The cheap, slow, and bulky drones taking down Russian armored tanks for Ukraine
Outmanned, outgunned, and relying on sheer willpower to repel Russia’s invading armies, Ukraine’s soldiers may have one big ace up their sleeve.
The Bayraktar TB2 drone, with a wingspan of 12 meters (472 inches) and equipped to carry four laser-guided bombs, has disabled multiple launch rocket systems as well as taken out columns of armored tanks and personnel transporters from the air, seemingly with impunity.
To bolster their esprit de corps and demoralize the enemy, Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s defending troops have been uploading videos to social media taunting Russian troops with tales of the Bayraktar TB2’s lethal strikes executed out of the blue.
A lemur born in Kyiv zoo was even given the name Bayraktar in tribute to the drone, as revealed by the mayor of the capital and former world heavyweight champion, Vitaly Klitschko, on Telegram.
Turkey’s very first unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) may not be anywhere near as state-of-the-art as General Atomics’ MQ-9 Reaper or SkyGuardian drones. Yet its appeal lies in a brutally efficient cost-benefit ratio on the battlefield.
At a price tag estimated to be as little as $1 million, these aircraft are easily expendable compared with other high-tech armaments. And while they have a range typically limited to 150 km (93 miles), they can loiter in the air for over 24 hours, waiting for the right moment to strike.
“It gives Ukraine a new, qualitative edge over the enemy,” Lt. Col. Yuri Ignat, spokesman for the country’s Air Force Command, told Al-Monitor in an interview prior to the invasion. He claimed there were about 20 such UAVs at its disposal, “but we will not stop there.”
The drones are courtesy of Turkish defense contractor Baykar Makina, which says 257 are currently in service worldwide. The company also enjoys a direct link to the top echelon of Ankara’s leadership: One of the late founder’s two sons who run the company is married to President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s younger daughter.
Selling like hotcakes
First sold to Turkey’s own military eight years ago, the TB2 proved its worth largely out of sight from Western media during combat missions first in Syria and later Libya in 2020.
It proved so effective against Armenian troops in the disputed Caucasus region of Nagorno-Karabakh that Azerbaijan’s head of state personally distinguished Baykar with an award for its contribution. Thanks to the drone’s success, Baykar says it ended up exporting UAVs worth $360 million dollars in 2020.
Having changed the course of three separate conflicts that year, French daily Le Monde remarked last July that TB2s were “selling like hotcakes.” U.K. defense minister Ben Wallace weighed their purchase even though he had already spent $20 million a piece on SkyGuardian UAVs from General Atomics.
Last May, Poland became the first EU member state to add the TB2 to its military arsenal, acquiring four systems of six drones each for a total of 24 unmanned aircraft. Only weeks later, Latvia’s defense minister hinted it may soon follow. It was Ukraine, however, that proved to be the very first customer to recognize the TB2’s value and import the technology.
In economic terms, conventional forces are struggling to keep pace with advances in drone warfare. Most ground-to-air defense systems are typically expensive and designed to protect against threats like high-impact ordnance and combat jets rather than small, expendable UAVs.
In one well-known example that gave the Pentagon’s top brass pause for thought, a U.S. ally shot down a tiny, off-the-shelf drone likely ordered from a catalog with a $3 million Patriot missile.
“If I’m the enemy,” warned American Gen. David Perkins back in 2017, “I’m thinking, ‘Hey, I’m going to get on eBay and buy as many of these $300 quadcopters as I can and expend all the Patriot missiles out there.’”
The TB2’s success also highlights the delicate balancing act played by Turkey, a NATO member that straddles Europe and Asia. Invoking wartime clauses in a treaty that grants it power over the Bosporus strait, Turkey managed to shut down access to the Black Sea for incoming naval ships without triggering the ire of Moscow.
By helping the Ukrainians while maintaining faith with the Russians, Erdoğan may come out the “biggest winner” in the conflict, remarked Turkey expert and Brooklyn College associate professor Louis Fishman in a column for Israel’s Haaretz published Wednesday.
Lauren Kahn, a research fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, argues the TB2’s value will likely decrease over time. Having seemingly underestimated the armed resistance they would face, Russia should be expected to deploy its full defensive capabilities, including cyberattacks, against the Turkish drone.
“Bayraktar TB2s are slow, large, low-flying, and radio-controlled, making them comparatively easy targets for more sophisticated, layered air defense systems and electronic warfare capabilities,” Kahn wrote on Wednesday.
Altered the nature of war
Not all Western pundits have been happy to see Baykar’s international success, however. Last August, over two dozen representatives from the U.S. Congress pushed Secretary of State Antony Blinken to suspend export licenses for U.S. technology they argued was finding its way into the Turkish company’s drones.
The proliferation of expendable UAVs in combat has the potential to disrupt the defense industry’s entire playing field, economically speaking, argued Andrew Milburn.
The senior fellow with the Middle East Institute’s Defense and Security Program fears defense contractors are ill suited to develop countermeasures should such drones be deployed against American soldiers and believes a solution to the threat will only be solved in Silicon Valley rather than in the “cubicle warrens” of Lockheed Martin or Raytheon.
“Despite its emergence as an inanimate hero of the Ukraine conflict, the story of the TB2, and its employment by various actors over the last three years, brings with it a dire warning for the U.S. military,” he wrote. “It is Turkey, with a defense budget a fraction of the U.S.’s, that has demonstrated how unmanned platforms changed the nature of modern war.”
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