The introduction of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) has been a significant military breakthrough for many countries that typically lack the resources to maintain large advanced air forces with manned aircraft. While UAVs have some advantages over traditional aircraft, they are not a complete replacement for a traditional air force. They are generally smaller, carry less firepower, and may not be as effective in some missions. Additionally, UAVs are vulnerable to jamming and other electronic attacks and may be easier to shoot down than manned aircraft. The decision of whether to use UAVs or traditional aircraft will depend on specific mission requirements and available resources. In many cases, both types of aircraft may be used to provide the best combination of capabilities.
The emergence of new players in drone warfare has accelerated the pace of advancements in drone technology over the past decade. Turkish armed drones, in particular, have become one of the most sought-after UAVs in recent years. The medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) UAV Bayraktar TB2 drone, one of many produced by the Turkish arms industry, has been exported to 24 countries. Although the Turkish government has not publicly stated where Turkish armed drones have been exported, the list reportedly includes Qatar, Libya, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Morocco, Ethiopia, Kyrgyzstan, Somalia, Pakistan, Djibouti, Burkina Faso, Rwanda, Togo, Niger, Nigeria, Poland, Romania, Algeria, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Bangladesh, Tajikistan, and Senegal.
Drones have numerous military applications. These include surveillance and reconnaissance, target acquisition and identification, strike and attack, force protection, logistics, and resupply. TB2s are capable of being used for all these purposes except logistics and resupply. Baykar, a private Turkish defense company specializing in UAVs, produced 200 Bayraktar TB2s in 2022 alone, and it will raise its production capacity to 500 Bayraktar TB2s and 40 next-generation Bayraktar Akinci drones in 2023. Notwithstanding their battle-proven capabilities, the unit cost of TB2 drones is estimated at $5 million. For comparison, an older model of U.S.-made MQ-9 Reapers cost $14 million apiece in 2008. The price advantage of the TB2 provides countries with limited financial means with a cheaper and faster alternative to develop significant air power capability.
This article examines the vulnerabilities of Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones that must be improved. It also discusses whether their deployment in fragile regions and countries may potentially lower the threshold for the use of force and lead to an increase in instability and civilian casualties. It concludes by emphasizing the importance of Turkey's compliance with international regulations on armed drones.
A) Areas of Improvement for TB2’s Combat Capabilities
While the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 has established itself as an effective drone on the battlefield, it is not immune to vulnerabilities that can be exploited by attackers. These vulnerabilities highlight the importance of thoughtful deployment by military strategists, who must account for factors such as the drone's susceptibility to electronic warfare, GPS jamming, and air defense systems. By recognizing and proactively addressing these weaknesses, military forces can maximize the TB2's effectiveness while minimizing the risk of loss or damage.
Communication link interception: TB2s require a communication link between a remote pilot and the aircraft for control and data transfer. An attacker who intercepts this link can take control of the UAV or disrupt the communication, causing the drone to malfunction or even crash.
GPS spoofing: TB2s rely on GPS for navigation and guidance, which are not under the control of Turkish authorities. An attacker can spoof GPS signals to trick a TB2 into flying off course or crashing into an unintended target.
Physical damage: TB2s are susceptible to physical damage from environmental factors like high winds, heavy rain, and lightning strikes. An attacker can also use firearms, explosives, or other weapons to shoot down or damage a drone.
Cyberattacks: TB2s are vulnerable to cyberattacks, including malware and denial-of-service attacks. An attacker can use these attacks to take control of a TB2 or disrupt its communication.
Weak encryption: TB2s use encryption to secure their communication links and data transfer. However, if the encryption is weak or easily cracked, an attacker can intercept and decode the communication, gaining access to sensitive information or control of the TB2.
Limited autonomy: TB2s have limited autonomous capabilities, which means they require a remote pilot to control them. This dependency on human operators makes them vulnerable to social engineering attacks or attacks on a pilot's control station.
If the theater aerospace is not under the control of allied air forces, TB2s face additional vulnerabilities, including:
Countermeasures: The adversary can deploy countermeasures to jam or disrupt a TB2’s communication links, GPS signals, or radar detection. This can cause the TB2 to lose control, deviate from its intended course, or crash.
Air defense systems: The adversary can deploy anti-aircraft missiles or other air defense systems, such as fighter aircraft, to shoot down a TB2. These systems can detect and track the TB2 using radar or other sensors and engage it with missiles or gunfire.
Electronic warfare: The adversary can use electronic warfare techniques to jam or disrupt a TB2’s communication links, GPS signals, or other electronic systems.
