Saturday, 19 June 2021

Business In The Baltics: Latvia Expresses Interest In The Bayraktar TB2

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

Baykar Savunma recently drew attention after a Latvian delegation headed by Minister of Defence Artis Pabriks paid an official visit to the producer of the Bayraktar TB2 and Akıncı UCAVs. With Latvia and the two other Baltic states of Estonia and Lithuania continuing to build up a deterrent capacity and viable wartime capabilities against possible future Russian (military) interference in the Baltic region of Europe, interest in a low-cost unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) capability spurred on by the huge successes obtained by the TB2 over Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh is perhaps little surprising.

Especially over Nagorno-Karabakh did the TB2 attain successes that can not have gone unnoticed in NATO member states. In a matter of weeks, a handful of Azerbaijani TB2s broke the back of the Armenian military, destroying a confirmed total of 126 armoured fighting vehicles (including 92 T-72 tanks), 147 artillery pieces, 59 multiple rocket launchers, 22 surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems, six radar systems and 184 vehicles at a loss of just two TB2s (one shot down, the other crashed). [1] These results not only serve as a testimony to the survivability of the TB2 in the face of a wide range of SAM and EW assets specifically designed to counter it, but also of its impressive serviceability rate, allowing the small fleet of TB2s to maintain a high tempo of operations.
While some analysts cast doubt on whether these successes can be replicated against countries such as Russia or Belarus, it can be argued that past engagements over Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh already demonstrate an ability to take on many of the integrated air defence systems (IADS) such nations might muster, having successfully combatted systems such as the S-300PS, Buk-M2, Tor-M2 and Pantsir-S1 with little losses in return (especially when used in conjuction with friendly EW and electronic support measures). Modern Russian EW systems like the Avtobaza-M, Repellent-1, Borisoglebsk-2 and Groza-S, all of which are meant to disrupt the operations of UAVs in one way or another, fared little better than those SAM systems. This casts serious doubt on the ability of modern IADS to counter or even significantly hinder operations of drones such as the Bayraktar TB2. 

The performance of Armenia's IADS has understandably become the subject of inquiries into its actual capabilities and modernity following the 2020 conflict. Nevertheless, the acquisition of modern SAM systems like the Buk and Tor as well as years of investments in a host of brand-new Russian EW systems and electro-optical equipment acquired from various sources had turned Nagorno-Karabakh into one of the most densely covered areas of air defence in the world. Although still lacking in some aspects, this IADS incorporated a variety of both older and modern systems in every range category, backed up by modern MANPADS, SPAAGs, anti-aircraft guns, radars and EW systems. The fact that every layer of Armenia's air defence umbrella in Armenia was soundly defeated at the hands of drones is likely more indicative of some structural deficiency of IADS against such modern threats than of the need to tweak the concept, or simply bolster the ranks with some vaunted new system.

These feats were of course much to the dismay of Armenia, the Prime Minister of which, Nikol Pashinyan, voiced sharp criticism on the combat value of an EW system that had just been acquired from Russia – likely to have been the Repellent-1 – stating that ''it simply did not work''. [2] Having diverted considerable funds towards the modernisation of its air defences to cope with aerial threats such as drones, their ineffectiveness must have surprised not only their Armenian crews, but also the Russian companies that designed them. The CEO of Baykar Savunma Haluk Bayraktar further stated that Russian EW systems proved incapable of interfering with the operations of the TB2: ''Russian electronic warfare systems will not be able to interfere with the work of Bayraktar TB2 even for one hour. Turkish drones will always be able to stay in the air''. [2]

The charred remains of an Armenian Repellent-1 EW system after its destruction during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War.

Although one would be forgiven for initially thinking otherwise, Latvia's small but highly proficient and well-equipped military appears well suited to replicate many of the successes obtained by Azerbaijan during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War. Much like Azerbaijan, Latvia has invested heavily in the procurement of self-propelled artillery and long-range Spike anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs). It was precisely the synergy between Bayraktar TB2s and artillery and ATGMs (as well as MRLs and precision-guided munitions) that proved a decisive game changer during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War. Most notably, TB2s continued to engage Armenian ground targets well after having expended their own weapon load of four MAM-L munitions by directing ground-based munitions and Su-25 aircraft against additional targets.

