Warplanes: Small Wonders


March 14, 2022: The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 was not unexpected but the poor performance of the Russian military was a surprise, even to the Ukrainians. One of those surprises was the Russian inability to gain air superiority. The Russian air force has dominated the skies over Syria for years. But in Ukraine Russian helicopters (transports and gunships) as well as large transports were more often seen, and shot down, than Russian jet fighters and ground attack aircraft. The Russian helicopters still operate inside Ukraine, but have to do so carefully because the Ukrainians have received over 10,000 modern portable anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, which were distributed to hundreds of small teams of twenty or so soldiers and local volunteers who know the local terrain and secondary roads better than the Russians. These teams are directed to roads used by Russian convoys or areas where combat vehicles are concentrated and carry out surprise attacks. Local civilians report Russian activity and this is passed on to the attack teams. Ukraine also receives recent commercial satellite photos of Russian activity. Ukraine also has over twenty armed (with laser guided missiles) TB2 UAVs purchased from Turkey before the invasion with more delivered, via Poland, in early March.

The inability of the Russians to deal with TB2 is another mystery. Russia has encountered hostile TB2s in Libya and Armenia. In Libya Turkish forces were backing one faction in 2020-21 while Russian forces were supporting another. The TB2s inflicted a lot of damage on the Libyan forces Russian supported. This included destroying the new mobile Pantsir anti-aircraft system Russia had brought to Libya to deal with UAVs like the TB2. In 2021 Russian supported Armenian forces who were defeated by Turkish supported Azerbaijani forces. Ukrainians assumed that by early 2022 Russia had finally responded to the TB2 threat. For reasons still unexplained, that was not the case.

The initial airstrikes on Ukrainian military bases, using hundreds of ballistic and cruise missiles, was also a failure because the Ukrainians received a warning from a reliable source a few hours before the attack and were able to disperse most of their troops and aircraft before the missiles hit.

Russian fighters and ground attack aircraft were not used, even though both of these aircraft types have been used regularly in Syria. The most likely reason for the absence of the jets in Ukraine was the lack of smart (GPS guided) bombs and laser guided missiles for these aircraft. Russian was seen using these bombs and missiles, briefly, in Syria. The reason was that, while Russia had developed these guided weapons at greats expense, it could not afford to buy many of them. Those used in Syria simply verified the guided weapons worked. Some had problems and Russia used the Syria experience to fix that. If Russia does have a small stockpile of these weapons, they are reserved for national emergencies. The Ukrainian invasion was, according to captured Russian planning documents, supposed to be over in fifteen days with a new pro-Russia government installed in the capital Kyiv. That was not considered a national emergency but an internal security operation.

The Russians underestimated the degree of Ukrainian resistance and key senior Russian officials believed most Ukrainians would support the Russian liberation effort. These attack plans were kept secret, in part because most Russians were more realistic and opposed a large-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The situation maps showing Russian troops in Ukraine are also misleading. Ukraine is a big country and the Russian forces are spread over a large area. Russians don’t control much territory as they concentrate on maintaining control of a few roads using roadblocks, check points and armed escorts for some supply convoys. Most of the time the roads are available to any civilian vehicles. This enables the Ukrainian ambush teams to reach a portion of a road suitable for an ambush, conceal themselves and their vehicles and wait for the approaching convoy. These battles mean Russian troops deeper inside Ukraine are usually short of fuel, ammunition, medical supplies, food and reinforcements. That accounts for the poor morale among the Russian forces and their lackluster performance. Another problem is that many of the 100,000 Russian troops inside Ukraine are conscripts doing their one year of service and banned, by law, from serving in a combat zone unless there is a national emergency. Ukraine has about 200,000 soldiers and reservists as well as over 100,000 armed volunteers defending Ukraine. These defenders have the support of nearly all Ukrainians while the invaders do not.

All these errors and poor decisions by Russian military and political leaders don’t guarantee a Ukrainian victory, but they make such a win a possibility.

One of the more embarrassing failures was the Russian inability to deal with the Turkish TB 2 armed UAVs Ukraine purchased from Turkey before the invasion. When Russian found out that Ukraine had ordered and received more TB2s after the invasion began, they complained to Turkey that it was taking sides in the war. President Erdogan of Turkey responded that the firm that developed and manufactured the TB2 was a private company and encouraged to sell as many TB2s as possible, especially to export customers. It was also known that the firm making the TB2 has Erdogan’s MIT-trained and entrepreneurial son-in-law as their technical director.

Ukraine used the TB2 as a mobile anti-vehicle weapon that could quickly reach a Russian supply convoy, especially one carrying fuel, and destroy a few vehicles with laser guided missiles and immobilize the convoy long enough for one of the ground teams to reach the location and finish the work. Russian drivers were smarter than their leaders and learned to abandon their vehicles and walk away before Ukrainian ground forces arrived. The TB2 was embarrassing for the Russians in other ways, as it demonstrated how Turkey could develop and produce effective combat UAVs before Russia could.