Hacking and cyberattacks: The adversary can launch cyberattacks against a TB2’s control systems, communication links, or other electronic systems. This can allow the adversary to take control of the TB2, disrupt its mission, or steal sensitive data.
To mitigate these vulnerabilities, it is mandatory to control aerospace over the theater. Furthermore, UAV operators in such theaters may need to employ additional security measures, such as advanced anti-jamming technologies, stealthy and low-altitude flight profiles, and coordination with ground-based air defense systems. The use of multiple and diverse UAVs may also be advantageous to provide redundancy and resiliency against countermeasures and attacks.
B) Deployment of TB2s in Conflict Zones
One of the most common criticisms of armed drones in general is that they lower the threshold for the use of force. As such, decision-makers are much more likely to use lethal force against a range of perceived threats than in the past. In many cases, introducing Turkish armed drones has indeed preceded the use of force in restive regions. For example, while African states demand Turkish armed drones to engage in domestic repression and quash civil wars, other governments, such as Azerbaijan, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, have intended to deploy these drones in intra-state conflicts. Thus, the proliferation of Turkish armed drones and their deployment in various regions has sparked debates about the implications of their use.
The first overseas deployment of Turkish armed drones was reported in 2019 in the Libyan civil war between the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Benghazi-based Libyan National Army (LNA). The LNA forces, composed of tribal forces and Russian mercenaries, were marching to Tripoli and seemed unstoppable. Turkey felt it necessary to intervene militarily to support its allies based in Tripoli by providing armed drones and technical assistance, despite a UN arms embargo on Libya that strictly forbade weapon transfer by third parties. This intervention completely changed the nature of the war and the level of violence that ensued. A UN report highlighted these effects as follows:
The introduction by Turkey of advanced military technology into the conflict was a decisive element in the often unseen, and certainly uneven, war of attrition that resulted in the defeat of [LNA Forces] in western Libya in 2020. Remote air technology, combined with an effective fusion intelligence and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capability, turned the tide for GNA in what had previously been a low-intensity, low-technology conflict in which casualty avoidance and force protection were a priority for both parties to the conflict.
The first time TB2s were deployed in an intra-state armed conflict occurred during a dispute between Turkey and Syria. In early 2020, the Syrian army attacked Idlib, northern Syria's most prominent rebel stronghold. In the face of a looming exodus of 3 million Syrian refugees and incessant attacks on Turkish army posts in Idlib, Turkey launched a counter-operation against the units of Al-Assad’s army. The Damascus government was required to retreat its forces due to heavy casualties inflicted on the Syrian troops by the coordinated strikes of armed drones, including TB2s, and artillery fire. The skirmishes ended after an agreement between Turkey and Russia in March 2020.
The Nagorno-Karabakh issue was a frozen conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan for almost three decades. Nonetheless, the two sides were preparing for another round of hostilities. The Armenian army counted on Russian backing in an eventual confrontation in its armament program. Azerbaijan, in the meantime, purchased several Turkish TB2 drones to offset the weakness of its conventional air force. Unfortunately for the Armenians, only the Tor air defense systems were capable of posing a threat to the Bayraktar TB2.
Apparently, in 2020, the Azerbaijani military felt confident that its army was ready for a military operation. When the war broke out, TB2 drones were successful in overcoming the Armenian defenses. They effectively eliminated a considerable number of Armenian tanks, artillery units, armored vehicles, and logistics lines. Open-source intelligence defense analysis website Oryx asserts that “from the 772 ground equipment losses suffered by Armenia, at least 535 were caused by Bayraktar TB2s.” In other words, almost 70% of all Armenian equipment losses during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh war were a direct result of strikes from Bayraktar TB2s. The Nagorno-Karabakh war was a milestone for TB2 drones since its role in the success of Azerbaijan gained worldwide recognition.
Ukraine is another war during which Bayraktar TB2 drones have been intensively deployed. Ukraine first signed a deal to purchase six Bayraktar TB2s, three ground control station systems, and related equipment from Turkey in January 2019, and Baykar delivered its first drones to Ukraine in March 2019. In the meantime, Ukraine operators were trained to operate these drones at a facility owned by Baykar in Turkey. Ukraine possessed 20 Bayraktar TB2s before February 2022 and has since acquired at least twenty more Turkish armed drones. These deployments drew the ire of the Kremlin, which stressed that these drones were destabilizing the region and not contributing to settling the Ukrainian problem.