An Armenian T-72A as viewed by the camera of the Spike ATGM fired at it moments before it got completely destroyed. This T-72 was part of a larger convoy of AFVs that was spotted by TB2s and subsequently wiped out with the aid of Spike ATGMs.

In addition to operating a number of static S-300 SAM sites, one of Armenia's S-300PS batteries quietly set up shop at a position in a field near the border with Karabakh in mid-October 2020. A TB2 shortly afterwards directed a ground-launched precision-guided munition to its position, destroying the battery.

Of course, these results were achieved in a situation in which Armenia made little attempt to contest the airspace over the battlefield. Possessing no fighter aircraft of their own, the Baltic states are currently reliant on NATO's Air Policing mission to guard their airspace. Although entirely sufficient in peacetime, more aircraft will have to be directed towards the Baltics for their defence during wartime, not mention to achieve air superiority. This is not to say that the Baltic states can not play a role in bringing this about themselves however. In addition to a plethora of MANPADS systems (including the Swedish RBS-70, French Mistral, U.S. FIM-92 Stinger and Polish Grom) already in Baltic service, Lithuania currently operates the Norwegian NASAMS 3 medium-to-long range SAM system that uses the AIM-120 missile. Estonia is poised to acquire the same system for its own military, and Latvia has a similar requirement for a ground-based air defence system. [3] 
Combined with a vast network of modern radar systems as part of the Baltic Air Surveillance Network currently in place, modern SAM systems like the NASAMS 3 would do much to complicate Russian attempts at achieving air superiority over the Baltics. Cheap, plentiful and relatively poorly observable drones like the Bayraktar TB2 could greatly enhance striking capabilities (simultaneously freeing up conventional aerial assets) during the early stages of such a war, whilst evading unacceptable losses that could be encountered during a conflict of lesser complexity. Of course, as control of the airspace is slowly wrested from the adversary, drones like the TB2 become all the more effective at monitoring the battlefield and striking formations wherever they move.

Once in action, Bayraktar TB2s boast a number of significant improvements (aside from the obvious ability to carry weaponry) over legacy systems like the U.S. RQ-20A Puma and the Latvian Penguin C UAS currently in use with the Latvian Armed Forces. This mainly manifests itself in a vastly superior EO/IR sensor suite, a greatly increased range, endurance and service ceiling and vastly more resistance against EW systems. A lesser-known component of the TB2 is the BSI-101 signal intelligence system, which was developed in-house by Baykar. This small high-performance radio receiver can be used for airborne monitoring of the radio frequency spectrum, locating and identifying enemy radar systems (and their associated SAMs) well before visual identification is possible. Simultaneously, the system can be used for communications intelligence, performing the same tasks of locating and identifying whilst also allowing the operator to listen in on enemy communication systems.
After detecting enemy positions or troop concentrations either through signal intelligence or the long range of its EO/IR sensor (the latter believed to be over 75km against targets such as vehicles), these targets can then be engaged by Latvia's arsenal of heavy mortars, 23 field-guns and 53 self-propelled guns (SPGs). The latter consists of the proven M109A5 type firing a variety of 155mm shells out to an effective range of some 23km (or 30km with rocket assisted projectiles). This is roughly comparable to the range of artillery and smaller calibre MRL assets of Azerbaijan, with the exception of long-range precision guided rockets and ballistic missiles. Latvia acquired its first 35 M109A5Ö SPGs along with ten command vehicles in 2017 in a 6 million euros deal with Austria, which had extensively upgraded the 1960s-era SPGs in the mid-2000s. [4] In 2021, a second (2 million euros) deal for eighteen more 'Pašgājējhaubice M109s' was announced, bringing the total number of SPGs to 53. [5]
Although the M109A5Ös constitute the least modern type of SPG currently in Baltic service, their low acquisition price and large numbers enables Latvia to punch well above its weight in terms of firepower. In this regard, 53 M109s offer vastly superior fire support capabilities to the sixteen PzH-2000s and eighteen K9 SPGs currently in service with Lithuania and Estonia. Additional systems in Latvian service such as 120mm GrW 86 heavy mortars that can lob shells over a range of 8km and 100mm vz. 53 field-guns with a range of 21km do much to further increase the total payload that can be brought to bear. Efficient integration of TB2s with these artillery systems would maximise their effect on target; the TB2 thus constitutes something of a force multiplier for a myriad of weapons systems currently available to the Latvian Armed Forces.
The parallels between the Latvian situation on Azerbijan's hardly stops here however, as like Azerbaijan, Latvia also is a prolific user of the Israeli Spike ATGM. Save for the ultra long-range Spike NLOS deployed from Azerbaijani Mi-17 helicopters during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, Latvia fields the exact same variants as employed by Azerbaijan during the conflict. This includes the Spike-SR, Spike-LR, Spike-LR2 and-Spike ER2, the latter four of which were purchased in a deal worth 108 million euros signed in 2018. [6] These long-range ATGMs are reliant on other assets to locate the targets for their missiles to hit. Although this is less of a requirement for the Spike-SR that has a range of just 1.500 metres, to utilise the full potential of the 10km range of the Spike-ER2 an auxiliary targeting system is practically a requirement.

