Winning: Turkey Takes On China

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April 25, 2020: In the last few years Turkish designed UAVs have gained a lot of combat experience in Syria, Yemen, Ukraine and Libya. Turkish aircraft are effective and now China, Israel and the U.S. have another competitor in the combat UAV market. Turkey claims that their UAVs in Syria have destroyed over 2,500 targets, nearly all of them belonging to the Syrian military as well as some belonging to Kurdish separatists (mainly Syrian, but some Turkish) forces. The targets included at least 135 tanks, 40 other armored vehicles, 45 tube artillery weapons, 44 multiple rocket launchers, twelve anti-tank guns, 29 anti-aircraft systems, one UAV, eight helicopters and nine ammunition storage sites. Turkey described how one of the Syrian anti-aircraft systems, a Russian made Pantsir mobile missile launcher was destroyed by a UAV. Normally a Pantsir is active and searching for targets, including hostile UAVs. Turkey had another of their new systems, the Koral jammer, which is vehicle mounted and apparently widely used in Syria, jam the Pantsir sensors so a Bayraker TB2 UAV could destroy  the Pantsir vehicle with a Mam-L laser-guided missile. . The Turks provided video.

The Mam-L has a range of 8 kilometers and weighs half as much as the American Hellfire. Thus Mam-L is light enough for smaller UAVs to carry two of them. Mam-L and the larger UMTAS are the principal weapons of Turkish armed UAVs and are used regularly against PKK separatists in Turkey and Syrian forces and rebel groups in Syria. Mam-L and UMTAS are available to all customers for Turkish UAVs large enough to carry them.

The 25 kg (55 pound) Mam-L is an unpowered version of the larger (37.5 kg/83 pound) UMTAS rocket-powered laser-guided missile. Both have a range of eight kilometers but the Mam-L glides to the target and range is less if the UAV is at a lower altitude. UMTAS is much faster and has a “fire and forget” feature where once the UAV laser designator identifies the target, the UMTAS will home in on it while the UAV seeks other targets. Mam-L is used against smaller, unarmored and stationary targets. UMTAS is described as an anti-tank missile and effective against tanks whereas the Mam-L will usually only damage a tank if that. Most of the targets Turkish UAVs attacked were troops in the open, bunkers, buildings, or unarmored vehicles.

Most Turkish UAV manufacturers are attracting export orders. At the end of 2018, Ukraine ordered two Bayraker TB2 UAV systems for $69 million. 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. Ukraine is the second export customer for Bayraker, as Qatar had earlier ordered one system. Saudi Arabia is also a customer. The primary user 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).

Turkey has not released a lot of information on their UAV losses in combat. In Libya, where several hundred Turkish troops and several thousand Arab mercenaries intervened in the civil war in 2019, the Bayraktar TB2 was used a lot and the opposition, the LNA (Libyan National Army), has claimed to have shot down 28 of them as of mid-April. Photographic evidence of only a few of these destroyed UAVs is available and the LNA admits that many of the Bayraktar TB2s were destroyed over enemy (Libyan GNA/Government of National Accord) forces. The LNA controls about 80 percent of Libya and Turkey intervened because the GNA is recognized by the UN while the LNA is only recognized by most Libyans. The GNA is, like Turkey, more tolerant of Islamic militant groups and was willing to sign a treaty that bolstered Turkish claims on waters off Greece that might contain natural gas deposits. Turkey is seen by most countries, including Russia and nearly all Arab states, as the unwelcome foreign invader in Libya. As a result, Turkey does not like to discuss its military operations there. The LNA is actively supported by several Arab states, mainly Egypt and the UAE (United Arab Emirates). The UAE has been operating its Chinese armed UAVs in Libya for at last two years and the LNA has an active air force that can shoot down large UAVs like the Bayraktar TB2. In Ukraine, the Bayraktar TB2 is facing Russian backed forces who also have a lot of anti-aircraft weapons and have shot down several of the Turkish UAVs. Same situation in Yemen, where Iran-backed rebels are a threat to Turkish UAVs. Despite these combat losses, the Turkish UAVs have performed as expected. All UAVs of this type, be they Israeli or American are vulnerable. A slow UAV is unequipped to deal with most anti-aircraft missiles but able to avoid most ground fire if they stay at a high (6,000 meters, 20,000 feet) altitude.

The small Turkish firm that developed Bayraktar borrowed heavily from commercial technology that has already proved itself. As a result, Bayraktar was the first locally designed and built UAV of its class to enter service 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 Turkish made Mam-L laser-guided missiles.

The same firm also developed the much smaller Bayraktar Mini UAV which is a 4.6 kg (9.9 pounds) aircraft that is battery powered and hand-launched. Endurance is 60 minutes and the Bayraktar can operate up to 15 kilometers from the operator. The Turkish Army has been using the Bayraktar Mini since 2007. The Turkish national police have also ordered the Bayraktar Tactical.

Turkey has another firm producing large UAVs for commercial and military use. The latest entrant is Vestel, a Turkish conglomerate that has long manufactured appliances, computer equipment and commercial grade equipment for a wide variety of needs. In 2016 Vestel offered the Turkish military a new large UAV design, the Karayel. The Turkish military tried them out and by 2019 Vestel even had its first export customer, Saudi Arabia. The Turkish military has been using it in Syria and against PKK Kurdish separatists in eastern Turkey and was pleased with the results. Karayel is a half-ton UAV with a max endurance of 20 hours and a controlled flight range of 200 kilometers. Preprogrammed flights can go much farther. Karayel can fly high enough (6,500 meters/20,000 feet) to avoid most anti-aircraft weapons.