TB2 drones would have been useful when Russia launched an invasion of Ukraine at the beginning of the war in February 2022. It was confirmed that several Russian air-defense systems, helicopters, supply trucks, trains, and other pieces of equipment were destroyed by TB2 strikes. In other cases, TB2s were instrumental in reconnaissance and pinpointing coordinates for Ukrainian artillery strikes. It was also reported in April 2022 that a Ukrainian TB2 was involved in sinking Russia’s flagship in the Black Sea, Moskva, by distracting its radar systems before Ukrainian Neptune missiles hit it.
During the early stages of the war in Ukraine, the deployment of TB2s was able to provide a significant advantage to the Ukrainian forces. However, with the introduction of Russian air-defense systems to the battlefield, the effectiveness of the TB2s was significantly reduced. In other words, their deployment was a force multiplier for Russia and a game changer for TB2 drones. Despite this setback, the success stories of the TB2s in the early stages of the war demonstrate their potential as a formidable vehicle in the hands of skilled operators.
In all these war theaters (i.e., Haftar’s forces in Libya, al-Assad’s troops in Syria, the Armenian armed forces in Nagorno-Karabakh, and the Russian army in Ukraine), TB2s were deployed against forces that were mainly armed with Russian weapons. Despite sophisticated Russian air-defense systems used by the forces in these war theaters, TB2s have emerged as a formidable vehicle, thanks to its advanced technology and impressive performance capabilities. The TB2 drone has a small radar cross-section which makes it low observable and difficult to detect on radar.The drone is also equipped with electronic countermeasures (ECM) systems that can jam or disrupt radar and other sensors used by air defense systems. Additionally, it is highly maneuverable and can perform evasive maneuvers to avoid incoming threats.
These characteristics make it harder for Russian air defense systems to detect and track TB2s. However, the drones are potentially vulnerable to air defense systems, particularly those with advanced radars and surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). Russia possesses some of the most sophisticated air defense systems in the world, including the S-400, Triumf, and Pantsir-S1, which are capable of detecting and engaging a variety of low-altitude aerial targets, such as missiles and drones.
Moreover, the success of TB2s is not only derived from the drones themselves but also their weapons, which are MAM-L (Miniature Smart Munition - Laser Guided) and MAM-C (Miniature Smart Munition - GPS/INS Guided) smart munitions developed by Roketsan. They are designed to be compact and lightweight, which makes them well-suited for use on unmanned aerial vehicles such as the TB2 Bayraktar. They are also designed to minimize collateral damage and are highly accurate, which reduces the risk of unintended harm to civilians and non-combatants. Overall, the MAM-L and MAM-C smart munitions are versatile and effective weapons that provide the TB2 Bayraktar drone with a high degree of precision-strike capability. As such, they are one of the main protagonists in the success story of this technology.
C) The Human Cost of Drone Strikes: Civilian Casualties
The proliferation of armed drones has raised concerns about the growing number of civilian casualties resulting from drone attacks targeting insurgents in close proximity to civilian populations. There are several types of targets: static, moving (including pop-up), and reactive. Against these targets, there are primarily two possible types of attack: planned and unplanned. Planned military attacks are based on pre-prepared strategies and plans, and military commanders usually develop plans for these attacks. Unplanned military attacks, also known as ad-hoc attacks, are carried out in response to unexpected situations or opportunities. These attacks are typically made without prior planning or preparation, and they may involve a sudden response to enemy action, an opportunity to exploit a weakness in the enemy's defenses, or other unforeseen circumstances. In both cases, the last order of the strike is given by an officer in a UAV cell who is generally called a weapons officer. They and the commander of the planned organization are fully responsible for determining possible civil casualties. In this way, in order to coordinate a full drone attack, there should be a control cell, coordination procedure, and preparation before or during the attacks.
Calculating potential side effects and collateral damage is an integral part of military planning. This procedure is aimed at preventing civilian casualties during attacks and is a complex process that involves a range of factors and variables. In a military context, the process of calculating side effects is typically undertaken by a team of experts, which may include intelligence analysts, targeting experts, legal advisers, and others. The rules and principles that apply to the calculation of side effects and collateral damage in the context of military operations are established in several international legal instruments, including the Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocols, the Law of Armed Conflict, and the Principles of Distinction, Proportionality, and Precaution. Violations may constitute war crimes or crimes against humanity, and those responsible can be held accountable under international law. Despite efforts to establish legal norms and standards for the use of armed drones, there continue to be instances of violations by certain groups or countries in which the TB2 drone has been involved.
