Panos Hadjikomninos, Aug 5, 2022
Two years ago, in May 2020, I published an article on BAYKAR (BAYKAR: Small Company, Great Ambition 1), which remains one of the most authoritative articles on the Bayraktar TB2.
The article also proved remarkably prescient. Its forward-looking assertions were realized within months of its publishing: ROTAX was unable to impede use of its dual-use engine, Canada did impose an embargo on the WESCAM MX-15 Electro-Optical system, and BAYKAR was able to replace the MX-15 with the indigenous Aselsan CATS system, exactly as stipulated in the article.
Two eventful years passed. What is the state of the TB2 today? How did it continue to perform in Libya, and then in Azerbaijan and Ukraine?
TB2’s excellent performance in Libya and Azerbaijan remains uncontested. However, in Ukraine a dearth of visual evidence gave birth to false and contradicting claims. In this new article, our first priority is to set the record straight in Ukraine, examine the evolution of the TB2, recognize its runaway international export success, and finally try once more to predict what the future may hold for the now world-famous Tactical Drone !
(Note: for simplicity we use the terms UAV/UCAV and “drone” interchangeably)
We start with a chronology of events since May 2020.
In Libya, Haftar’s LNA comically claimed the destruction of more TB2s than Libya actually procured; we were able to confirm three lost airframes in our prior article (Tail Numbers T92, T94 and T95).
Last year, new information came to our attention. During the Libyan campaign, BAYKAR apparently upgraded the TB2 Line-of-Sight (LOS) communication link, expanding its range to 250 km from 150 km. In addition, BAYKAR constantly improved the autonomous flight software, to safely guide the aircraft in case of temporary loss of communications, until their reestablishment.
After these upgrades TB2 losses in Libya apparently came to a halt.
The three downed airframes in Libya were largely intact, without penetrating fragment damage, implying their loss was probably caused by Electronic Interference or other communication link failure. Therefore, the strengthening of the commlink and associated software may largely explain how further losses were averted.
Further indirect confirmation from Ukraine: Ukrainian officers stated on the record, that the TB2 is the only UAV capable of flying under dense Russian Electronic Warfare (EW) measures.
Nagorno-Karabakh, the center of conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan, has been arguably the most successful operating theater for the Bayraktar TB2.
In the space of a few weeks, TB2s managed to destroy about 80 Tanks, more than 150 howitzers, artillery pieces and rocket launchers as well as a significant number of light vehicles, and personnel .
TB2s became the nemesis of Anti-Aircraft (AA) systems with more than 20 confirmed kills. The majority of destroyed systems were of the Strela and OSA types, but some modern high-end systems — including 1 TOR and 2 S-300’s — were destroyed as well .
In conclusion, Bayraktar TB2 became a main contributor to the swift and decisive victory of Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh war. Furthermore, this was achieved with the loss of just one airframe during the entire 6-week war.
The TB2 contribution in the Ukrainian war remains controversial, primarily due to scant visual evidence. Ukraine suddenly stopped publishing videos of TB2 strikes after the first few days of the war.
The few videos published before the cutoff show widespread destruction of Russian supplies of ammunition and fuel in the Northern front, and the demise of some Anti-Aircraft (AA) systems. After a few days into the war, the flow of information completely ceased.
We believe the halt was imposed for reasons of operational security. We give no credence to rumors claiming the halt was mandated by the manufacturing company and/or country.
No more videos were published afterwards, with the exception of some rare videos released by the Ukrainian Navy.
The dearth of information gave birth to conflicting claims on the role of the Bayraktar TB2 in the Ukrainian war. The Russians claim, in Haftar infamy, to have destroyed more TB2s that Ukraine actually owns. The Ukrainians claim that the TB2 is one of their most effective weapons.
Where does the truth lie? To answer this question, we must first revisit the capabilities of the platform.