At least one Karayel was shot down in Yemen by rebels operating along the Saudi border. This UAV may have been flying lower to obtain more detailed video of what was below and came within range of rebel anti-aircraft missiles. Or it may have had equipment problems. Whatever the case the Saudis had at least one of them, which is now lost.

Karayel is well designed, with multiple redundancies and automatic (software controlled) landing and takeoff. Max payload is 190 kg, which means for shorter (a few hours) missions it can carry four Turkish made 22.5 kg (50 pound) Mam-L laser-guided missiles (similar to Hellfire) or two 50 kg GPS guided bombs. For longer (up to 20 hour) surveillance missions Karayel carries only about 55 kg of sensors (day/night vidcams or even a lightweight radar).

Turkish firms have developed and deployed several workable combat UAVs and the Turkish armed forces have tried them all. In early 2018 the Turkish Air Force received six of 40 Anka UAVs they had ordered back in 2013. At that point eight Ankas had been built but two crashed during testing. Anka is actually delivered as a system and each of these consists of three UAVs plus ground control equipment and all necessary maintenance and ground operations gear. Looking very similar to the American Predator, the Anka is a 1.6 ton aircraft propelled by a rear-facing propeller. The payload is 200 kg (440 pounds), endurance is 24 hours and Anka can operate up to 200 kilometers from its controller. Max altitude is 7,900 meters (26,000 feet). A UAV like this would sell for over $2 million each. The Turkish military was supposed to receive its first Anka by the end of 2013 but that was delayed by technical problems. Turkey also announced a larger (four ton) version of Anka that can carry missiles or a lot more reconnaissance equipment. That has also been delayed and none have entered service yet. In 2016 Turkey put the original Anka UAV into service for the first time but deliveries of production models only began in 2017. The Turkish Air Force ordered 30 aircraft (ten systems) in 2013. Anka was late to arrive and the smaller, less expensive and more reliable Bayraker TB2 has become the most widely used by the Turkish military.

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. But 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. Turkish firms could use a lot of existing tech to build larger UAVs suitable for commercial use. What makes large UAVs attractive to the military are the accessories, like sensors and the ability to use weapons. Take that out of most current military UAVs and you have a UAV for commercial markets, which includes border patrol and coast guard.

Anka was clearly a military UAV, of the type the Israelis had pioneered in the 1980s. The Turkish government apparently ordered a state-owned firm to match the leased Israeli Heron UAVs used by Turkish forces. These Herons were eventually (2017) returned to Israel. Building large UAVs similar to the Heron proved difficult.

One of the disputes with Israel was over electronic accessories Turkey wanted to add to the Israeli UAVs. The Turkish developer was perpetually late and when the delivery was made there were problems installing these on the Israeli UAV. The Turks blamed the Israelis and the Israelis kept quiet until they got their UAVs back. Then details of the over-promised and under-delivered Turkish technology were released. This situation was not unique to the large UAVs like Anka, and with other ambitious Turkish defense projects where the government demanded more than local firms, especially state-owned ones, could deliver. With the Israelis out of the picture, there was no one the government could blame for the years of delays in getting the Anka operational. 

The smaller Turkish firm that developed the two 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 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, mainly alternate procedures for various emergencies that make Bayraktar TB2 safer and easier to operate. 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 Ukraine to buy UAVs from Turkey was that Russia is trying, with mixed success, to turn Turkey into an ally. Ukraine also does business with China, which is also an ally with Russia but believes business is business.

The Heron Shoval UAVs Israel sold/leased to Turkey are very similar to the American Predator A (or MQ-1). The Shoval weighs about the same (1.2 tons) and has the same endurance (40 hours). Shoval has a slightly higher ceiling (10,000 meters versus 8,100) and software which allows it to automatically take off, carry out a mission, and land automatically. Not all American large UAVs can do this. Both Predator and Shoval cost about the same ($5 million), although the Israelis are willing to be flexible on price. The Shoval does have a larger wingspan (16.5 meters/51 feet) than the Predator (13.2 meters/41 feet) and a payload of about 137 kg (300 pounds).

Meanwhile, the anti-Israel Turkish government thought Shoval would be easy to replicate because Turkey's economy has been booming since 2000 and the Islamic government made good on its pledge to crack down on the corruption that had long crippled the economy. As the economy grew, the government sought to make Turkey more self-sufficient in military equipment, and UAVs are considered part of this program. But this was mainly for show, not for real. One exception was Turkish commercial firms developing, and delivering, less ambitious UAVs like the Bayraktar TB2 and Mini UAVs. By 2017 state-owned firms caught on. That year STM, a state-owned Turkish firm, put on the market three new locally developed UAVs. These UAVs (Alpagu, Kargu and Togan) are simpler and smaller than earlier Turkish efforts. STM declared that the three new UAVs were already in service, which meant that Turkish troops and police tested them and found them useful. What the manufacturers want is export sales and these UAVs address a market that is currently very crowded and competitive.

Alpagu is a 3.7 kg (8.2 pounds) fixed-wing UAV that can do surveillance but is primarily meant for use as a portable cruise missile as it carries half a kilogram warhead and can be guided to a target up to 5,000 meters away by a soldier. The other two STM UAVs (Kargu and Togan) are based on commercial quad-copter designs. Kargu is a 6.3 kg (13.8 pounds) UAV while Togan is a 7.5 kg (16.5 pounds) quad-copter design. These also carry a wide variety of accessories already available for UAVs like this. The problem with smaller UAVs like this is that they compete in a crowded commercial market, largely dominated by several Chinese firms. The companies are constantly innovating and introducing new models. Israel recognizes what is going on here and has adopted the Chinese quad-copters for military and police use.

 


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