Latvia currently deploys its Spike ATGMs in its single Mechanised Infantry Brigade and Combat Support Battalion. Mobility is key to these pivotal units, which are built around the British CVR(T) family of armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs). Although lightly armoured, these highly nimble AFVs are ideally suited for hit-and-run tactics. In the near future, Latvia also plans to integrate Spike ATGMs on some of its CVR(T) AFVs. [7] The resulting threat to armour formations is hard to overstate, with both the AFVs and the infantry in them capable of using Spikes to strike enemy vehicles wherever they are spotted.

Through both its direct combat abilities and its merit as a force multiplier, the TB2 might enable Latvia to expand on its deterrent capability at a relatively low costs. Taking into account the TB2's repeated successes in the face of an array of modern Russian air defence and EW systems over Libya, Syria and Nagorno-Karbakh, this deterrent translates into a potent wartime capability for Latvia as well. Their use could further extend to more mundane duties during peacetime, patrolling Latvia's territorial waters to carry out fishery and environmental inspections and detecting wildfires that frequently plague the country. In the latter role, the TB2 has already seen successful use by Turkey. The acquisition of enough TB2s would also enable Latvia to participate in NATO missions with a minimal footprint, carrying out aerial surveillance and airstrikes. With Lithuania and Estonia eager to expand their military capabilities in close cooperation with Latvia, a joint procurement of the TB2 system is not unthinkable, potentially saving cost while expanding capabilities through greater integration and information sharing.


Possessing little in the way of a conventional air fleet, the Latvian Air Force currently makes use of just one air base: Lielvārde. To better accommodate NATO operations, Lielvārde was completely renovated in 2014 and features plenty of space for future expansion. In addition to housing the entirety of Latvia's Air Force (which currently consists of four Mi-17s and several An-2s), Lielvārde has also seen regular deployments of NATO aircraft (including U.S. Predator and Reaper UCAVs) and ground forces during their respective deployments to Latvia. As the targeting of Lielvārde Air Base could well lay within an opponent's plan for hostilities with Latvia, the usage of pre-prepared highway strips could be an additional means to increase the number of locations for the TB2 to operate from, for which Latvia's excellent road system offers plenty of options.

Future capabilities

In May 2021 it was announced that the Baltic states plan on further expanding their fire-support capabilities through a joint procurement of an MRL system. [8] Considering their proven capabilities and presumably low acquisition costs, the U.S. M270 MLRS appears the most likely candidate. Yet with an acquisition of Bayraktar TB2 drones now not a far-fetched consideration, another suitable option is perhaps even more cost effective. The Turkish 230mm TRLG-230 guided rocket can hit targets designated by Bayraktar TB2s UCAVs; by fitting a laser guidance kit to the rocket, the need for other guidance systems are negated, allowing the system to be more electronic-warfare resistant and at the same time vastly more accurate. This impressive capability already exists in the inventories of Turkey and Azerbaijan (which successfully used the TRLG-230 in the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War), and significantly increases the operational capabilities of the TB2.

