Arms to Ukraine
How useful are Turkish-made drones fighting in Ukraine?

Propaganda videos boasting of the successes of the Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drones in the Ukraine war are popular on social media. Elmas Topcu asks what role these drones are really playing in the conflict

Several congratulatory videos have circulated on Ukrainian and Turkish social media channels in recent days, boasting of the exploits of the Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drone. The Ukrainian military has used the drone successfully against the Russian military several times, the videos, with English and Turkish subtitles, claim. They often include pictures of exploding or destroyed Russian vehicles and equipment.

But exactly how successful the Bayraktar drones, often known simply as TB2s, have been during the Russian invasion of Ukraine has not yet been independently verified.

Ukraine has had TB2 drones since 2019 and has purchased around 50 over the past three years. Last Wednesday, the Ukrainian Defence Ministry stated that a further, unspecified number of TB2 drones had been purchased and that these were ready to enter combat. On Thursday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said his country had benefitted greatly from the Turkish-made drones.

Turkish-made drones a popular purchase

As usual when it comes to arms shipments, Turkey has not commented on the matter. The world often only learns of the existence of these drones from media reports, if they are used in combat or if the recipient country talks about it.

The Bayraktar TB2 was developed and produced by a Turkish company, Baykar Technology. The business belongs to two brothers and was first founded in 1986. Over that time it has grown to become a giant of Turkish arms manufacturing, belonging to the Bayraktar family. The son-in-law of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Selcuk Bayraktar, is the company's chief technology officer.

Baykar Technology has close ties with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (photo: picture-alliance/AA)
Walking a foreign policy tightrope: Turkey's President Erdogan has maintained good relations with both Russia and Ukraine for years. Turkey has supplied combat drones to Ukraine but bought surface-to-air missiles, the S-400 system, from the Russians. "It's going to become more difficult to maintain that kind of balance in the future," said Daria Isachenko, an expert on security and defence policy at the Center for Applied Turkey Studies at SWP. She believes Erdogan cannot afford to play favourites with either Russia or Ukraine, as this would have serious security and economic consequences

According to the company itself, it grew its exports sevenfold between 2006 and 2021. Media reports say the TB2 has brought business orders from 16 countries, including Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Morocco, Tunisia, Qatar, Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan. Poland was the first NATO member to purchase the drone last year, adding 24 to its arsenal.

The TB2 has flown more than 420,000 hours in places like Syria, Libya and Iraq. Many analysts believe the drone was a decisive weapon during the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2020.

The TB2 has also recently been used in Ethiopia. According to investigators, an attack by the drone killed at least 59 civilians in Tigray.

The Bayraktar TB2 is 6.5 metres long and has a wingspan of 12 metres. It can stay in the air for up to 24 hours and travels at maximum speeds of 220 kilometres an hour. Additionally, the TB2 is less expensive than other similar drones.

Could the TB2 influence the Ukraine war?

It's unclear how many drones Ukraine has at its disposal, and whether Turkey has delivered all of the latest order. But if Ukraine did have all the drones it asked for, could this change the outcome of the country's war with Russia?

Wolfgang Richter, a retired colonel in the German army and a military expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), doesn't think so.

A drone can only attack one target at a time, he pointed out. "That means it can take out tanks or artillery pieces," he continued. If the Ukrainian military did have all the drones it had ordered, it could inflict losses on the Russian side but compared to ground combat, the impact of drone warfare would be limited, Richter argued.

Richter pointed out that there was a column of around 600 combat vehicles approaching the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, and that the Russians were attacking Ukraine from four different directions. Additionally, nobody knew whether Ukrainian combat drones were still operational or whether some had already been destroyed.

 

Turkey's President Erdogan has maintained a good relationship with both Russia and Ukraine for years. Turkey has supplied combat drones to Ukraine but bought surface-to-air missiles, the S-400 system, from the Russians.

It's going to become more difficult to maintain that kind of balance in the future, said Daria Isachenko, an expert on security and defence policy at the Center for Applied Turkey Studies at SWP. She believes Erdogan cannot afford to play favourites with either Russia or Ukraine, as this would have serious security and economic consequences.

Russia cannot replace what the Western alliance offers Turkey, but nor can the West replace Russia in Turkey's calculations, she said. So, she believes, Erdogan will only do what is necessary.

Although Turkey has invoked the Montreux Convention and blocked the passage of Russian warships from naval areas it controls, Isachenko doesn't think Turkey would join the West's sanctions regime against Russia.

"Because that could quickly be followed by a response from Moscow," she explained. "And this would then hit the Turkish economy hard, especially in areas like tourism, construction and wheat imports." Turkey imports around 70% of its wheat from Russia.

Elmas Topcu

© Deutsche Welle 2022

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