Four months before the invasion, Ukraine used one of its armed Turkish TB2 UAVs to destroy a Russian self-propelled howitzer in eastern Ukraine. Russian forces had used this howitzer to break the ceasefire by shelling a Ukrainian position, killing one soldier and wounding two others. This was the first combat use of the TB2 in eastern Ukraine (Donbas) where Russian soldiers and Russian-backed locals sought to take over and annex two Ukrainian provinces in 2014. Swift and unexpected Ukrainian resistance quickly halted the Russian advance and since 2015 there have been a series of ceasefires that are regularly broken, and then revived by the Russians. This practice continued after the invasion,

Ukraine received its first TB2s in 2019 and used them mainly for surveillance, obtaining a growing number of videos showing Russian forces violating the Donbas ceasefire. Ukraine was reluctant to use the TB2 laser guided missiles, as the Russians might interpret that as an escalation and try harder to shoot down the TB2s. Ukrainians soon discovered that the TB2s were indeed vulnerable to ground fire and anti-aircraft missiles, but not so vulnerable that the risks outweigh the benefits. That was the Turkish experience when they used the armed TB2s aggressively against irregulars in Syria, Iraq, Eastern Turkey, Armenia and Libya. That included destroying modern anti-aircraft systems designed to eliminate large UAVs like the TB2. The first use in Donbas was justified by the need to deal with a Russian violation of the ceasefire. The Russians declared the TB2 use an escalation (true) and unprovoked (false). To the Ukrainians that indicated the TB2 missile had the desired effect.

At the end of 2018 Ukraine spent $69 million on two Bayraker TB2 UAV systems. Each system contains six UAVs, three truck-mounted ground control systems, two remote video terminals, which troops can use and maintenance gear. The first system was delivered in 2019 and the other in 2020. By 2022 Ukraine had received over twenty TB2s.

Ukraine is the second export customer for Bayraktar, as Qatar had earlier ordered one system. The primary customer is the Turkish military, which already has six systems and plans to buy 151 UAVs, mostly as systems but also spares for expected operational losses to accidents or enemy fire. Even before the 2021 use of an armed TB2 in Donbas, Ukraine had ordered 24 more TB2s for use by the army and navy.

The small Turkish firm that developed Bayraktar borrowed heavily from commercial technology that has already proved itself. As a result, Bayraktar was the first Turkish locally designed and built UAV of its class to enter service (with the Turkish Air Force) in 2014.

Bayraktar is a 650 kg (1,433 pounds) aircraft with a 55 kg (110 pound) payload and an endurance of 24 hours. In 2016 Bayraktar TB2 was equipped to carry two 22.5 kg (50 pound) Turkish made Mam-L laser-guided missiles. With a range of 8 kilometers, the Mam-l weighs half as much as the American Hellfire and is light enough for Bayraktar TB2 to carry two of them. These are used regularly against PKK separatists in Turkey and Islamic terrorists and rebel groups in Syria.

Since the late 1990s, Turkish firms have developed and deployed several workable UAV designs. But Bayraktar was the most reliable, affordable and had the most features compared to their Turkish competitors and was competitive with similar Chinese UAVs.

Turkish UAV development has been going on since the late 1990s when Israel was still an ally and supplier of weapons and tech to the Turks. By 2003 an anti-Israel Islamic government was running Turkey and local UAV development was crippled but not destroyed as military and technical relationships with Israel were severed.

The smaller Turkish firm that developed Bayraktar UAVs paid closer attention to the Turkish experience with Israeli UAV tech and managed to develop and manufacture competitive UAVs sooner than the larger Turkish firms that paid more attention to Turkish politics than to customer needs. The Bayraktar TB2 was very similar to the Israeli Heron UAV, which was the primary UAV for the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces). Bayraktar also paid a lot of attention to software development, learning much from the experience of the Israelis and Americans. The latest Bayraktar TB2 flight software not only takes off and lands automatically but can also move from its parking spot on an airfield, taxi to the runway and takeoff without human intervention other than commands from the airbase flight controllers. In flight, the control software has several redundancies, as in backup procedures for various emergencies, that make Bayraktar TB2 a safer and easier to operate UAV. Ukraine probably could have obtained a similar UAV from China for less money but Bayraktar already had a reputation for reliability and better software than most. Another bonus for buying UAVs from Turkey is that Russia is trying, with mixed success, to turn Turkey into an ally. The Turks are not cooperating. Ukraine also does business with China, which is also an ally with Russia but believes business is business.




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