As the invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation entered its second week, Turkish defense company Baykar revealed that it had delivered a new batch of its Bayraktar TB2 Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAV) platforms to the Ukrainian Defence Forces. Over the past two weeks, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense has shared video footage of the Turkish-made drones targeting or destroying columns of Russian armored vehicles.
The Bayraktar TB2, a Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) UCAV produced by Turkish defense prime Baykar, is capable of designating targets for artillery strikes or destroying them using laser-guided smart munitions. The TB2 has an operational range of 150km and a 27 flight-hour endurance, providing its operators with sufficient flexibility to conduct ISR or precision strike missions over a wide area of operations. With a service ceiling of 8,200m, an advanced Electro-Optical Infrared (EO/IR) surveillance suite and a weapons payload of either 4 MAM-L laser-guided bombs or OMTAS anti-tank missiles, the TB2 has been used in several recent military operations to considerable effect.
Its first operational deployment occurred in 2018 when the Turkish Armed Forces deployed TB2s during counterinsurgency operations targeting forces from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and People’s Protection Units (YPG). The Turkish Army employed the TB2’s onboard weapon systems alongside laser-guided artillery fire to eliminate strategic positions and several key figures within the PKK, providing a first demonstration of the platform’s precision strike capabilities. Soon after, several nations expressed an interest in acquiring the Turkish TB2 including the UN-backed Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) as well as the Ethiopian, Azerbaijani and Ukrainian governments, among others.
Over the last week, much attention has been paid to the use of Bayraktar TB2s by the Ukrainian Defense Forces, which have
Released combat footage of the TB2 destroying Russian ground and air-defense assets to boost morale. Consequently, the Bayraktar TB2 has become somewhat notorious in recent days, with analysts and news media organizations touting the platform as a highly lethal ‘force equalizer’, much to the delight of Turkish defense officials. However, the primary strategic advantage the Bayraktar TB2 has demonstrated in this conflict is that unlike most UCAV platforms on the market today, the TB2 is essentially a ‘redundant’ air-asset. Although the TB2 has an inferior payload and endurance compared to more advanced MALE UCAVs, its modest pricing of $1-2 million per unit means they are relatively inexpensive to stockpile and replace in case of significant losses.
As the intensity of the Ukrainian conflict continues to result in severe losses of material on both sides, the TB2 has remained an effective combat system due to the Ukrainian government’s ability to rapidly acquire and deploy additional systems in a High Intensity Warfare (HIW) scenario. Indeed, the exorbitant purchase and life-cycle maintenance costs of the General Atomics MQ-1 Predator or MQ-9 Reaper UCAV platforms currently employed by the US Air Force and several other Western military organizations are a topic of increased concern in defense procurement circles, as both military strategists and government officials now understand how the inevitable losses incurred during a high intensity conflict with a peer-level adversary such a Russia or China would make large fleets unsustainable.
The Bayraktar TB2 has demonstrated its efficiency when operating in a contested airspace several times primarily in Libya where between 2019 and 2020 the Turkish-backed GNA deployed numerous TB2s during its conflict with the Russian-backed Libyan National Army (LNA). With few functional manned air assets at their disposal, the GNA relied heavily on the TB2 to combat LNA forces equipped with A2/AD systems, employing them on numerous occasions to target well-defended vehicle convoys and airbases. Though the GNA’s fleet of TB2s incurred significant losses when operating within range of Russian air-defense systems, with an estimated 47 drones shot down over the course of one year, they proved to be a far more cost-effective and low-risk solution for inflicting casualties in a contested battlespace than traditional air power. What’s more, the GNA was able to destroy nine Russian Pantsir-S1 air defense systems, which are fully capable of intercepting several low-flying TB2s with relative ease.
This principle was further reinforced during Operation Spring Shield, where Turkey deployed TB2s against the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and their Russian allies. Over the course of a single week, Turkish forces destroyed 73 Syrian armored vehicles whilst estimates indicate that the SAA’s Russian Panstir-S1 air defense systems shot down between 3 to 9 Bayraktar TB2s. These engagements cemented the TB2’s status as a cheap but reliable UCAV platform capable of inflicting heavy losses on hostile ground forces from within range of hostile air defenses, a capability for which there is increasing demand worldwide.
These early successes made the TB2 a highly attractive platform for smaller or less-wealthy nations, with manufacturer Baykar receiving orders from the governments of Kyrgyzstan, Morocco, Pakistan, Poland, Niger, Qatar, Iraq and Albania, amongst others. During the Nagorno-Karabakh war, the TB2 entered the spotlight once more as Azerbaijan released numerous videos of Bayraktar drones destroying columns of Armenian military vehicles and infantry units. Reports have estimated that the Armenian land contingent had lost 224 main battle tanks, whilst Azerbaijan only suffered 36 losses. This conflict demonstrated the resilience of not only the TB2 UCAV platform, but of Baykar’s manufacturing processes and technical expertise as well. As news broke of Azerbaijan’s use of TB2s to target civilian population centers, Western companies including navigation tech specialist Garmin and UK-based firms Andair and EDO MBM Technology halted sales of key mechanical and electronic components to Baykar and its subsidiaries. Yet the Turkish government has remained defiant in the face of these measures, rapidly adapting their supply chains to source the necessary components domestically and thus ensuring the continued commercial availability of the Bayraktar TB2. That decision undoubtedly cemented the importance of low-cost UCAVs in armed conflicts, as Turkey has demonstrated that any nation with a sufficiently developed defense sector can produce and field these advanced systems regardless of the scrutiny and restrictions imposed by foreign government entities and industrial competitors.
In summary, the development of the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 represents a key milestone in the evolution of modern warfare and tactics, as the combination of unmanned and precision strike capabilities in a single platform with low production and life-cycle maintenance costs has already kickstarted a wider trend of UCAV development and acquisitions programs. In a letter to a US Senator, US Air Force Secretary John Roth advised against the purchase of additional MQ-9 Reapers in Q2 FY2021, whilst the British Ministry of Defence expressed an interest in low-cost UCAVs after Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace stated in December 2020 that Turkey’s development of the TB2 was an example of how other countries were now “leading the way”. Whether or not these endeavors will be successful remains to be seen, but what is undeniable is that the Bayraktar TB2 will have a lasting impact on the military unmanned vehicle market and the conduct of land-warfare in general.