On January 26, Ukrainian State Concern Ukroboronprom announced an agreement between the Turkish company Baykar Makina and Ukraine’s state-owned arms trader Ukrspecexport (part of Ukroboronprom) to procure 12 Bayraktar TB2 operational/tactical-level strike unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) for $69 million (Ukroboronprom, January 26; see EDM, January 23). For Ukraine, this represents the first instance where it has successfully purchased this class of lethal weapons system from a foreign country. In previous years, the Ukrainian Armed Forces received some foreign-made UAVs, such as the RQ-11 Raven as part of the United States’ support for Ukraine; but importantly, those drones have all been non-lethal, designed strictly for aerial intelligence- and reconnaissance-gathering missions (Hromadske, July 27, 2016). The Turkish combat UAVs, on the other hand, will be delivered with weapons and ground-control stations.
The Bayraktar contract was negotiated during Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s official visit to Turkey in November 2018 (President.gov.ua, November 4, 2018). During that trip, Poroshenko toured the Baykar Makina headquarters and also discussed with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, prospects for further bilateral cooperation in a number of fields, including the defense industry (President.gov.ua, November 6, 2018). Later, the secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, Oleksandr Turchynov, announced that negotiations with the Turkish side were underway. Turchynov stressed that the Ukrainian military needs a system like the Bayraktar TB2 because Ukraine lacks that class of offensive UAVs within its inventory, creating a notable capabilities gap. While Ukraine’s domestic arms manufacturing sector has been developing several tactical UAVs for reconnaissance, the military needs to be able to not only spot the enemy but also hit it, Turchynov told reporters last fall (UNIAN, November 15, 2018).
According to Ukroboronprom, the domestic defense industry can currently produce at least eight home-grown non-lethal UAV systems. These include the Horlytsya, Spectactor, Sparrow and Observer-S. But all these are light, tactical-level reconnaissance UAVs (Ukroboronprom.com.ua, accessed February 6, 2019). And all of these models have a limited flight time (up to 7–10 hours), a maximum range of 50–250 kilometers and a flight speed of no more than 180 kilometers per hour. In comparison, the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 can remain in the air for up to 24 hours and has a top speed of 222 kilometers per hour. Thus, in terms of capabilities, this system would represent an important step forward for the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
At the same time, it bears pointing out that the development of advanced combat UAVs comparable to the Bayraktar TB2 takes a long time and would require the Ukrainian defense industry to obtain access to new technologies (Baykar Makina, for instance, spent five years on developing the Bayraktar from a prototype in 2007 to the final production stage in 2012). Due to the ongoing conflict in Donbas and mounting threats from Russia in the Sea of Azov region, the purchase of an off-the-shelf Turkish system is, thus, a potential shortcut for building up the capabilities of the Ukrainian military.
This Turkish UAV can be used for aerial intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and, importantly, for aerial strikes against targets like tanks, armored troop transports or lightly reinforced bunkers. According to an anonymous Ukrainian military official, this drone could be used in combination with special operations forces to hunt for critical enemy targets near the frontline. According to its characteristics, the Bayraktar TB2 can remain in a secured area while still being able to hit ground targets in the occupied territories, thus making it less vulnerable to the enemy’s air-defense systems. Its flight ceiling (up to eight kilometers) keeps it out of reach of light firearms, unlike cheap quadcopters, which can be easily shot down by machineguns (Facebook.com/93OMBR, January 19, 2019). The Bayraktar also operates too high for short-range tactical surface-to-air missile systems like the Russian 9K33 Osa (SA-8 Gecko), which has been spotted in occupied Donetsk and Luhansk regions (Facebook.com/oscesmm, October 24, 2018). That said, it is vulnerable to the 9K37 Buk missile system (SA-11 Gadfly).
The Bayraktar TB2 has sensors that allow it to navigate and land by itself even if it loses a GPS signal—a particularly useful feature considering the ongoing advances and battlefield deployment of Russian Electronic Warfare (EW) systems and tactics (see EDM, May 24, 2017; March 6, 2018; November 5, 2018). Many of the tactical-level drones employed by Ukraine have been jammed or intercepted by Russian EW units because of these small UAVs’ inability to operate independently. Indeed, a similar fate befell a UAV used by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Special Monitoring Mission (OSCE SMM), in Donbas, last October (Osce.org, October 27, 2018). Ukraine has been working on analogous tactics for grounding Russian drones. In January, the Joint Operations Forces of Ukraine reported successfully jamming a Russian Granat-2 reconnaissance UAV (developed by Russia in 2012, but heretofore never observed operating inside Ukraine) near Priazovye, Donetsk region, and forcing it to land (Facebook.com/pressjfo.news, January 25, 2019).
On the other hand, the Bayraktar purchase has come under some criticism. For example, the famous Ukrainian military volunteer and activist Yuri Kasyanov, who heads a drone manufacturing company not part of Ukroboronprom, claimed the Turkish UAVs, with a price tag of over $5 million per unit, are too expensive. Instead, he proposed his own company’s strike kamikaze UAVs—quadcopters armed with grenade launchers—which, he said, would only cost $10,000 each. Kasyanov added that the Turkish Bayraktars are not suited for modern combat conditions, marked by intense EW saturation of the battlefield (Facebook.com/brtcomua, January 15). Other experts have claimed high-altitude UAVs are inappropriate for Ukraine’s cloudy climate, compared to Turkey or Syria (where the Bayraktar was deployed by Turkish forces). For conducting air surveillance above Donbas, this drone would need to fly at a height less than two kilometers, thus making it vulnerable to air defenses. Additionally, a defense-sector partnership with Turkey could bring potential risks in light of the current closer relationship between Erdoğan and Vladimir Putin.
Such criticism aside, the strike UAV contract with Turkey has the potential to boost further international cooperation, modernize the Ukrainian Armed Forces as well as provide vital experience in the use of combat drones. Moreover, it brings the Ukrainian military closer to North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) standards. In that regard, the Bayraktars deal continues Kyiv’s already successful history of partnership with Ankara that has included the purchase of Aselsan communication systems for the Ukrainian Army and National Police (Delo, November 10, 2017; Ukrinform, October 10, 2017).