For instance, Turkey first exported Bayraktar TB2s to Ethiopia in October 2021, and the Ethiopian army began to deploy them against the Tigrayan rebels one month later with tangible results on the field. However, fast-trained drone operators are prone to make mistakes even if they have good intentions. The UN reports indicate that the Ethiopian Air Forces killed scores of civilians with Bayraktar TB2s. On 7 January 2022, the Ethiopian Air Force targeted an IDP camp in Dedebit with armed drones, killing and injuring approximately 60 civilians, according to findings of the report of the UN Human Rights Council. Evidence from the strike site showed that the Ethiopian Air Force carried out these attacks with Turkish armed drones and munitions.
This was not the last time drones were used to strike civilian targets in Ethiopia. On October 5, 2022, at least 50 people were killed by a probable drone attack that hit a school. This school was on a list of sites housing internally displaced persons (IDPs) provided by the Office of the United Nations Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator (OCHA) to the Ethiopian Foreign Ministry. Although the origin of the armed drones used in this latest attack is not yet known, they were most likely provided by Turkey or the United Arab Emirates.
D) Turkey's Unrestricted Export and International Regulations
One of the leading reasons for the popularity of Turkish TB2s is that they do not come with strings attached. Turkey deliberately chooses not to bind itself with international conventions that would restrict its drone exports. For instance, Turkey signed the Arms Trade Treaty that regulates international trade in conventional arms by establishing international standards governing arms transfers in 2013. Nonetheless, it still needs to ratify it.
Likewise, Turkey is not among the signatories of the Joint Declaration for the Export and Subsequent Use of Armed or Strike-Enabled Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. This declaration calls for regulating the export of armed drones. It also states that sales should be made consistent with the principles of existing multilateral export control and nonproliferation regimes, accounting for the potential recipient country’s history regarding adherence to its relevant international obligations and commitments.
Turkey is, however, a signatory of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). The objective of the MTCR is to limit the proliferation of missiles and UAVs that have the potential to carry nuclear, chemical, or biological weapons. The guidelines stipulate restrictions on the range and payload capacity of missiles and UAVs that can be traded or transferred between states, as well as on the production, testing, and deployment of these systems. Even so, MTCR is an informal political understanding and depends on the willingness of its signatories to fulfill their obligations and to regulate their national export control systems.
On the other hand, the Turkish government does not require lengthy parliamentary procedures to approve acquisitions. As a result, the time between signing a purchase contract for Turkish armed drones and deploying them is notably short. Furthermore, the owner of drone manufacturer Baykar is Selçuk Bayraktar, is also the son-in-law of Turkish President Erdogan. As exports of armed drones are a source of prestige and a family business for Erdogan’s administration, the export licensing procedure is largely a formality, in contrast to the procedures followed by many Western weapons producers. The list of Turkish arms exports is telling in this regard.
The emergence of new players in drone warfare has led to significant advancements in drone technology over the past decade, with Turkish armed drones becoming one of the most sought-after UAVs in recent years. The drones' advanced technology, including a small radar cross-section, electronic countermeasures, and maneuverability, make them difficult to detect and track. Nonetheless, as drone technology continues to advance, so do threats to the security of such vehicles. Despite their capabilities, UAVs are not immune to attacks and have specific vulnerabilities that adversaries can exploit. Besides, it should be noted that UAVs, including TB2s, are not a replacement for fighter aircraft. Specifically, they are not as fast or maneuverable as fighter aircraft and lack the situational awareness and decision-making capabilities of human pilots.
The use of armed drones has often been criticized for reducing the threshold for the use of force, leading decision-makers to resort to lethal force more readily against a broader range of perceived threats than in the past. In this vein, TB2 drones have been deployed in various war theaters, including Libya, Syria, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Ukraine. In Libya, the deployment of these drones in the civil war changed the nature of the conflict and the level of violence that ensued. In Syria, TB2s were deployed against the units of Al-Assad’s army to prevent an exodus of Syrian refugees and protect Turkish armed forces. In Nagorno-Karabakh, the drones were successful in overcoming Armenian defenses. In Ukraine, they have effectively destroyed Russian military equipment, especially in the early stages of the war.
The use of armed drones in military operations has also raised concerns about civilian casualties resulting from attacks targeting insurgents in close proximity to civilian populations. The process of calculating potential side effects and collateral damage is a complex procedure aimed at preventing civilian casualties during attacks, and violations may constitute war crimes or crimes against humanity. However, despite efforts to establish legal norms and standards for using armed drones, there continue to be violations.
Regardless of the legitimacy of complaints, armed drones are likely to remain a fixture in modern armed conflicts. However, to mitigate the risks associated with the proliferation of armed drones, it is crucial for Turkey and other countries to establish clear legal frameworks and engagement doctrines that articulate the means and goals of the use of force. Failure to do so will lead to an increase in civilian deaths and instability as armed drone technology continues to spread.