A cheer rings out in a secret command centre. On the screen, another Russian missile launcher has vanished in a cloud of shrapnel and smoke. Working miles behind the front line, a team of Ukrainian drone operators is trying to turn the tide of the war against the Kremlin’s forces. The most effective weapon in their arsenal is the Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2. Soaring 160 meters above the battlefield, it delivers death at the push of a button. So fearsome is its reputation that it has inspired a love song that has gone viral in Ukraine and even a video game.
Lightweight and with a small profile, the Bayraktars are designed to evade anti-air systems and stay undetected for as long as possible, weighing in at less than a sixth of the US’s flagship Predator drone. At the same time, its 12-meter wingspan helps it stay in the air for as long as 30-hours. Plenty of time to unleash its four laser-guided missiles. Russia, meanwhile, lacks any attack drones. Instead, they rely on reconnaissance vehicles to guide their artillery. And where the American Predator drone costs around £30 million, the Turkish equivalent can be bought for as little as £750,000.
The Bayraktars’ success has cemented Turkey’s status as one of the world’s leading drone makers. Despite close relations with Russia, Ankara has long supported Ukraine by sending it extra Bayraktars in recent months, in addition to around two dozen it has sold to Kiev since 2019. Even more concerning for commanders in Moscow was the news last year that Ukraine had struck a deal to co-produce the TB2 locally as part of a partnership agreement.
A Bayraktar TB2 in Cyprus (Getty)
For the last few years, Turkey has been quietly arming countries in Russia’s backyard with advanced aerospace technology. The former Soviet Republics of Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan have signed deals for Turkish-made drones, while Azerbaijan used them to devastating effect against the Kremlin’s close ally, Armenia, last year in the brief war over Nagorno-Karabakh. Poland, Libya, Nigeria and Morocco are also on the list of nations that have supply deals with Ankara for the attack drone. The cost isn’t just appealing for countries with smaller defence budgets. It also makes the TB2 more expendable: operators like those in Kiev are happier to fly them in high-risk missions over enemy-controlled airspace.
The company that produces the TB2, Baykar, is run by the 42-year old Selçuk Bayraktar. The former engineering student at MIT, whose name translates as ‘standard bearer’, is married to the younger daughter of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The pair are said to be close.
Turkey’s army now operates more than 140 Bayraktars, meaning its capabilities far outstrip the UK, which has a fleet of just ten American made Reaper attack UAVs, already two decades’ old. Bayraktar has helped make Ankara’s forces self-sufficient when it comes to airpower, despite previously being heavily dependent on foreign imports. Production has only increased since 2019, when Washington booted Turkey out of its F-35 warplanes scheme after Ankara decided to buy Russian-made air defence systems.
Work is now underway on the new Akinci drone, which is equipped with greater stealth capabilities, top surveillance technology and new countermeasures hardware that will hamper enemy attempts to digitally hack the drone out of the sky. Earlier this month, just as Russia began its invasion, Baykar announced it had successfully tested the Akinci. Selçuk Bayraktar promised that it will be ‘the most powerful and combat-capable armed UAV in its class in the world’.
Russian analysts are no doubt also concerned about Turkey’s drone swarm technology, linking up large numbers of lethal UAVs in a coordinated attack. Information is fed between the drones, meaning onboard AI is able to better determine targets independently of a command centre. And the technology has already proven itself against Moscow-backed forces. In 2020, Turkey used a swarm to attack Syrian chemical warfare depots and missile systems in retribution for the deaths of 33 soldiers near the Turkish-Syrian border. So far, only the Israelis have been able to demonstrate similar tech.
Turkey’s ability to develop highly sophisticated – and crucially cheap – aerial attack vehicles is starting to reshape conflicts around the globe. Now, this new drone superpower is offering Ukraine a lifeline in its struggle against Vladimir Putin.
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