A Dangerous Drone for All Seasons: Assessing the Ukrainian Military’s Use of the Bayraktar TB-2

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 19 Issue: 36

(Source: AFP)

The Ukrainian military’s employment of the Turkish-made Bayraktar TB-2 combat drones showcases some categorical differences from how the Azerbaijani Armed Forces utilized this system during the 2020 Second Karabakh War. The difference is most visible in the target-set priorities. While Azerbaijan mainly attacked Armenian armor, artillery, air defenses and troop concentrations, the Ukrainians are predominantly going after already over-stretched Russian logistics strings.

As of March 16, the Ukrainian military’s Bayraktar TB-2 kill-score against Russian land warfare equipment registered only two infantry fighting vehicles and a total of six artillery pieces  (five pieces of 152-millimeter towed artillery and one BM-27 Uragan 220-millimeter multiple-launch rocket system); whereas TB-2 strikes against Russian logistics platforms eliminated twenty-four wheeled vehicles and two fuel trains (Oryxspioenkop.com, March 16).  Ukraine’s logistics target preference is logical: In the Second Karabakh War case, the Azerbaijani military was on the offensive, trying to eliminate as much Armenian firepower as possible to clear the stage for a follow-on ground assault; whereas Ukraine is defending against a large, formidable adversary, but one which suffers from inadequate logistics and poor morale. Overall, fuel-tankers and food trucks remain more suitable targets for Ukrainian drone strikes than Russia’s land-warfare weapons systems.

TB-2 drone strikes on Russian air-defense systems offer a different story, one that goes beyond the above-mentioned tactical calculus, and which deserves careful examination for the military-strategic lessons it may offer. Turkish Bayraktar TB-2s’ successes against Soviet/Russian-manufactured air-defense systems, including high-end models like the Pantsir line, already made headlines, occurring on multiple fronts in recent years, from the Levant to North Africa and the South Caucasus.

Conventional wisdom would seem to suggest that while the abovementioned case studies proved Turkish combat drone assets were potent against Russian-made air-defense systems wielded by third actors, their performance against the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation themselves might be quite different. Previous assessments suggested that the Russians systems, when in the hands of the regular Russian military, would be highly networked and operate in a broad architecture that includes electronic warfare (EW) cover (see EDM, June 23, 2021). But this has not proven to be the case, and Turkish combat drones have fared relatively well against the Russian Armed Forces.

Collective open-source intelligence (OSINT) efforts have identified 32 pieces of surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems lost to the Russian military—while the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense offers a more exaggerated estimate of 43 pieces. Of the OSINT-verified 32 Russian SAMs, 15 were destroyed or damaged by strikes, while the rest were abandoned or captured by the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Of the 15 SAMs eliminated by kinetic hits, 9 platforms were targeted by Bayraktar TB-2s. All in all, the Turkish drones secured about 30 percent of the total SAM kills, and 60 percent of the direct, kinetic salvos (Oryxspioenkop.com, March 16). This is impressive. More importantly, the kill-list includes the TOR-M2, which, reportedly, was upgraded specifically for anti-drone missions (TASS, October 1, 2020).

Israeli assessments of the Second Karabakh War suggest that an aircraft with a 12-meter wingspan, various metal parts and a rotating propeller cannot be stealthy to radars (BESA Center, December 2020). In this respect, one explanation for the Turkish drones’ success against Russian mobile SAMs could be the fact that even modern Russian systems’ design philosophies still draw on the late-Soviet period. These assets are not built to intercept piston engine–powered, slow-moving (as slow as 70 knot) unmanned aircraft (Baykar, March 16). Besides, the signatures of propeller-driven unmanned aerial systems (UAS) like the Bayraktar TB-2 will blend into a background of clutter, providing additional hardship for traditional air-defense sensors. Especially with respect to particularly slow-moving platforms, the clutter will hamper an air-defense scanner’s moving target indication (MTI) and Doppler-processing features (“Systems Concepts for Integrated Air Defense of Multinational Mobile Crisis Reaction Forces, NATO, 2001). Lastly, principal Russian EW systems such as the Krasukha-4 (designed to target Western aircraft’s, especially AWACS’, on-board systems and radars, X/Ku-band fire-control radars, and low-orbit satellites) and the Borisoglebks-2 (designed to jam HF/VHF communications), do not seem to particularly target the Turkish drones’ line-of-sight (LOS) data-links, especially along the C-band (ICDS, September 18, 2017; M5 Dergi, September 6, 2021; CTech, March 16, 2022).

The Russians are, thus, uneasy about the Turkish “dronization” for three reasons. First, Turkey has introduced an effective concepts of operations (CONOPS) innovation with its combat-tested drones right on Russia’s doorstep. Second, Turkey has initiated some lucrative co-production and defense technology transactions across the post-Soviet space, especially in Azerbaijan and Ukraine, both of which had secured co-production deals for Turkish UAS. And third, the Turkish combat drones’ successful elimination of Soviet/Russian weaponry in a broad array of battlegrounds, from Syria and Libya all the way to Karabakh and now Ukraine, has raised serious questions about Russia’s flagship industrial business—its Soviet-inherited defense complex. The issue has become ammunition in the Ukrainian information war. Ukrainians have uploaded a satirical music video to YouTube praising the Bayraktar TB-2s’ record against the Russians; while the CEO of the Baykar company (which produces the TB-2), Haluk Bayraktar, voiced his support to Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenzkyy on Twitter, in the Ukrainian language (YouTube, March 16; Twitter.com/haluk, March 3).

Regarding the Turkish drone CONOPS innovation, Russian analysts argue that the real threat posed by combat UAS systems was manifested during the Second Karabakh War by the unbearable battlefield attrition from which the Armenians could not recover. At the outset of the hostilities, the Azerbaijani military inflicted a large number of material losses to the Armenian formations but without securing a meaningful territorial change—those advances followed only in the later stages of the conflict (Cast.ru, 2021). Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev explained that the UAS manufactured by Turkey and “other sources [referring to Israeli loitering munitions]” brought $1 billion worth of damage to the Armenian weaponry (Yeni Şafak, October 15, 2020). Such a combat style, bringing a risk of high attrition from robotic platforms, is new and dangerous for the Russians. Russian political-military assessments have continued to voice clear concerns concerning the influx of Turkish defense technology, especially robotic warfare systems, into the post-Soviet space (Russiancouncil.ru, February 11, 2022).

All that said, the Bayraktar TB-2 is not invincible to Russian counter-measures. The Russians can and, in fact, did intercept and down Turkish drones in Ukraine. Yet the Turkish way of drone warfare has proven to be an offense-dominant regime with a clearly advantageous defense economics bill, given the TB2’s kills-versus-losses ratio. The Bayraktar TB-2 is a dangerous system against Russian weaponry, offering a real warfighting asset to augment the North Atlantic Alliance’s eastern flank.