From Iraq to Nagorno-Karabakh: just how effective are Turkey’s combat-tested drones?

In light of the latest flare-up in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Turkish drones have now experienced combat in four countries in addition to operations within Turkey’s boundaries. These case studies can help determine just how effective Turkish drone platforms are. 

Turkish drones have carried out reconnaissance and attack missions against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) group and its affiliates in Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan. They have succeeded in aerial assassinations against senior PKK figures, a capability Turkey first conclusively demonstrated it had back in August 2018. 

In Syria, Turkish drones have also targeted Islamic State and Syrian Kurdish fighters. More notably, in February-March 2020, Bayraktar TB2s and Anka-S drones decimated Syrian regime ground forces in the northwestern province of Idlib. 

In Libya, Bayraktars are credited with helping Turkey’s ally in Tripoli, the Government of National Accord (GNA), turn the tables against its enemy, General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), through a series of effective supporting strikes. 

In their latest use in combat, TB2s participated in the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijani service. Baku first expressed an interest in buying these drones last summer. Its premier has boasted about their combat performance against Armenian ground forces, which have been devastated by TB2s operating alongside Azerbaijan’s fleet of Israeli-built drones. 

“I think that the Bayraktar (and Anka-S series) have performed impressively in the Nagorno-Karabakh war, as well as over Syria and Iraq in different roles,” Justin Bronk, a research fellow who specializes in combat air power and technology at the London-based Royal United Services Institute think tank, told Ahval. 

However, he added that it’s important to note that a key feature in these conflicts is the general “lack of modern, coordinated medium and long-range air defences on the other side.” 

“Russian forces did not intervene to prevent the destruction of Assad’s armour in Syria, and the lone [Russian-built longe-range surface-to-air] S-300 battery in Armenian hands is not linked to a wider array of sensors, and is equipped with outdated radars optimized for fast jet and missile interceptions, not slower flying, smaller drones like the Bayraktar,” he said. 

Furthermore, the Turkish-built MAM air-launched micro-munitions are an important part of this success since they enable Bayraktar drones to destroy point-defence air defence systems like the Russian-built Pantsir-S1 from outside those system’s effective range. 

“As far as we can tell from reports from the battlefield, the Bayraktar drones are extremely effective in identifying and striking against Armenian positions, including air defence sites,” Sim Tack, a Senior Global Analyst for Stratfor, a RANE Company, told Ahval. 

However, he went on to point out that it is difficult “to accurately compare their performance to other systems, as the available information is not complete by any means.” 

That being said, the TB2s “definitely” showed impressive results in Syria and Libya against Russian-made (albeit, locally operated) air defence systems such as the Pantsir-S1. 

“The drones have proven to be an effective countermeasure to degrade ground-based air defences and will likely grow in prominence because of this,” Tack said. “In these theaters, the drones have also directly contributed to significant material losses and military offensives.” 

Analysts from the BlueMelange, an independent research group of Turkish Defence News, attributed the success of the TB2s to their “well-established combat and ISTAR [intelligence surveillance target acquisition and reconnaissance] experience over Libya, Syria, Iraq, Aegean and Turkish terrains.

“They are extremely efficient against Armenian armoured vehicles, bunkers, infantry units and several important A2/AD (anti-access/area-denial) assets thanks to a combination of their tactics and Armenia’s obsolete Russian-built air defence systems,” the analysts told Ahval. 

The analysts echoed Bronk’s assessment that a large part of these drones’ success against short-range and low-altitude Russian-built systems is thanks to the fact that these systems are incapable of detecting, never mind tracking, drones flying slowly at low altitudes. 

“It’s technically impossible for an Osa-AKM surface-to-air missile system to engage any target flying slower than 360km/h and at a range further than 6.5km,” they said. “The range of the main TB2 munition, the MAM-L, is around 8km.”

“There’s also the altitude limit for the Osa which is lower than the operational altitude of the TB2.” 

The analysts added that the TB2s performance over Nagorno-Karabakh is “really impressive”, citing statistics from the pro-Turkish Clash Report that estimated these drones destroyed $1 billion worth of Armenian hardware, ranging from radars, tanks, to air defence systems. 

Azerbaijan also operates a larger fleet of Israeli-built drones that have seen extensive combat in this latest war. These drones are markedly different from the TB2s since they are predominantly unarmed ISTAR systems and loitering munitions, also dubbed “suicide” or “kamikaze” drones.

“The independent researcher Oryx has listed all losses from both sides revealing that the total Armenian losses are two or threefold more than the Clash Report data,” the analysts said. 

“Therefore, we can conclude that both Turkish and Israeli systems are extremely deadly and not competitive but supporting each other.” 

Tack also had a similar assessment, pointing out that the Turkish TB2s serve a different purpose than the Israeli-built Harop loitering munitions. 

“Both are effective systems, but of course still only act as a force multiplayer within a much broader spectrum of operations,” he said.

BlueMelange analysis has sought to determine how many Turkish drones have been lost over these various battlefields. 

“According to our data, 20 almost definitely (99%), four probable (90%), three likely (75%) and seven possible (50%) i.e. maximum 34 (but optimum 24) were lost in the Libya war,” they said. 

“This number is very limited compared to the ground-breaking success story of these drones,” they said. “They have proven very successful in combat, ISTAR and counterinsurgency operations.” 

While this is the case, the success of these drones in combat can still be hindered by more effective air defences and other factors. 

“The arrival of Russian-origin modern A2/AD assets (Tor-M2/3, Buk-M2/3, new S350s, S300V4s, and upgraded Pantsirs), advanced land-based electronic warfare systems, jamming and advanced air assets to the battlefield as well as very cloudy winter conditions limit the drone’s capabilities,” the BlueMelange analysts said. 

Nevertheless, Turkish Anka-S and TB2s undoubtedly “achieved a landmark success story and scored a big milestone in modern warfare.” 

“They were instrumental in pushing back the LNA from the gate of Tripoli, crushing the PKK in Turkey, Iraq, and its affiliate in northern Syria as well as scoring a resounding victory against Assad’s forces in Idlib,” they said. 

“Today, the TB2s continue to showcase their impressive capabilities over the Nagorno-Karabakh.”

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.