Bayraktar TB2: How Turkey's rising drone industry could reshape global warfare
Ferocious conflicts in 2020 did much to elevate the status of Turkey’s Bayraktar TB2 combat drones and garner interest in them around the world. In Turkey’s February-March Operation Spring Shield last year, Turkish TB2s devastated Syrian ground forces in the northwestern province of Idlib.
Then in the summer, Turkish TB2s deployed in Libya played a decisive role in that country’s civil war by repelling Libyan National Army (LNA) forces in support of Turkey’s ally, the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli.
In the fall, Azerbaijani TB2s devastated Armenian armour in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Those drones were later victoriously paraded in Azerbaijan’s capital Baku in December of that year. An Azerbaijani woman, who admittedly had never heard of the Turkish drones until that war, even wrote a children’s book extolling the weapons and the engineer who built them, Selcuk Bayraktar.
"Ferocious conflicts in 2020 did much to elevate the status of Turkey's Bayraktar TB2 combat drones"
Following this string of victories in the Middle East, North Africa, and the South Caucasus, interest in the TB2 skyrocketed. Turkey could now promote the platform’s combat-proven record as well as its competitive price.
A TB2 drone costs an estimated $1-2 million, a far cry from the $20 million per unit the United Kingdom paid for US-built Protector drones.
That low cost also makes a certain level of attrition in battle tolerable. As British Secretary of Defence Ben Wallace succinctly put it: “The TB2 and its accompanying munitions combine technical abilities with an affordability that means their commanders can tolerate some attrition while presenting real challenges to the enemy.”
In May this year, Polish Defence Minister Mariusz Błaszczak announced that Warsaw would buy 24 of the drones and arm them with anti-tank missiles. He said the drones “have proven themselves in wars”.
That sale was significant for Turkey’s arms industry since Poland is also a member of NATO. Latvia, another NATO member, is also rumoured to be interested in the system after the Latvian minister for defence visited facilities in Turkey where the pilotless aircraft are built.
Turkey sold Ukraine TB2s in 2019. Kyiv’s interest in the platform is growing as it plans to buy another batch in 2022.
In September, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said that Kyiv plans to build a factory to produce TB2s in cooperation with its Turkish manufacturer Baykar, likely part of a reported joint venture to build as many as 48 of the pilotless weapons platforms with Turkey.
Ukraine has already used a TB2 drone against pro-Russian separatists in the eastern Donbas region on 26 October. The drone targeted and destroyed an artillery unit using one of its guided munitions.
Turkey insisted it had no responsibility for that strike.
“If a state is buying these from us, that is no longer a Turkish product,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters after meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov shortly after the incident.
“Perhaps Turkey has produced it, but it belongs to Ukraine,” he added. “Turkey cannot be blamed for this.”
In North Africa, Morocco reportedly ordered 13 TB2s back in May and received its first batch in September, although neither Ankara nor Rabat has confirmed this. There are some fears that Morocco might use these drones in the Western Sahara conflict.
In early November, speculation mounted when Algeria accused Morocco of killing three Algerian truck drivers in a strike on a desert highway.
“Several factors indicate that the Moroccan occupation forces in the Western Sahara carried out this cowardly assassination with a sophisticated weapon,” read a statement from Algeria’s presidency.
As the AFP report on that incident noted, while Algeria did not mention what weapons were used, “Morocco took delivery of Turkish-made Bayraktar combat drones, according to Far-Maroc, a private military news website.”
Another country that may soon field TB2 drones is Ethiopia. If true, Ankara’s sale of these aircraft to Addis Ababa may prove controversial for more than one reason.
"Following its role in a string of military victories in the Middle East, North Africa, and the South Caucasus, interest in the Bayraktar TB2 drone skyrocketed"
There is the Egypt factor. Ankara and Cairo have been at odds for almost a decade now since the Muslim Brotherhood government of former president Mohammed Morsi was deposed in a coup by incumbent Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. In recent months there has been talk of a rapprochement between the two regional heavyweights.
However, Egypt and Ethiopia are locked in a dispute over the latter’s construction of the Ethiopian Grand Renaissance Dam on the Nile. Cairo has already reportedly asked the United States and Europe to freeze any Turkish drone sales to Ethiopia. Turkish arms exports to Ethiopia could be a sticking point for a complete normalisation of ties between Turkey and Egypt.
If Addis Ababa does use Turkish drones in combat, it will most likely be against the separatists in the Tigray region rather than against its powerful Egyptian neighbour. Ethiopia, which signed a military cooperation agreement with Turkey in August, reportedly wants to deploy the drones in that bitter conflict.
In fact, Tigray forces have already uncovered what appears to be a fragment of a Turkish-built munition that is compatible with the TB2. However, that certainly does not prove that Ethiopia has any of these drones yet, much less used them in conflict.
Over the summer, Ethiopian forces were pushed out of the Tigray region capital Mekelle. In October, the Ethiopian military launched a counteroffensive that also seems to have been repelled by the separatists. As many as 100,000 Ethiopians have reportedly been killed in the conflict so far.
It’s unclear, however, if Turkish drones in the Ethiopian arsenal could do much to turn the tide of the conflict as they did in Libya for the GNA.
In addition to Europe, North Africa, the Middle East (where Turkey’s close ally Qatar has bought at least six TB2s), and the Caucasus, the TB2s are also beginning to appear in Central Asia.
Turkmenistan revealed for the first time that it has these drones during a 27 September parade marking the 30th anniversary of independence from the Soviet Union. Ashgabat had imported $37 million in defence equipment from Turkey the previous summer, but details of what it had bought were not disclosed.
Kazakhstan has also reportedly considered buying “several dozen” TB2s instead of Chinese-built drones after seeing the former’s performance in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
"A TB2 drone costs an estimated $1-2 million, a far cry from the $20 million per unit the United Kingdom paid for US-built Protector drones"
Then there is the Central Asian country of Kyrgyzstan, which plans to procure TB2s, along with Russian drones, to improve its extremely limited airpower.
“We’re not buying drones to go to war with someone. We will buy drones to ensure the country’s security,” insisted the country’s president, Sadyr Japarov, on 23 October.
However, he also alluded to the brief clashes his country had with Tajikistan last April that left 36 people in Kyrgyzstan dead.
“We didn’t have even one aircraft to put into the air during the conflict,” Japarov said. “Now we will buy both aircraft and UAVs (drones).”
Now that Bayraktar TB2 drones are in, or will soon be in, the arsenals of militaries on three continents, it’s inevitable that they will be used in a significant number of the world’s ongoing and future conflicts, with implications for the way these wars are fought.
Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.
Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon