OpinionsCould the Turkish drones be a game changer in...

Could the Turkish drones be a game changer in the Donbass?

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The TB2 drone model was produced by the Bayraktar Savunma Turkish company in 2014 and entered Turkish army’s inventory the same year. Until 2018 it was used only in Turkey, especially in the eastern part of the country in operations against the PKK terrorist group. This type of medium altitude drone can reach up to 24,000 m, has a range of 150 km, 24 hours of flight time and can perform reconnaissance, surveillance and intelligence gathering missions. The drone also has the ability to transmit real-time information and images, hit certain targets with guided missiles and mark targets with laser in order to be hit by fighter jets.

Why are the TB2 drones so appreciated?

Following the 2019 military operations of the Turkish army in Syria and Libya, and the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan since the autumn of 2020, the Bayraktar TB2 Turkish drones began to be known and got the attention of international news agencies and think tanks, as well as state actors. They stood up especially for their effectiveness against Russian-made anti-aircraft systems such as the S-300, Pantsir S-1, 9K33 Osa and Buk-M1. Anti-aircraft systems play a particularly important role in providing protection to buildings and troops against air attacks, acting as a defence umbrella. The TB2 drones have once again reached the international stage due to the way they managed to tip the scales in Azerbaijan’s favour in the 44-day war with Armenia.

According to some experts, the ability of TB2 drones to destroy Russian anti-aircraft systems such as S-300, Pantsir S-1, 9K33 Osa, Buk-M1, rely on their ability to fly at low altitude and at a low speed, which would make them undetectable by the anti-aircraft systems radars.  Also, in the conflict zones where TB2 drones were used, the Koral electronic warfare system was also noticed. This is a mobile electronic warfare system mounted on an 8×8 vehicle and is developed by the Turkish company ASELSAN. The Koral system is used to jam enemy radars and has a range of about 200 km. Therefore, the Koral system could have also contributed to the success of Turkish drones.

Since January 2018, the Bayraktar TB2 model has been used beyond Turkey’s borders, during the Turkish army operation in Syria, known as Operation Olive Branch. Also, since 2018, the Turkish military has used the TB2 model to bomb PKK targets in northern Iraq. Soon, Qatar, Libya, Azerbaijan and Ukraine bought TB2 drones, the last three being interested in using them against Russian anti-aircraft systems.

The effectiveness of the TB2 drones against the above mentioned Russian anti-aircraft systems has made the countries that face Russian military technique, such as Azerbaijan, to buy this type of drones. Also, states such as Ukraine, which are facing threats from the Russian Federation, have decided to use this type of drone, in the military operations in the eastern part of the country.

Following the successes registred by the TB2 in the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, the demand for this type of drones has increased considerably and more and more states have signed contracts to buy them. Among this states are Poland, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Morocco, Niger and Ethiopia.

Between 2019-2020, and especially after the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Turkish news agencies, especially public news agencies such as TRT and Anadolu, as well as private ones such as CNN Türk, Daily Sabah and Hürriyet, published numerous articles, in Turkish but also in English, about the effectiveness of TB2 drones in Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh. The TB2 model was promoted and presented as a successful product of the national defence industry and as one of the best on the market in terms of price-quality ratio, for the medium altitude drones category.

The aforementioned conflicts represented a stepping stone for the TB2 drones and a chance to prove their effectiveness in real combat conditions. This is the best advertisement for military technology. Moreover, TB2 drones have also shown that they could be a game changer in a conflict, being able to shift the balance and be a decisive factor in winning battles and even wars. Moreover, the efficiency against Russian-made anti-aircraft systems and their low price have attracted the attention of both states that feel threatened by the Russian Federation and those that want to equip their army with modern combat equipment. If a drone built by Bayraktar costs between $ 1 million and $ 2 million, a similar drone built by the British Army is worth over $ 20 million.

Are the Turkish drones a threat to the Russian Federation?

In March 2019, Bayraktar delivered the first TB2 drones to Ukraine. On October 26 2021, about two and a half years after this event, the Ukrainian army used its TB2 drones for the first time against the positions of the separatists, successfully destroying a howitzer. This irritated the Russian Federation, and on October 27, Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said that the sale of Turkish drones to Ukraine could destabilise the situation in Donbass. Soon after, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu stated that Turkey could not be blamed for the attack, because the drones belong to Ukraine. Also, he added that Turkey does not blame Russia when it finds Russian-made weapons during counterterrorism operations, referring to some of the weapons used by the PKK terrorist group. On 3 December in a phone conversation between Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Vladimir Putin, the Russian president brought back into discussion the use of Turkish drones by Ukraine, stating that this has a devastating effect on the Minsk agreement.

At the same time, in an interview offered by Dmitry Peskov to the Greek television Ant1 and broadcasted on 10 December, he mentioned that Russia has criticized Turkey for selling drones to Ukraine. Peskov also underlined that this encourages Ukraine to choose the use of force to solve the conflict in Donbas.

The fact that Turkish drones destroyed many Russian anti-aircraft systems was a serious blow to the Russian military technique. This put Moscow on guard and made it look for solutions to counter TB2 drones. Also, the efficiency of the TB2 drones could be also attributed to the fact that in the conflict zones in which they operated, there were no modern electronic warfare systems that could interfere with their GPS signal. Therefore, considering Russia’s modern electronic warfare systems, it remains to be seen whether TB2 drones will have the same impact on the Donbass war as they did on the conflicts in Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh.

The improvement of the Ukrainian army capabilities, especially with Turkish combat equipment, is also in Turkey’s interest, which wants to put pressure on the Russian Federation, giving the fact that the two countries are in a direct competition in the Middle East, the Black Sea and the Caucasus. In September 2021 Bayraktar and Kiev signed an agreement to build joint training and maintenance centers in Ukraine, and is planed that the production of the TB2 drones to be made in the country. Moreover, in September Ukraine ordered another 24 TB2 drones, in addition to the 12 already in its inventory.

Moscow has been visibly disturbed by the use of TB2 drones against pro-Russian separatists in Donbass. One week after the incident, the Russian Federation began concentrating troops and military equipment near Ukraine’s border, suggesting that an attack was being prepared. US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin’s October 19 visit to Kiev, and his encouragement to Ukraine to continue reforms to join NATO, were also further reasons that irritated Moscow.

The dissatisfaction of the Russian Federation comes in the context in which Turkish drones can put pressure on the positions of the separatists and have the potential to change the front line in Ukraine’s favour. At the same time, the use of Turkish drones in Donbass can have a destabilizing effect on the conflict and on the security environment in the Black Sea region.

The drones provide a strategic advantage to the Ukrainian army by transmitting real-time images of the areas flown over and relevant information regarding the positions of the separatists and their military technique. At the same time, they have the opportunity to neutralize these targets without losses among Ukrainian soldiers. The relatively low cost of the drones, compared to other equivalent types available on the market, makes the loss of some during combat less costly.

The modernization of the Ukrainian army and its equipping with modern fighting technique is a serious problem for the Russian Federation. Ukraine’s acquisition of TB2 drones requires Moscow to increase the number of electronic warfare systems in Donbass. Russia already has some of the most powerful electronic warfare systems in Donbas, and especially in Crimea, as an integral part of its A2 / AD system. Electronic warfare systems are capable of jamming radars, communications systems and the GPS signals of enemy drones.

Thus, in the next period, it is possible that the separatists will try to destroy as many TB2 drones as possible in order to shatter the idea of their superiority over the Russian anti-aircraft systems. This would also affect the image and prestige of TB2 drones and highlight the effectiveness of Russian military technology.

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