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The Turkish Bayraktar TB2: Ankara’s Renewed Prominence in the Drone Market

3 August 2021

The Turkish Bayraktar TB2 is becoming a bestseller on the unmanned combat aerial vehicles’ market, increasing Turkey’s defence industry’s already strong confidence. At the beginning of this month, an €8 million contract between Albania and the Turkish consortium Kale-Baykar was made public (Malyasov, 2021), following agreements signed by the company with Poland, Qatar, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Morocco (Brownsword, 2021). Turkey is slowly catching up to the United States and Israel as the world’s leading seller of surveillance drones by producing and exporting its own indigenous systems. At the moment, a TB2 variant and the Akinci drone are being developed in a joint effort by Turkey and Ukraine, and a MALE-drone is being co-produced with two Saudi manufacturers (Brownsword, 2021). The Turkish combat drone has revealed to be a first choice for countries with smaller budgets and limited airpower capabilities like Azerbaijan and Albania. The more affordable and very efficient Bayraktar TB2 allows these countries to modernise their armies.

The success of the device lies in its benefits to cost ratio. With a wingspan of 12 metres and a payload of 250 kilograms, the Bayraktar TB2 is used both for reconnaissance and destruction of ground targets (Gettinger, 2016; Mgdesyan, 2020). The TB2s carry smart, micro guided munitions (Shaikh, 2020) in the form of Roketsan MAM-L and MAM-C guided mini-bombs (Ilić & Tomašević, 2021) and a payload of four missiles (Abbasova, 2020). It has “a twin-boom empennage with an inverted v-tail, a pusher propeller configuration mid-mounted straight-wing main planes, and wheeled landing gear” (Gettinger, 2016). Operating at an altitude of 8.000 meters, it can fly up to 27 hours at a speed of 250 km/h and can be very hard to detect by radar systems (Abbasova, 2020). The apparatus, which was introduced in the arsenal of the Turkish armed forces for the first time in 2015, has often been compared to the American Reaper and Predator drones (Eckel, 2020; Mladá, 2020). The components of the Bayraktar are produced in different countries: the “Rotax 912” 100hp fuel-injected engine is produced by the Austrian Bombardier-Rotax GmbH, a subsidiary of the Canadian Bombardier; the integrated laser-guided cameras are imported from Canada; the Roketsan OMTAS and UMTAS missiles are jointly developed with the German TDW; the satellite systems are made by the American Viasat and the GPS receivers are supplied by the American GARMIN (1 News, 2020). The unit cost is around $5 million, which compared to the new Reapers $32 million (Hambling, 2020), sounds like a joke.

The tactical and political efficiency of the apparatus has been demonstrated in three particular conflicts Turkey is currently involved in: the civil wars in Libya and Syria and, most prominently, the recent outbreak of war in Nagorno-Karabakh. On the Libyan and Syrian battlefields, it has become known as “Pantsyr-hunter” thanks to its ability to destroy the Russian-made Pantsyr S1s short-to-medium range mobile air defence systems (Kasapoglu, 2020; Iskandarov & Gawliczek, 2021). Turkey has been employing the Bayraktar to attack President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in the provinces of Idlib (Foy, 2020) and in summer 2016, it was used by Turkish forces to retake the city of Jarablus (Gettinger, 2016). Ankara has also reportedly attacked Kurdish insurgents and the PKK separatists in the south-east of Turkey, along its borders with Syria and Iraq (Bekdil, 2020).  In Libya, where the sides involved in the civil war are now competing for air superiority, Turkey has been using Bayraktar in its operations against the Libyan National Army led by General Khalifa Haftar and its allies, namely Egypt, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia (Sabbagh et al., 2019). While the country is being devastated by the civil war and has been described as a new “ground zero” where drones are on the frontline (Sabbagh et al., 2019), the use of Bayraktars “has paradoxically favoured a return to the negotiating table by reversing the military tide in favour of” (Borsari, 2021) the internationally recognised Government of National Accord (GNA). Haftar’s forces were suddenly forced to either accept a bad ceasefire or a military defeat; this effect brought some analysts to conceive the expression “Bayraktar diplomacy” (Borsari, 2021).

However, what drove many militaries to purchase Bayraktar TB2s from Erdogan’s son-in law Selçuk Bayraktar’s compay was the success of the system in the 2020 Second Karabakh War. In May 2020, Azerbaijan and its long-standing supporter Turkey jointly signed “a military-financial agreement and a Protocol to the Agreement on Security Cooperation between the Government of the Republic of Azerbaijan and the Government of the Republic of Turkey” (Abbasova, 2020), which included the sale of a considerable amount of Bayraktar TB2s (the precise amount was not made public). Between September and November 2020, when the so-called ‘frozen conflict’ of Nagorno-Karabakh broke out after four years of relative truce, Azerbaijan made an extensive use of UAVs against an unprepared and undefended Armenia. In the skies over the disputed region, amid Israeli loitering munitions and An-2 biplanes, the Turkish Bayraktar TB2s made their first appearance. The system had two main ends during this war: attack Armenian’s air defence systems and record the attacks for video propaganda. According to estimates made by Mitzer, Oliemans, and Janovsky for Oryxspioenskop, material losses inflicted by TB2 to the Armenian military amount to 500[HV1] , [TF2] including the Russian T-72 tanks and surface-to-air defence systems 9K33 Osa and 9K35-Strela-(Mitzer et al., 2020). Thanks to the high-definition cameras mounted on them, the devices are able to stream real-time videos of the attacks. Although this is not unique to Bayraktar, the videos recorded by TB2 are constantly published by the Azeri’s Minister of Defence on Twitter, increasing the psychological pressure on the Armenian defences and progressively exhausting their capacities[HV3] . Armenia was not ready to counter the TB2s, as its air defences were composed of old Soviet systems like the 2K12 Kub and 2K11 Krug, which were not able to intercept them at the altitude TB2s were flying. Only Armenia’s Tor-M2KM, Buk, and the Polye-21 electronic warfare systems supplied by Russia were able to hunt down some drones, but they were deployed only by the end of the conflict and in a limited number (Shaikh, 2020). According to some allegations, Turkey may have directly taken part in the conflict, remotely operating the drones (Kofman, 2020), because even though they are unmanned, “they need some type of facility for pilots and sensor operators, all of which require training” (Eckel, 2020).

At different times throughout the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, countries producing the Bayraktar TB2s’ components suspended sales to Turkey to reduce the lethality of the Turkish drone. When Canadian technology was allegedly used in Nagorno Karabakh, the country suspended its sales of drone optics and laser guidance systems to Turkey (Mgdesyan, 2020). Similarly, the American Viasat company blocked the exports of its satellite systems when Armenian Americans conducted protests outside the company headquarters (1 News, 2020). Finally, on October 23, 2020, Austria suspended the sales of its engines as they were being used for unspecified purposes (1 News, 2020).

However, the temporary suspensions of sales have not prevented Turkey from becoming a leader in the global drone industry. Hungary and Pakistan have already shown interest in purchasing the Bayraktar TB2s and they may soon be followed by other countries, the UK included (Brownsword, 2021). The increasing sales of TB2s will not only fill the Bayraktar family’s pockets, but will also contribute to expand Erdogan’s aggressive foreign policy and leverage towards Western powers.

Written by Elisabetta Confalonieri 


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