty of a book like 7 Seconds to Die, it spans the strange middle ground between news reporting and more in-depth historical examinations that benefit from a longer lens to examine the results and larger impacts.
Nevertheless, Antal’s thesis, argument, and questions for further examination stand; militaries must examine everything from doctrine, systems, training, and tactics in light of the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War. Adding 7 Seconds to Die to military education reading lists and incorporating the lessons of the war into discussion about future conflicts across military services will, if nothing else, serve as a jumping-off point or thought experiment for what the future of warfare might hold.
Colonel Matt Dietz, USAF, PhD