, Bayraktar TB2 , silhouetted and background (courtesy of Photo by Fatih Turan: altered by Noviblokovi, CC BY 4.0.

Eight days into the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, the birth of a baby lemur named Bayraktar was announced at Kyiv Zoo in homage to the Turkish-built drone that has proven itself as a valuable asset to the Ukrainian Armed Forces in the conflict to date. While it might turn out to be the most popular name in Ukraine for newborns this year and has had a war song written in its honour, why is it perceived to be so effective; not only in this latest conflict in Eastern Europe but also in Syria, Libya and the Nagorno-Karabakh war? After all, advanced drone technology has been around for decades (and rudimentary forms for well over a century).

What Makes the TB2 Effective?

The Bayraktar TB2 is classified as a medium altitude long endurance (MALE) drone, as opposed to the higher altitude (HALE) or lower-flying varieties. With a 12m wingspan[1] (slightly wider than a Cessna 172), BAYKAR’s Bayraktar is no small hobby-like drone. Yet it is very modest next to the big fellow HALE types such as BAYKAR’s Bayraktar Akıncı (‘Raider’) with a wingspan almost double in size[2].

With higher altitude comes improved efficiency and endurance, but what is the trade-off where the designs like the TB2 compensate? In short – cost, practicality and the risk of operating high-value assets in a contested airspace. Notwithstanding, the TB2’s ability to fly at altitudes up to 25,000 ft.[1] allows it to loiter beyond the range of short-range anti-aircraft artillery whilst stealthily evading jet fighter radar alerts with its low radar cross section. The TB2 may only be able to carry a fraction of the one-and-a-half-tonne payload Big Brother Akıncı can take[1,2], but for urban surveillance, reconnaissance and delivering precision strikes it is more than sufficient, making it a versatile all-rounder.

Dimensional approximation for illustrative purposes. Specification data from Baykar Tech (March, 2022) [1].

For Which Missions is it Best Suited?

The TB2 is publicly marketed as an armed unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) platform providing surveillance, reconnaissance and strike capabilities[1]. It is able to deliver precision laser-guided warheads with up to four lightweight Roketsan MAM-L and MAM-C smart micro munitions for use against fixed and mobile targets; with the former being the more impactful thermobaric type of warhead for targeting tanks and heavy armour[3]. Although this still constitutes light strike capability, in many scenarios it is highly preferable to manned fighter jet airstrikes when considering cost to execute, accuracy and precision (theoretically, but not always in practice), risk to human operator and risk of loss of the asset itself. With the relative price, the TB2s are practically expendable assets in comparison that can be operated in multiples to compensate for their reduced operating range.

Roketsan exhibition at Dubai Airshow 2019 showcasing TAI Anka with MAM-C and MAM-L (all rights reserved)

What Gives it the Edge?

Why are international defence experts heralding the TB2 when they largely concur that there is nothing remarkable about the technology itself? How has this UAV managed to become a household name by 2022? Is it a clever marketing strategy by Turkey and its private defence companies? Was it sheer luck that it warranted its accolades for being in the right place at the right time? Or is it the forerunner in a paradigm shift in traditional UAV roles in military operations?

One area where it does truly excel is its price point. At a unit cost of less than $2 million (before add-ons)[4], the Bayraktar TB2 is competitive within this niche unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) global market. China’s CAIG Wing Loong may look like a reasonable competitor on paper for a lower unit cost of around $1 million[5], but, geopolitical aspects of Chinese arms trade aside, China’s technology is less combat proven; or at least has only been tested in theatres where most eyes and ears of the world are not as focused, i.e. in Africa and the Middle East[5].

Evidence in Combat Outweighs Speculation

Since its first real deployment in Turkish counter-insurgency operations against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and People’s Defence Units (YPG) in 2017[6], the TB2 has played a key role in supporting the Government of National Accord‘s (GNA’s) military efforts against General Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA)[7], in Turkey’s offensive against Assad’s Syrian government regime[8], and perhaps most prominently, in Azerbaijan’s decisive victory over Armenia in Nagorno Karabakh in 2020. What’s notable is that each of these arenas are distinctly different (e.g. terrain and environment, degree to which airspace is contested, sophistication of enemy technology, etc.); as is the present ongoing conflict in Ukraine.

