Wednesday, 19 May 2021

A Winged Oryx - Bayraktar TB2s Over Qatar


By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
 
The Bayraktar TB2 has gained a formidable reputation for its role in deciding the fate of nations and enemy offensives from the skies of Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh and Syria. The TB2's consistent successes are unmatched by any other type of unmanned aerial combat vehicle (UCAV) in the world, attracting considerable attention and the interest of several countries across the globe. While the acquisition of significant numbers of TB2s by Ukraine and Azerbaijan has meanwhile become widely known, it is nearly not as well-established that half a dozen examples are also operated by Qatar, which is in fact the first foreign country to have purchased the type.
 
But while for Azerbaijan the TB2 proved to be the revered asset that ultimately secured the country's sweeping victory over Armenia, Qatar appears to have purchased its TB2s with the more humble initial aim of gaining operational and technical experience in the operation of unmanned aerial vehicles. In this area Qatar had lagged somewhat behind neighbouring countries, and it appears the Bayraktar TB2 was the designated system to propel Qatar into the era of drone-powered warfare. However, their use extends far beyond merely gaining experience in drone operations, and the TB2's capabilities as a reconnaissance and strike asset will likely be highly appreciated.
 
Before deciding on the Bayraktar TB2, Qatar reportedly looked at UAVs from Europe, the U.S. and China to fulfill its long-standing requirement. [1] An order for six TB2s, three ground control stations and a simulator was subsequently announced during the DIMDEX exhibition held in Doha in March 2018 (some two years before the type rose to fame for its involvement in Operation Spring Shield in Syria in early 2020). In addition, Baykar also set up a UAV operation center, as well as network-based data tracing and archiving software for Qatar's Armed Forces. Following their delivery the next year, the TB2s entered service with the Reconnaissance and Surveillance Center (RCS). The RCS, which is part of the Ministry of Defense, is tasked with protecting Qatar's borders with a fleet of UAVs and sensor-based systems.
 

The six Bayraktar TB2s along with three ground control stations pictured shortly before their delivery to Qatar

The TB2 made its public debute in Qatar during the 'Al-Adheed' exercise conducted annually by the Qatar Armed Forces and Amiri Guard in March 2020. Although none of the Bayraktar TB2s could be seen carrying munitions in the limited amount of footage of the exercise that was released to the public, it was implied that one of them carried out a precision strike against a stationary target using a MAM-L munition. During the 2021 iteration of the 'Al-Adheed' exercise, the Bayraktar TB2s were sighted again, this time exclusively in the reconnaissance role. [2]

While this was the first footage of a Turkish drone in Qatari service, the TB2 is in fact the second Turkish drone type to enter service with Qatar. In March 2012 it was announced that Qatar had become the first export customer of the Bayraktar Gözcu 3 Mini UAV that is also designed and produced by Baykar Savunma. A total of ten Bayraktar Mini UAVs were delivered under an agreement signed during the 2011 International Defense Fair (IDEF) in Istanbul, although the type has yet to make its first public appearance in Qatar. [3] [4]
 

Despite the scarcity of footage of the TB2 in Qatari service, it is known that all six examples are based out of a newly-constructed airbase situated in the Northern area of Qatar believed to be designated as Al-Shamal. [5] This airbase, construction of which started in 2018, appears to have been built specifically for the operations of unmanned aerial vehicles, and is located next to an enormous military complex that was also recently erected. Satellite imagery taken of the airbase consistently shows the three ground control stations associated with the Bayraktar TB2 located next to the runway, confirming that operations are ongoing and very much active.
 

In addition to its role in technology evaluation/acquintance, the reconnaissance and strike capabilities of the TB2 are surely not forgotten. For Qatar, the introduction of large numbers of cheap UCAVs like the TB2 could be a game changer in its efforts to patrol the Persian Gulf when its waters turn hostile. In particular, swarms of fast attack craft and missile boats employed by Iran represent a growing threat, for which the highly maneuverable MAM-L munition would be a highly suitable counter. Affordable and with a range far exceeding the altitude of deployment of air defence systems such as AA guns and MANPADS, the MAM-L represents a ubiquitous and cost-effective solution to swarm attacks. 
 