TB2 MISSIONS AND CAPABILITIES
TB2 in Local Conflicts: An Exceptionally Versatile Platform
TB2 was originally designed for counter terrorism, as Türkiye (🇹🇷 Turkey) needed a UAV platform to address illegal activities in its borders, including operations of the PKK terrorist group.
This mission was a resounding success: soon after the TB2 was added to Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) inventory, PKK largely lost the ability to conduct operations inside Türkiye and to infiltrate terrorists through the Iraq and Syrian borders.
In 2020 in a more conventional theater, in Syria’s Idlib province (operation Spring Shield), the Turkish general staff decided to use the TB2 in a deep-strike role. Fighter jet operations were not feasible as Russia used its S-400 systems to restrict North Syrian airspace.
The TB2 performed flawlessly in Syria, decimating Assad’s heavy assets and armor, as well as lighter vehicles and personnel. In an even more impressive feat, it managed to destroy several Pantsir AA systems, earning a reputation as an “AA-killer”.
In our prior article we have already established the “limited furtivity” of the TB2. Capitalizing on its limited ability to evade detection, TB2s managed to destroy multiple Pantsir systems, taking advantage of the 8+ km maximum range of MAM-L munitions.
This capability was further demonstrated in Libya were upwards of 20 Pantsir systems were destroyed. In Nagorno Karabakh and Ukraine, a limited number of more advanced Anti-Aircraft systems (TOR, BUK and S-300) were also destroyed.
When the war in Ukraine started, the TB2 had already proven its mettle in three local conflicts in Syria’s Idlib, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh. The small Tactical drone performed competently in all three operational theaters, and the Turkish Armed Forces constantly adapted and improved their tactics to use the drone most effectively in its new strike role.
In conclusion TB2 proved to be an extremely versatile platform, suitable both for counter insurgency, as well as low and medium intensity conflicts. It ideally operates at a certain “stand-offish” distance from its targets but may also be able to penetrate behind front lines in a deep-strike role, depending on the capability of the adversary’s Air Defense.
TB2 in Densely Protected Airspace
The conflict in Ukraine is the first full scale War in Europe since World War II. Its scale resembles an imagined Soviet Invasion of Western Europe, as envisaged by NATO.
For such high intensity heavy-armor warfare in the plains of Germany, certain weapons were custom-built. The A10 Warthog was designed specifically for this type of battlefield, with the mission to destroy massive scale Soviet armor and artillery. The Soviets riposted with their own specialized ground attack planes especially the Su-25.
One must realize that Congress recently tried to retire the A-10 in multiple occasions, because it believes (correctly) that the slow aircraft can no longer penetrate and/or survive the dense multi-layered Air Defenses of a modern high-intensity battlefield.
A dense multi-layered Air Defense environment is exactly what Russia built over South and East Ukraine: it would thus be irrational to expect the TB2 to be able to casually penetrate it. We caution our readers, that “Limited” is the key word in our concept of “limited furtivity”: TB2 is not a stealth platform.
TB2 critics unreasonably expect the small drone to be able to perform flawlessly in an environment where even an A-10 ground attack fighter would be challenged today. This is disingenuous at best, nonsensical at worst.
A-10 Strike-Fighter: A purpose-designed Tank Killer
In January 2022, before the Russian operation, I wrote about the role of the TB2 in what I considered to be an impending and unavoidable war:
“In the saturated airspace of all-out war, TB2s will have limited freedom of action…
…every weapon has its own intrinsic limitations, which successful strategists and tacticians learn to respect”
The Ukrainian Armed Forces should have heeded this warning !
How Ukraine operated the TB2
During the first few weeks of the War, the Ukrainian Armed Forces operated the TB2 quite effectively.
They used BAYKAR’s Mobile Control Stations to disperse TB2s away from Airports, limiting potential losses on the ground from Russian Air Force attacks and Kalibre cruise missile strikes.
They also operated the TB2 in a clever strategic manner. Recognizing the hazardously built, incomplete Russian air defenses, and most importantly the fragility of Russian logistics throughout the North, they concentrated their strikes on challenged logistic lines. Repeated TB2 strikes on railway and track convoys of ammunition and fuel further degraded Russian logistics in the North front.
