Monday, 27 September 2021

The Conqueror of Karabakh: The Bayraktar TB2

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans in collaboration with Jakub Janovsky, Dan, and COIN
Şimşek gibi atıldık bir semte yedi koldan - Like thunderbolts we struck from seven directions (Akıncılar, by Yahya Kemal Beyatlı)
A year has passed since the vicious conflict now known as the Forty-Four Day War was brought to its conclusion. The result of this Caucasian engagement was a stunning upset of the status quo, marking a watershed moment in the history of warfare that has rightfully garnered the attention of analysts and history buffs worldwide. In the course of this short but intense conflict, a handful of Azerbaijani Bayraktar TB2 UCAVs essentially broke the back of the Armenian military, destroying a confirmed total of 549 ground targets including 126 armoured fighting vehicles (including 90 T-72 tanks), 147 artillery pieces, 60 multiple rocket launchers, 22 surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems, six radar systems and 186 vehicles. While a combination of factors was ultimately responsible for the Azerbijani military's overwhelming success, there is no denying the centerpiece of its campaign was this one piece of newly acquired technology. 

In the months since hostilities between the two countries ceased some observers have attempted to explain away the TB2's extraordinary effectivity by defects of the Armenian military, whose equipment had supposedly been lacking. However, past engagements over Syria, Libya as well as the one in Nagorno-Karabakh demonstrated an ability to take on many of the integrated air defence systems (IADS) modern nations might muster, having successfully combatted systems such as the S-300PS, Buk-M2, Tor-M2 and Pantsir-S1 even when used in conjunction with electronic warfare (EW) systems like the Avtobaza-M, Repellent-1, Borisoglebsk-2 and Groza-S. The TB2's performance in the face of these systems, designed to completely deny the airforces of even the most advanced nations the ability to function in enemy airspace, must have been a shock not only to their operators, but also to the Russian companies that built them. The fact that a relatively light and inexpensive drone could not only evade but actively search out and destroy such systems while suffering little losses in return marks a new way of conducting warfare that, now that it has been tried and tested in at least three separate conflicts, cannot be reverted.
In addition to striking tank columns and SAM sites during the Nagorno-Karabakh War, Bayraktar TB2s also managed to find, track and destroy the R-17 Scud-B ballistic missile launchers and BM-30 'Smerch' multiple rocket launchers that had been responsible for the attacks against the Azerbaijani cities of Ganja and Barda in October, resulting in the deaths of 26 and 27 civilians respectively. After detecting the Scud-Bs through signals intelligence or the long range of its EO/IR sensor (which features a range of 75km against targets such as vehicles), the TB2 shortly afterwards directed loitering munitions to the Scud-Bs' position, resulting in the destruction of at least two such systems and reducing the threat of further ballistic missile attacks on Azerbaijani cities. Especially notable is the fact that the TB2s did not even have to cross into Nagorno-Karabakh's airspace to conduct these missions, observing their targets from a safe distance in friendly territory.

Scud-Bs prepare to fire their missiles just over the border in Armenia. Unbeknownst to their crews, they're being watched by a Bayraktar TB2 flying in Azerbaijan's airspace.

In another notable case, two of the BM-30 'Smerch' heavy MRLs which were responsible for rocket strikes on Barda had quietly set up at a prepared position deep in Nagorno-Karbakh, operating out of a dry river bed and driving to a nearby field where they unleashed their devastating payload before moving back to reload. One of these weapons systems was spotted after launching its deadly volley on the 30th of October. Rather than engaging it outright, the TB2 followed the BM-30 back to its staging area, where another BM-30 and reloads were discovered. These were then struck, resulting in the destruction of both launchers and likely saving many more civilian lives in the city of Barda.

Looking back, the Bayraktar TB2's role was not merely that of a hunter killer, but ultimately even that of a complete ruler over the battlefield. Capable of stalking the location of any ground target and tracking their every move all the while flying in one of the most densely covered areas of air defence in the world, the TB2 could literally direct other assests to hit ground targets all the while flying circles above them. Its reputation during the course of the war became such that the crash of a Bayraktar TB2 (on October 19) was treated by Armenia as if they had just won a major battle in the war, even going as far as organising a press conference for international journalists to celebrate its crash.
Based upon some of the components found in the drone, the Armenian diaspora then made every effort to pressure international companies to halt their supply of parts that are used in the Bayraktar TB2. Apart from having zero impact on the course of the war in Nagorno-Karbakh because Armenia never managed to shoot down enough TB2s to prompt Turkey to deliver replacements (further ignoring the stock of spare parts a company like Baykar is liable to have), there would still be plenty of other companies willing to deliver a range of products in the same category. 
In the end, it may even be argued that the Armenian diaspora's focus on the TB2 actually ended up being counterproductive to their cause. Completely failing to understand the design philosophy behind the TB2, the few foreign components of which are used mostly because they're cheap and readily available, their protests appear to have achieved little but to speed up the research and production of indigenous replacement parts, making Turkey self-sufficient in several more categories of defence products. Perhaps the most significant boycott that came about due to this strategy, which saw Canada's WESCAM being banned from delivering the FLIR turret that were the eyes of the system (nowadays Aselsan's CATS FLIR replaces this component), is also from a moral standpoint quite dubious. The halting of sales of such systems would never have been considered during conflicts where Muslim Syrian and Libyan soldiers were the target, though Armenia's Christian population seems to have been a more relatable rallying point. Similarly, one may ask why the Armenian diaspora never called for an investigation into the use of recently-delivered Israeli drones and ballistic missiles among a host of other weaponry during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War, which too played an important role in bringing about Armenia's defeat. The ethics of the arms trade are obviously being considered on a case-by-case basis, with the geopolitically convenient standpoint taking precendence over an objective perspective.

While Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan enthusiastically claimed the downing of ''over a dozen'' Bayraktar TB2s by Artsakh forces, in reality only two Bayraktar TB2s are confirmed to have been lost (one crashed, the other likely shot down) during the course of the war. [1] Even if Armenian forces had managed to shoot down over a dozen TB2s however, it likely still wouldn't have had any impact on the outcome of the war given that these weapons systems are so easily replacable. While no war in history was ever won by one weapon system alone, there can be no doubt that the Bayraktar TB2 was Azerbaijan's most important asset during the war and that its striking victory couldn't have been achieved without it.

A list of 559 ground targets confirmed to have been destroyed by Bayraktar TB2s over Nagorno-Karabakh can be viewed below. This list only includes destroyed vehicles and equipment of which photo or videographic evidence is available. Therefore, the amount of equipment destroyed is undoubtedly higher than recorded here. Hits on personnel, munition caches and military structures are not included in the list.
(Click on the numbers to get a picture of each individual destroyed vehicle or piece of equipment)

Tanks (89)

Armoured fighting vehicles (18)

Infantry fighting vehicles (14)


Towed artillery (138)

Self-propelled artillery (17)

Multiple rocket launchers (61)

Ballistic missiles (2)

Self-propelled anti-aircraft guns (1)

  • 1 23mm ZSU-23-4: (1)

Surface-to-air missile systems (24)

Radars systems (6)

  • 2 P-18 ''Spoon Rest D'': (1) (2)
  • 1 1S32 ''Pat Hand'' (for 2K11 Krug SAM): (1)
  • 1 1S91 SURN (for 2K12 Kub SAM): (1)
  • 1 ST86U/36D6 ''Tin Shield'' (for S-300 SAM): (1)
  • 1 19J6 (for S-300 SAM): (1)

Jammers and Deception systems (1)

  • 1 R-330P Piramida-I: (1)

Vehicles (188)