The potential benefits of selecting a Turkish system go beyond merely the synergy between the TB2 and the TRLG-230 MRL however. As the launching vehicle for the TRLG-230 guided rocket is modular, the same launcher can also be used to launch 122mm and 300mm rockets by simply swapping the rocket pods or launch tubes. This does much to increase the operational flexibility of the system, and could potentially allow the selecting of suitable munitions directly after target acquisition, providing precisely tailored artillery strikes in real time. This capability is notably absent in the M270 and its light wheeled version the HIMARS, which are limited to using either 227mm rockets or MGM-140 ATACMS tactical ballistic missiles; a Baltic acquisition of the latter appears unlikely.

Cooperation with Latvia's defence industry
Latvia's defence industry busies itself with the design and production of UAVs and small patrol vessels. There currently exists a single manufacturer of unmanned aerial systems in Latvia: established in 2009 as 'UAV Factory' (yes that is the actual name of the company), it had reportedly already produced 300 of its Penguin UAVs by 2020 for over 50 clients worldwide, including the Latvian Armed Forces and the United States Special Operations Command. [9] The company additionally produces EO/IR ISR payloads, airframes, engines and other UAV related components. The involvement of Latvian subcontractors in major defence projects inked with foreign companies is stated to be a requirement in future procurements. [10] For a deal with Baykar specifically, this could translate into the establishment of a local maintenance facility to perform overhauls and rebuilds. Furthermore, Turkey could purchase EO/IR ISR payloads from 'UAV Factory' in an offset agreement and the modularity of the TB2 enables companies like 'UAV Factory' to integrate their own payloads into the UAV. In all, this would result in a significant boost to Latvia's defence industry and technology base.

Latvia appears poised to enter the new paradigm of 21st century warfare. In this paradigm, the 20th century mechanised armour columns give way to a synergetic interplay of highly mobile ground forces, ATGMs, (guided) artillery and of course, UAVs. With the Spike ATGMs and 53 self-propelled guns already in service, as well as the planned acquisition of MRL systems and the potential for a (joint Baltic) procurement of TB2 UCAVs, Latvia is well on the way of realising this new doctrine.
The fact that these technologies can be bought from fellow NATO members will also be appreciated, providing an additional degree of security as well as a guarantee of quality that might be lacking from other providers. One example of this is evidenced by Baykar's CEO Haluk Bayraktar statement that the TB2 receives almost daily software updates and improvements. [11] These incremental improvements are not limited to the TB2 itself however. The introduction of INS/GPS to the MAM-L has dramatically increased the range of the munition from 7km to upwards of 14km, allowing it to outrange Russian air defence systems such as the Tor-M2, 9M337 Sosna-R and 2K22M1 Tunguska. 
In this respect UAV-related developments appear to outpace that of the systems designed to counter them, displaying greater flexibility in adjusting their operations than any systems of the past. With two new UCAV systems, the Akıncı and the TB3, as wel as Baykar's unmanned MİUS combat aircraft project currently in the works, Baykar's rapid R&D and production capacity will allow it to increase its edge over competitors, while launching a family of UCAVs with novel capabilities. This sets the scene for this formerly automotive company to firmly establish itself as one of the world's foremost drone providers, a role through which it could soon play decisive factor in Baltic military capabilities.

Latvia's Minister of Defence Artis Pabriks holds a TB2 model together with Baykar Savunma CEO Haluk Bayraktar

[1] The Fight For Nagorno-Karabakh: Documenting Losses On The Sides Of Armenia And Azerbaijan
[3] Baltic Air Defence: Addressing a Critical Military Capability Gap
[5] Latvia buys the second batch of American self-propelled howitzers M-109A5OE
[6] Latvia takes delivery of new Spike missile variants 
[7] Latvia to buy Israeli Spike guided missiles for CVR-T vehicles for €108 million
[10] Ministry of Defence strengthens cooperation with domestic military industry

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