Azerbaijan didn’t put all its eggs in one basket with the TB2 alone, but deployed it in addition to an assortment of Israeli and Turkish UAVs suited to different mission objectives[9]. However, the TB2 gained recognition in its own right due to its ability to inflict lethal damage to enemy units with a high benefit-to-asset-cost ratio as well as being able to gather vital intelligence in remote, challenging terrain; a massive benefit largely understated and not as easy to quantify. Equipped only with limited indigenous UAV capability[9], the Artsakh defence had no real answer, confronted with a very different scenario than the First Nagorno-Karabakh War in the 1990s.

How Robust is the TB2 to Countermeasures?

Psychological warfare strategies are more rampant than ever with the Internet and social media penetrating almost every aspect of our lives. This could, to some extent, be a plausible theory for the excessive hype and lavish praise for this UAV technology that has been around for a very long time, relatively unchanged in principle. Hence, reports of the successes are easier to come by than incidents and failures; but they do happen. The TB2 is by no means invincible as losses have been reported in practically every major conflict it has featured in to date; some of the most significant having occurred in Libya (that will have undoubtedly led to subsequent improvement and developments). Its vulnerabilities have allegedly been exposed when it has been confronted with the likes of the Pantsir-S[10] and Krasukha-4 [11], albeit such claims have been contested by Baykar officials [12]. It is also said to be highly dependent on radar jamming technology (e.g. the Turkish KORAL Electronic Warfare System [13]) to blind enemy radar and allow it to loiter undetected.

Sceptics have been expecting the Bayraktar TB2 to encounter its greatest trials yet against Russia in Ukraine, as Russia (with its strong layered defensive capabilities) presents a very different opponent than any entity who has merely procured Russian or Soviet technology. Naturally, we are not privy to the situation on the ground at this time (or the air, rather) and it is conceivable that failure and loss on both sides will be downplayed. Yet, reports of the early successes of the TB2 (e.g. the footage circulated by the Ukrainian government showing the TB2’s destruction of a Russian Buk M1) after only a week into the 2022 conflict are so widespread that they may have earned it the title of the most famous UAV of all time. Its survivability so far appears to be exceeding critics’ expectations and additional TB2s have just made their way to the frontlines [14].

Not only is the Bayraktar TB2 widely acclaimed by its role and reputation, but that there has been a particular emphasis in western media on the fact that it is Turkish in origin. It almost comes across as an effort to pit Turkey against Russia, spurred by a widely held opinion in the West that NATO member Turkey has not taken a hard enough stance, opting not to further degrade relations with Russia for the sake of national interests.

Turkey’s Rise to Global UAV Market Leader

Turkey is certainly on the rise as reputable global arms supplier with the value of its annual arms exports reaching unprecedented levels as it continues to showcase the worthiness of its technology both home and abroad. Turkey has emerged as a market leader of UCAVs alongside the US and China, whilst pioneers Israel continue to focus more on the production and export of surveillance UAV solutions and so-called kamikaze drones. Turkish manufacturers have demonstrated an ethos of continuous improvement and have moved towards indigenous supply and production for self-sufficiency. This evolution has been an important step for Turkey to circumnavigate stringent US export controls on UCAVs and their end use, which would be problematic when Turkey and the US have a difference of opinion (e.g. regarding the PKK) [15].

Bayrak have had overcome major setbacks with the TB2 when foreign suppliers of critical components (including Canada, the UK, Germany suspended their trade agreements one-by-one, facing international pressure and backlash over the UAV’s role in Nagorno-Karabakh. Bayrak did so by moving towards indigenous production instead, having these components produced in-country with minimal dependency on external suppliers.

Turkish defence contractors also face internal competition for market share, as Turkish Aerospace Industries is also a major player with two MALE UAVs in production (Anka and Aksungur) and Lentatek has signed a co-production deal with Saudi Arabia for its Karayel MALE UAV [16].

The Future

Bayraktar’s TB3 (a naval version of the TB2 intended for Turkish Armed Forces) is in development and is expected in 2023 as an imminent contingency plan since Turkey was removed from the F-35 project after proceeding with the controversial purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile defence system [15]; yet another example of Turkey’s resilience to geopolitical factors affecting its defence imports.

The hype around the Bayraktar TB2 may truly be overstated by the media caught up in the excitement of first-time adopters but has certainly piqued the interest of new potential buyers on top of the long list of countries on the order books. Particularly for those who do not currently have any UCAVs in their inventory, the TB2 would seem like a promising place to start. The gamechanger cliché is exaggerated, however, it does not detract from what Turkey has accomplished in making combat proven UCAVs accessible; both in terms of price and lack of red tape while the rest of the world looks on with as much intrigue as concern.

How truly deserving is Turkey’s Bayraktar TB2 drone of all the hype? #Bayraktar #TB2