We can safely assume that a similar, more or less intense pace continued throughout the first month of operations. TB2s contributed to heavy Russian losses in both materiel and personnel in the North front, which inevitably led to their decision to withdraw.
Indeed, after approximately one month, the Russians retreated from the North and regrouped towards the South and East. This move signaled the start of the second phase of operations, and tilted the fortunes of war heavily towards Russia.
Ukraine after the start of Russian withdrawal from the North Front (marked in blue color) source: The Economist
In the South and East, the proximity of Crimea, the presence of battle-hardened local militias of Donbass (LPR & DPR), and the apparent competence of local field command, resulted in significant early Russian advances towards Kherson and Melitopol. This facilitated their operations and gave them enough time to organize their formidable multi-layered Air Defense, vastly complicating TB2 operations in the second phase of the conflict.
Furthermore, Ukraine under duress made certain unwise tactical decisions regarding deployment and operation of the TB2. Ukrainian forces operated TB2s in several dangerous missions of no apparent tactical importance, presumably for theatrical and/or propaganda purposes.
TB2s were used for strikes deep inside Russia, mainly in Belgorod, where Ukraine should have anticipated minimal results. They should have also realized that TB2s would be challenged to get to their targets and even more challenged to come back. At least two TB2s were lost over Russian Federation territory as a result.
Other doubtful missions of no apparent tactical value were the obsessively repeated raids on Snake Island. At least one Ukrainian Navy TB2 was lost; it was later recovered by Russian forces in the waters around the island.
Objective Facts: TB2 Achievements in Ukraine
TB2 videos from the first few days of the war demonstrate a focus on Russian supply lines, with scores of direct hits on railway ammunition and fuel wagons, armored vehicles, and Air Defense systems. Although we have no videos afterwards, we believe these successful operations continued throughout the first month of the war until the Russians withdrew from the North.
What happened in the second phase, after the Russian withdrawal, is less clear. Nevertheless, we have several confirmed TB2 operations:
- TB2s attacked and set on fire Russian fuel depots deep inside Russian Federation territory, in the city of Belgorod.
- A TB2 tracked the cruiser Moskva, according to the ship’s crew. It apparently occupied the ship’s air defenses while Moskva was attacked and sunk by anti-ship missiles.
- In Snake Island a TB2 destroyed a helicopter while Russia troops were disembarking.
- TB2s destroyed several AA systems, including Pantsir and Strela, as well as two small patrol boats of the Raptor class around Snake Island.
There are also some strikes where the level of TB2 involvement is unclear:
- A TB2 was probably involved in the attack against the large Alligator class landing ship Orsk while the ship was unloading materiel in the port of Berdyansk. The ensuing fire destroyed and sunk the ship, damaging two other landing ships docked nearby.
- We know that a TB2 tracked the Russian tugboat Vasily Bekh, and we suspect it may have designated the target for a laser ordinance from another platform. Claims that the tugboat was hit by Harpoon missiles are unlikely.
The reason most of these strikes are on Naval targets is not a coincidence. The Black Sea is a far more permissive environment, with limited air-defense. It is therefore an ideal hunting ground for the TB2.
We can clearly see that although it became increasingly difficult for the TB2 to operate in the dense Air Defense environment of the South and East fronts, it remained a useful platform when operated wisely.
Objective Facts: TB2 Losses in Ukraine
Ukrainian forces operated the TB2 effectively during the first phase of the war. In the second phase, they seemed to take certain unwise decisions under considerable pressure. They frequently operated the TB2 in dangerous missions of no tactical importance, contributing to increased losses.
Operated unwisely and exposed to an Air Defense environment where even specialized strike jets would be challenged to survive today, the TB2 resisted better than anyone could reasonably expect.
Today, we can confirm only 7 TB2 losses in Ukraine with Tail Numbers T187, T274, T29x (unknown digit), U139, S49T, S51T, and Ukrainian Navy number 75 (unrecoverable tail).
