After the war over Nagorno-Karabakh: British military flirts with Turkish-style armed drones

Turkish unmanned aerial vehicles are smaller and much cheaper than their US counterparts. They can be procured in large numbers, so their loss in action is of little consequence.

There is growing support in the UK for a new programme with smaller armed drones. This is what the daily „Guardian“ writes with reference to senior officials of the British Ministry of Defence. According to the paper, the military should procure light-weight unmanned aerial vehicles like those used by Turkey in Azerbaijan’s attack on the region around Nagorno-Karabakh. These are significantly cheaper than the US combat drones currently flown by the Air Force. Therefore, they could be bought in much larger numbers.

Azerbaijan’s six-week war against the Armenian-defended region of Nagorno-Karabakh is considered the first to be decided with the help of drones. The Azerbaijani military used so-called kamikaze drones of the type „Harop“ from Israel, which can circle over the area of operations for hours before hitting. The German Army had also considered procuring these „loitering munitions“ until 2013, but initially postponed the plans until 2019 and later abandoned them in favour of larger drones.

A groundbreaking weapon, according to the British Defence Minister

Crucial to the war in Nagorno-Karabakh, however, were the „Bayraktar TB2s“ from Turkey, which President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has given to the government in Azerbaijan. They are the flagship of Turkey’s new drone industry and can be armed since 2015. Meanwhile, the Baykar Makina-made aircraft have been flying attacks in Turkey’s part of Kurdistan, in Syria and in Libya. In Iraq, the Turkish military murdered two senior government officials with a drone last summer.

Already in early December, British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace had described Turkish drones as a weapon which is „leading the way“. They had been responsible for the destruction of hundreds of tanks and armoured vehicles as well as air defence systems. Corresponding videos, accompanied by martial music, had been posted online by the Azerbaijani defence ministry during the war.

The price for a „Bayraktar TB2“ is estimated to be the equivalent of 1.6 million euros, without ground stations and other infrastructure even only half. This means that the system costs less than a tenth of the „Protector“ from the US manufacturer General Atomics, with which the British Air Force plans to modernise its fleet of armed drones. Great Britain was the first European state to deploy weaponised drones abroad from 2007 onwards; in the meantime, the French army also flies attacks with General Atomics drones.

Missile technology from Germany and Great Britain

Because the „Bayraktar TB2“ cannot yet be controlled via satellite, its range is limited to 150 km. Its payload is also comparatively low at 150 kilograms, but the drone can carry up to four laser-guided missiles. The weapons come from the Turkish company Roketsan; according to research by the German TV magazine „Monitor“, they were developed with the help of German technology. Their warheads are based on missiles made by TDW, a wholly owned subsidiary of the European missile manufacturer MBDA.

A year ago, the Guardian reported that the release unit for Roketsan’s missiles is also based on foreign technology. According to the report, the technology originates from a technology transfer from the Brighton-based company EDO, which in turn belongs to the US arms company Harris. Another British manufacturer had supplied fuel pumps for the „Bayraktar TB2“.

During the war over Nagorno-Karabakh, the United States-based „Armenian National Committee“ had made public other companies whose technology is built into the „Bayraktar TB2“. Wescam, the Canadian manufacturer of sensor technology, and the Austrian engine builder Rotax have since stopped their exports to the Turkish drone company. According to Turkish media close to the state, however, the products are now being replaced by domestic technology.

Four armed drone powers in Europe

Other states have also recognised the tactical advantage of the small „Bayraktar TB2“. First Qatar and Ukraine signed contracts with Baykar Makina, and a dozen are said to have already been delivered to the Ukrainian military. In total, the government in Kiev wants to buy 48 drones from Turkey. Because this is a considerable quantity, the two countries are planning an agreement to produce the aircraft in Ukraine. Subsequently, they could also be exported to Kazakhstan.

A year ago, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic had also announced that he was considering buying the Turkish drone – although Chinese „Rainbow“ drones have since been delivered to Serbia. Soon there will be four armed drone powers in Europe. Other states that have been planning to do so for years have not yet been able to reach a decision. These include Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and Germany.

Image: Bayraktar TB2 Runway, Bayhaluk, CC BY-SA 4.0

Autor: Matthias Monroy

Knowledge worker, activist, editor of the German civil rights journal Bürgerrechte & Polizei/CILIP.