The Killing Fad: Agile Drones

Drones built in Turkey with affordable digital technology wrecked tanks and other armored vehicles, as well as air-defense systems, of Russian protégés in battles waged in Syria, Libya and Azerbaijan. These drones point to future warfare being shaped as much by cheap but effective fighting vehicles as expensive ones with the most advanced technology. China, too, has become a leading war drone exporter to the Middle East and Africa. Iran-linked groups in Iraq and Yemen used drones to attack Saudi Arabia. At least 10 countries, from Nigeria to the United Arab Emirates, have used drones purchased from China to kill adversaries, defense analysts say.

Flying alone or in a group, these drones can surprise troops and disable poorly concealed or lightly defended armored vehicles, a job often assigned to expensive warplanes. The drones can stay quietly aloft for 24 hours, finding gaps in air-defense systems and helping target strikes by warplanes and artillery, as well as firing their own missiles. Militaries, including the U.S., are upgrading air-defense systems to catch up with the advances, seeking methods to eliminate low-budget drones without firing missiles that cost more than their targets. The U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory is also developing Skyborg and Valkyrie, lower-cost autonomous aircraft that are part of an innovation program

Israel and the U.S. have long used high-end drones in counterterrorism operations to target prominent enemies. But the countries have hesitated to sell their top models, even to allies, for fear of proliferation…Technological advances and global competitors have produced inexpensive alternatives.

The standard-bearer of the latest armed-drone revolution emerged last year on the battlefields around Turkey, the Bayraktar TB2. Compared with the American MQ-9, the TB2 is lightly armed, with four laser-guided missiles. Its radio-controlled apparatus limits its basic range to around 200 miles, roughly a fifth of the ground the MQ-9 can cover. Yet it is utilitarian, and reliable—qualities reminiscent of the Soviet Kalashnikov AK-47 rifle that changed warfare in the 20th century. A set of six Bayraktar TB2 drones, ground units, and other essential operations equipment costs tens of millions of dollars, rather than hundreds of millions for the MQ-9…

Ukraine signed a deal in January 2019 to buy TB2 drones from Turkey, receiving at least six so far, and Kyiv is in talks for joint production. A Ukrainian company is manufacturing engines for the latest Baykar drone, a larger model with a heavier payload than the TB2. The country hopes the drones will discourage a repeat of the Kremlin’s 2014 invasions. …Turkey’s drone sales have riled Moscow. …

The TB2 was born of Turkey’s dissatisfaction with available models from the U.S. and Israel, and the country’s desire for systems under its control to fight the PKK, a Kurdish militant group….Azerbaijan, geographically and culturally close to Turkey, procured a set of TB2 drones last year. The country had lost control of the Nagorno-Karabakh region to Armenia in a war that ended in a 1994 cease-fire. Rising petroleum wealth had bolstered Azerbaijan’s military in the years since. The TB2s, as well as Israeli-made drones, helped Azerbaijan overwhelm Armenian forces. Attacks were recorded for videos and posted online by Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry….

The Azerbaijan victory caught the attention of Turkey’s suppliers. Some companies and countries, including Canada, halted export of components used in the TB2. [Too little too late?]

Excerpt from James Marson and Brett Forrest, Armed Low-Cost Drones, Made by Turkey, Reshape Battlefields and Geopolitics, WSJ, June 4, 2021

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