The fact that at least two lost airframes were recovered in Russian Federation territory is indicative of the cavalier attitude of the Ukrainian forces during the second phase of the war.
EVOLUTION AND CURRENT STATE OF THE TB2
We have already referred to the upgrade of the Line of Sight (LOS) communication link, which increased the operational range of the TB2 from 150 km to 250 km.
A second significant development over the past two years has been a new Beyond-Line-of-Sight (BLOS) version of the TB2, with virtually unlimited range. The indigenous BLOS Communication Link uses a band of the TURKSAT satellite with significant coverage over Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia.
TB2-S: characteristic bulge of the Satellite Communication Link housing source: defenceturk.net
This new satellite version is designated TB2-S. However, according to BAYKAR, customer demand has been limited, due to significantly higher procurement and operational costs.
There are at least two significant future enhancements for the TB2.
The first is the novel laser-guided munition BOZOK , made by Tubitak Sage. It already entered initial production after trials were successfully completed.
BOZOK is a lightweight inert munition, optimized against personnel and light vehicle targets. At 16 kg it is significantly lighter than MAM-L. Most importantly it has an optimized range of 15+ km, a remarkable increase compared to the original 8+ km MAM-L.
A set of small stubby wings improves aerodynamic lift, increasing the munition’s inert (free-fall) range. BOZOK uses proximity sensors for detonation, augmenting the fragmentation effect of its anti-personnel warhead. An armor piercing warhead may follow later on. BOZOK has already been successfully tested on the TB2.
Tubitak Sage BOZOK laser-guided munition
We must emphasize the paramount importance of the long 15+km range of BOZOK, as it contributes directly to the TB2 preferred operational mode. The new munition will allow TB2s to stay further away from their targets, complicating the task of detection of their small & slow signature. Conveniently, both WESCAM MX-15D and Aselsan CATS can designate targets at long distances (up to 20 km).
Tubitak Sage / Aselsan EHPOD for F-16 and AKINCI
A second highly important development has the potential to improve the “limited furtivity” aspect of the TB2. We will first describe its homologue system, which is currently at more advanced development stage.
The Electronic Warfare (EW) countermeasure pod EHPOD made by Tubitak Sage and Aselsan provides non stealthy, heavy air assets such as the AKINCI UAV , and the F-16 fighter, with a certain degree of furtivity by actively jamming and confusing enemy radars. EHPOD is currently undergoing trials, with initial production planned for next year.
Aselsan recently exhibited a very small variant of the EHPOD, the MINI EH POD. This is a scaled down, less effective system without a radar element. However, unlike EHPOD, the MINI EH POD is claimed to be TB2-compatible, as it is considerably “lighter” in both weight and power consumption.
Aselsan MINI EH POD under development
This new development is as surprising as it is consequential: EW jamming capability, even a very basic one, may materially increase the effective furtivity and survivability of the TB2.
However, we have yet to see an official announcement from Aselsan. Therefore, we remain extremely cautious on this development.
Aselsan MEROPS new generation Electro-Optical turret under development
Finally, there is the longer-term prospect of a significantly enhanced Electro-Optical turret. Aselsan has announced the novel Multi-Spectral Extended Range Optical Sight System MEROPS . The new system seeks to significantly improve stabilization and optics over current generation systems. It will retain the low weight necessary for use on the TB2.
Again, we caution that this is a recently announced product: completion of development and production may be several years away.
BAYKAR produces and typically sells the TB2 in batches of 6 drones.
In our prior article we established the value of a batch of 6 TB2s, with 2 or 3 control stations in the $30m-$40m dollar range, implying an average full purchase value of about $5m per drone. We estimated the drone replacement value (without a control station) at about $2m-3m dollars.
These prices may have evolved due to inflationary pressure. Most importantly, overwhelming demand may have prompted BAYKAR to increase prices to balance demand and supply.