Another application of the TB2 is the replacement of fast jets on combat missions such as those conducted on Houthi targets during the Saudi Arabian-led intervention in Yemen. Operating at significantly less cost and without the risk of losing the pilot deep into enemy territory, TB2s can be utilised to replicate Turkey's successes in small-footprint interventions that maximise military impact at low financial and humanitarian cost (a doctrine dubbed Bayraktar Diplomacy).
 
 
The Bayraktar TB2 is not the only type of drone Qatar had showed interest in however, as Qatar's 2019 National Day parade revealed the presence of two more types of UAVs in Qatar: The Textron Aerosonde and Shadow M2 Nightwarden. On static display during the parade, it was at the time unknown if both were already in service with the RCS or were undergoing trials pending a possible acquisition by Qatar. Sighted on several occasions during defense exhibitions since, it was ultimately revealed in April 2021 that Barzan Aeronautical eyes Charleston in South Carolina, the US, to set up a manufacturing facility to produce these drones. [6]

 
A third type of UAV under consideration by Qatar is the Q01 intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platform designed by the German company Reiner Stemme Utility Air Systems with Qatari funding. The Q01 can either be piloted by a crew of two or be remotely operated from the ground as a UAV to provide surveillance for up to 48 hours at only 500 dollars an hour, which is considerably cheaper than what can be achieved by any other (manned) aircraft. [7] It is capable of carrying a variety of electro-optical sensors and a multirole surveillance radar mounted in a fairing under the fuselage. Although the signing of a contract for seventeen aircraft was envisaged by the end of 2017, no subsequent information has become public since, and the current status of the project is unknown. [7]

The Textron Aerosonde (left) and Shadow M2 Nightwarden (right) on parade in Doha, December 2019

The Reiner Stemme Q01

To Qatar, investments in drone technology like the Bayraktar TB2 and Akıncı systems allow it to introduce currently unrivalled capabilities to the Gulf region, providing it with a distinct edge over its direct neighbours in this respect. Aside from the hardware, it is imperative to note that such acquisitions also provide experience in drone operations that other nations lack. In fact, knowledge gained about drone tactics and operations in Libya, Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh could be shared, including the methodology for successfully countering a range of modern Russian air defense systems that are in use throughout the Middle East.

Clearly aspiring to establish a local technology base for the development and production of weaponry, including drones, Qatar could further this goal by securing a lucrative deal with Baykar. [8] In the future, this might not only include the TB2 but also the newer variant of the Bayraktar Gözcu 3 mini UAV, the VTOL UAV, Akıncı and soon Baykar's first jet-powered UCAV. Producing drones in almost every class, Baykar's knowledge and technology base, political neutrality and attractive prices are sure to make it one of the most competitive options for meeting the ever-surging demand for modern UAV capabilities.

Qatar's Armed Forces Chief of Staff Air Marshal Ghanem bin Shaheen al-Ghanem poses with Özdemir Bayraktar, who with his sons managed to transform Baykar from an automotive technology company to the drone tech giant it is today.

Due to its rising popularity and attractive characteristics, the TB2 will be certainly be under consideration by many nations formerly in the market for Chinese drones, such as Pakistan, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that a certain Central Asian country is currently in the process of acquiring TB2s, as such constituting Baykar's fourth (known) export client. In the meantime, markets of Europe and North Africa are by no means exempt from a surge in interest, with Bulgaria and Morocco reportedly showing interest in six and twelve Bayraktar TB2s respectively. [9] Other nations that can't buy the TB2 for political reasons are certain to follow Baykar's developments with interest, as nations around the world struggle to produce or otherwise acquire advanced and above all cost-effective drones.
 
[2] That is not to say that Bayraktar TB2s didn't use munitions in the exercise, but rather that no footage was released of them doing so
[8] Texas A&M at Qatar, Reconnaissance and Surveillance Center sign agreement to explore drone technology research and training https://www.qatar.tamu.edu/news-and-events/news/Texas-A-M-at-Qatar-Reconnaissance-and-Surveillance-Center-sign-agreement-to-explore-drone-technology-research-and-training

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