Turkey’s Bayraktar TB2 Drones have become an international success over the past couple of years notching up sales in Poland, Ukraine, Qatar, Azerbaijan and Morocco.
Poland became its latest customer when Defense Minister Mariusz Blaszczak announced a contract on May 25 for 24 drones armed with anti-tank projectiles stating that they have “proven themselves in wars.”
Announcing the Poland deal, Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters, "Turkey will for the first time in its history export drones to a NATO and EU member." There are currently a total of 180 Bayraktar TB2 unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) operating in four countries, including Turkey, he added.
War success stories
Bayraktar TB2s were used by the Turkish military to strike Syria Army targets during ‘Operation Spring Shield’ a campaign against Syrian regime forces, on the side of the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) to destroy rebel warlord Khalifa Haftar’s forces, and by Azeri forces fighting Armenia in the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh.
The U.A.E. deployed Chinese-built Wing Loong drones last year to support Haftar-led Libyan National Army (LNA) inside Libya, where they gained infamy for deadly strikes using laser-guided Blue Arrow missiles. When Turkey intervened in behalf of the opposing side, it deployed a fleet of Bayraktar TB2s, which eventually overwhelmed and destroyed most of the LNA’s Russian-built air defense systems, forcing the army to end its siege of Tripoli and withdraw from a key air base in May 2020.
In the last five years, Ankara deployed its drones in several cross-border military operations in Syria: Euphrates Shield, Olive Branch, and Spring Shield. Turkish drones also swooped down on Bashar al-Assad's forces in Syria's Idlib province, reportedly destroying over 100 armored vehicles — bringing Assad's initially successful assault on the rebel stronghold reeling to a halt.
Competition in the drone market
Countries that managed to tap the drone market successfully are the United States, Israel and China.
Turkey itself previously relied on Israeli drones in its fight against the Kurdish armed group in Syria. After the United States denied selling Turkey its attack drones in 2010 and 2012, the latter began developing its own from the mid-2010s.
For Turkey, China is the main competition. Defense analyst Arda Mevlutoglu explains to Nikkei Asia, “Because Western countries and Israel are imposing strict conditions on their drone sales, many Middle Eastern and North African countries are turning to China. Turkey's main competitor is China."
Ahead of Turkey’s drone deal with Poland, China delivered six CH-92A attack/reconnaissance UAVs to Serbia in July 2020; a deal seen as China’s entry into the European market. But contrary to expectation, it did not lead to more Chinese drone sales in Europe.
Israel's drone industry has been hard selling its drones based on their military experience.
The Israel Defense Force (IDF) regularly uses UAVs in and around its borders, whether dropping tear-gas canisters on Palestinian demonstrators, monitoring Hezbollah positions in Lebanon or striking Hamas bases in Gaza.
This rich in-field experience has been used in product fine-tune. The development of the so called ‘suicide drone’ or loitering munition that hovers over a particular area and dives down to explode near its target is credited to the need for finding human targets in the crowded by-lanes of Gaza.
Over the years Israeli drones have become both expensive and sophisticated requiring high level technical competence to deploy and maintain them.
In 2020, Greece’s Hellenic Ministry of National Defense leased Heron long endurance drones, in a deal that offers up an alternative to pricey acquisitions. The Heron long endurance drones, manufactured by IAI, will be used for border defense under a leasing model in which IAI experts will look after maintenance.
Turkish drones: Cheap and best?
Turkish UAVs are midway-priced as compared to Israeli and Chinese ones. Can Kasapoglu, security and defense program director at Turkey's Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies said, "Turkish-made drones are deemed more expensive than Chinese drones but are cheaper than Israeli and American ones. However, Chinese manufacturers do not engage in after-sales service like Turkish companies, so they miss the feedback to improve their products."
As per reports, the Polish contract covers the acquisition of four UAV sets (24 UAVs with weapons: laser-guided MAM-L and MAM-C missiles), mobile control stations, SAR radars, simulators, spares, training, and logistics support for $270 million. Each set consisting of six drones would cost around $67 million, which means, a single fully-armed Bayraktar TB2 would come at a relatively affordable price of approximately $10 million.
Morocco’s Royal Armed Forces (Far-Maroc) announced on April 18, 2021, that they are buying 13 Bayraktar TB2s for $70 million. Therefore an unarmed drone would cost only ~$5 million.
China has sold the Wing Loong to several countries in Africa and the Middle East, including Nigeria, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates, at an estimated $1 million per unit. On the other hand, India reportedly leased four of Israel’s deadliest drones – Heron TPs – for $200 million in February 2021. A single unit of U.S. MQ-9 Reaper costs somewhere around $100 million!
Owing to its advantages in terms of price, lethality and provision of after-sales service, Turkey is expecting to secure more contracts in future.
"The agreement with Poland paves the way for more NATO countries purchasing Turkish drones in the future," Merve Seren, an Ankara-based defense analyst, told TRT World. While U.S.-made drones have proved their mettle in places like Yemen and Afghanistan, Seren said China and Israel are yet to convince the world of the efficacy of their drone technology on difficult battle fronts. Although American drones are deadly, they come with a much higher price tag.
Possible future sales
Ukraine has acquired over a dozen Bayratkar drones off the shelf and it has signed a contract with Turkey to jointly manufacture 48 of them.
“Very soon we will see the Bayraktar and Anka UAVs from Turkey flying in the European skies,” Turkey’s Industry and Technology Minister Mustafa Varank said at the 3rd Defense Industry Meetings, organized by the Istanbul Chamber of Industry and the SAHA Istanbul Defense and Aerospace Cluster.
European countries, including Albania, Belarus, the U.K., Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Hungary were said to be among those that could possibly procure the combat drones.
In January 2021, Turkish publication Haber 7 reported that Bulgaria was interested in purchasing at least six UAVs. Kazakhstan also has the acquisition of 30-40 Bayraktar TB2s on its wish list.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic praised Bayraktar combat drones, noting that Serbia is very interested in drone systems and will certainly buy more of them in the future. "We will see whether we will reach an agreement with the Turkish side. In any case, these are very good drones. I have to give the Turkish manufacturers their due," Vucic told reporters in Belgrade at October 2020.