The proven record, outstanding pricing, and foremost the suitability of TB2 in both counter insurgency and local conflicts, propelled the small Tactical drone to unparalleled export success.
There is overwhelming demand today, especially from African and Central Asian countries, where limited conflicts and tight budgets fit perfectly the TB2 profile.
Export demand propelled BAYKAR to first place by export revenues in the Turkish Aerospace and Defense sector in 2021. With more than $600 millions of export revenues, the relatively small company surpassed the combined exports of two much larger Turkish industrial behemoths, TUSAS and Aselsan.
Turkish Aerospace and Defense Sector: 2021 EXPORT-ONLY revenues by company – A&D exports (left), total exports (right) source: gdh.digital
BAYKAR recently announced that 22 countries in total have placed firm orders for the TB2. Several orders have been fully or partially delivered. This is an unprecedented commercial success for a combat drone.
Two years ago, as we were writing our prior article, President Erdoğan of Türkiye presciently asked BAYKAR to double its yearly TB2 production to 100 units. To appreciate the importance of this request, one must realize that BAYKAR is not the only beneficiary of each signed export contract. These contracts also generate considerable goodwill and prestige for Türkiye, increasing geopolitical influence.
Today BAYKAR has reached the 100 units-per-year milestone with about 300 units manufactured in total since 2016. About half — approximately 150 units — equip the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), Police, Gendarmerie, and other Turkish services, while the other half has been exported.
BAYKAR recently announced its intention to double TB2 production once more to 200 units per year, in order to meet staggering worldwide demand.
Bayraktar TB2 is a remarkable platform, ideally suited for counter insurgency, as well as low and medium intensity conflict. Most conflicts today fall in one of these categories, fueling TB2’s astonishing export success.
We have already established most crucial TB2 advantages in our prior article:
- “Limited furtivity” resulting in enhanced survivability.
- Resistance to Electronic Warfare (EW) measures.
- Perfectly stabilized high quality optics, and accurate laser-guided munitions with near perfect strike rates.
- Low cost, combined with excellent reliability and mission availability.
- Türkiye’s willingness to export to friendly countries, which would otherwise be limited to less effective Chinese drones.
TB2 striking a naval target off Snake Island
Ukraine is the first high intensity war theater in Europe since World War II, an environment less suitable for TB2 operations. In such an environment, operators must take into consideration the TB2’s inherent limitations, adapting their missions accordingly.
Baykar KIZILELMA Unmanned Stealth Fighter
TB2 is not a full stealth platform. The new BAYKAR KIZILELMA (MiUS) unmanned fighter will be the first full stealth Turkish UAV. (see: BAYKAR Small Company, Great Ambition 2)
When KIZILELMA takes off on its maiden flight in 2023, it will mark a giant leapfrog in combat UAV technology, placing Türkiye’s indigenous drone companies ahead of Western drone manufacturers.
We are confident the new unmanned fighter will consolidate Türkiye’s lead in the combat UAV sector and reinforce its strategic dominance over the Eastern Mediterranean.
- BAYKAR: Small Company, Great Ambition 1 Straturka straturka.com
- BAYKAR: Small Company, Great Ambition 2 Straturka straturka.com
- ROTAX 912 Rotax rotax.com
- WESCAM MX-15D L3Harris Technologies l3harris.com
- WESCAM MX-20 L3Harris Technologies l3harris.com
- Aselsan CATS Aselsan aselsan.com.tr
- Aselsan MEROPS (under development, probably re-designation of ASELFLIR 500/600) Aselsan aselsan.com.tr
- BAYKAR Product Catalog Baykar baykardefense.com, January 2018
- Enough With the Indian Mig-21 Bison Versus Pakistani F-16 Viper The War Zone, March 2019
- ELL-8212/ELL-8222/ELL-8222WB Self Protection Jamming Pod IAI Elta iai.co.il
- A Monument Of Victory: The Bayraktar TB2 Kill List Oryx oryxspioenkop.com
- BOZOK Laser Guided Munition Tubitak Sage sage.tubitak.gov.tr