Monday 27 September 2021

Turkmenistan Parades Newly-Acquired Bayraktar TB2s

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
Turkmenistan's latest display of military might, in the form of a parade commemorating the 30th anniversary of achieving independence, once again featured the lavish marches, horse displays and rows of armoured fighting vehicles any international spectator has come to expect from the secluded Central Asian nation. Also showcased during this year's iteration of the parade were the country's newly-acquired Turkish Bayraktar TB2 unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs).

The purchase of the TB2 by Turkmenistan marks the latest in a string of acquisitions of the now infamous system. In fact, when also including the most recent recipient of the TB2, Morocco, the Bayraktar TB2 is the most commercially successful UCAV to this date in terms of the number of country operators. Its direct (Chinese) competitors the Wing Loong I/II and CH-series of UCAVs quickly gained international popularity for their low acquisition price and lack of restrictions commonly imposed by the U.S. and European nations, with Turkmenistan ultimately also acquiring several Chinese drone types in 2016 and 2017.
However, the performance of Chinese UCAVs often left much to be desired, with Jordan even offering its CH-4Bs for sale less than two years after acquiring them. [1] The same type fared little better in Iraq, with eight of its 20 CH-4Bs crashing within a timespan of just a few years while the twelve remaining examples are currently languishing in a hangar with a lack of spare parts. [2] [3] It is not unthinkable that Turkmenistan ran into the same problems while operating its Chinese CH-3A and WJ-600A/D UCAVs, ultimately leading the country to acquire Bayraktar TB2s from Turkey as more cost-effective replacements.

Turkmenistan's TB2s come equipped with a German ARGOS-II HDT EO/IR FLIR system produced by Hensoldt rather than the WESCAM MX-15D or Aselsan CATS. The modularity of the TB2 enables the fitting of several different types of FLIR systems, a feature that likely has contributed significantly to the drone's commercial success. Turkmenistan's TB2s also feature a number of improvements over earlier versions of the drone, including what appears to be an anti-jamming device on top of the fuselage and a second tail-mounted camera for night operations.

One of three Bayraktar TB2s that took part in the parade. Note the MAM-C and MAM-L munitions under the wings.

Although Turkmenistan has historically operated its Chinese and Italian-made U(C)AVs out of Ak-Tepe-Bezmain air base near the capital Asghabat, it appears that the Bayraktar TB2s will be based at a newly-constructed air base designed specifically with UAV operations in mind. Situated north of Ashgabat, this small air base was still under construction during President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow's visit to the area in February 2021. The observant follower of the country at that time (which appears to have been just us), could already catch a first glimpse of the drone type that would soon operate from the air base.

Note the six Bayraktar TB2s in the internal overview of the hangar in the lower right corner.

Officially known as 'The Center of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles', the base is the first of its kind in the region and clearly signifies the value Turkmenistan puts in UAVs and their effective operations. First opened in August, 2015, the center has so far been involved in the production and assembly of several types of small drones. Its most recent expansion include a small air base with one runway dedicated to UAV operations along with hangars and all other necessary infrastructure for the operation of unmanned aerial vehicles.

Although the factory part of the UAV center is nominally under the control of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, it can be expected that the Bayraktar TB2s will join the ranks of the Turkmen Air Force rather than the air arm of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Many Turkmen government branches are equipped with their own aviation assets, with the Ministry of Internal Affairs currently operating a fleet of Russian Mi-17, Eurocopter AS365 and Eurocopter EC145 helicopters and several Cavalon autogyros.

The Bayraktar TB2's low cost, high serviceability rate, safety record and excellent after sales support are quickly proven to be a formula for international success. The combination of such factors with a proven combat status and the ability to quickly ramp up production essentially makes the TB2 a perfect storm, poised to take over the world market for UCAVs in this class and in the process heralding the arrival of an age of much more widespread drone warfare. Which country is next after Turkmenistan?