Wednesday, 6 October 2021

Perfect Storm - Pakistan Eyes The Bayraktar TB2

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
Having entered service with at least seven countries worldwide, several more nations are currently thought to be negotiating with Turkey for the acquisition of Bayraktar TB2s. [1] One of these nations is reported to be Pakistan, which currently operates a fleet of Chinese unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) backed up by a locally-produced drone known as the Burraq. [2] In addition to these types, Pakistan is currently also developing several more indigenous UCAVs. At least one of these aims to incorporate Turkish technology through a cooperation with Turkish Aerospace Industry (TAI), the designer of the TAI Anka U(C)AV. [3]

Due to Pakistan's existing fleet of UCAVs and the prospect of several indigenous types entering service in the coming decade, one could argue that an interest in the TB2 is surprising. Nonetheless, Pakistan would not be the first nation to acquire UCAVs from a number of different sources, with countries like Nigeria currently operating Chinese and Emirati combat drones (with indigenous ones under development), while Saudi Arabia operates a fleet of Chinese and Turkish UCAVs while also developing its own indigenous type (known as the Saqr).

The motivation behind Pakistan's interest in the Bayraktar TB2 likely has much to do with the type's impressive service record over Nagorno-Karabakh, Syria and Libya. Although Chinese UCAVs have seen combat use as well, most notably over Libya and Yemen, their performance often left much to be desired, with Jordan even offering its CH-4Bs for sale less than two years after acquiring them. [4] The CH-4B fared little better in Iraq, with eight of its 20 CH-4Bs crashing within a timespan of just a few years while the dozen remaining examples are currently languishing in a hangar with a lack of spare parts. [5] [6]
Other operators of Chinese UCAVs such as Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, Nigeria and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) similarly appear to have run into issues in operating their Wing Loong I and II and CH-3 and CH-4 series of UCAVs. [7] Common problems encountered reportedly include a lack of servicing and maintenance documentation and no spare part inventory or ordering system. [7] Contrary to Jordan and Iraq however, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have plenty of capital to keep a larger part of the fleet operational at any given time by acquiring more spare parts and increasing the volume of after-sale support, or by simply acquiring more drones to replace those previously lost in service.
Something money has little chance of fixing is the fundamental shortcomings of their UAV operations, which have yielded little results on the ground when compared to Bayraktar Diplomacy. Although Pakistan's current inventory of UCAVs is likely sufficient to meet the country's demand for precision strikes on militant groups operating in parts of the country, it is wholly inadequate in the face of a conventional war with India. Pakistan's interest in the Bayraktar TB2 might therefore originate more from its repeated successes facing off against modern surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems as well as jamming and deception systems. Many of the same systems are also operated by India, and the improvements the TB2 has enjoyed as a result of such encounters through its continuous software updates alone should be of great interest to the Pakistanis.

The potential acquisition of the TB2 by Pakistan could thus be interpreted as an effort to replicate the successes obtained by Azerbaijan during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War. Similar to Azerbaijan, Pakistan also faces a huge mechanised force entrenched along its 3.323 kilometres long border with India. The Indian Army operates some 4.000 tanks alone, with thousands more AFVs also in active service. During the Nagorno-Karabakh War much of Armenia's tank force was annihilated at the hands of TB2s, Spike ATGMs and loitering munitions (the latter two often guided to their target by TB2s), with an additional 100 T-72s abandoned in the field by their Armenian crews. [8] Though the scale of the conflict might differ, one can be sure that more than a few nations around the globe are currently attempting to extrapolate lessons from this highly significant war.

Pakistani Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee General Nadeem Raza accepts a Bayraktar TB2 model from Baykar CEO Haluk Bayraktar

While Pakistan is currently lacking in several of the key combat abilities that enabled Azerbaijan its military breakthroughs during the Nagorno-Karabakh War, most notably long-range ATGMs, guided rockets and loitering munitions, attempts are currently underway to remedy a number of these shortcomings. An example of this is the development of the Fatah series of guided multiple rocket launchers (MRLs). The first of these is set to enter active service in the coming years, enabling the Pakistani Army to carry out precision rocket strikes at a range of up to 140km. [9] The development of an improved version featuring a range of up to 200km is also believed to be underway. [9] These systems will do much to increase the Pakistani Army's precision-strike capabilities at longer ranges. During wartime, operational scenarios could see Bayraktar TB2s detecting enemy positions or troop concentrations either through signals intelligence or the impressively long range of its EO/IR sensor (believed to be over 75km against targets such as vehicles), which would then be engaged by Pakistan's Fatah guided MRLs.

What the Pakistani military still lacks in terms of operational long-range guided rockets, it partially makes up with its extensive arsenal of ballistic missiles and cruise missiles. Pakistan has been a profilic user and designer of ballistic and cruise missiles in all range categories. That said, only Pakistan's cruise missiles are likely to be able to attain the same degree as accuracy as some of Azerbaijan's weapon systems, most notably the Israeli Lora quasi ballistic missile and the Turkish TRLG-230 guided rocket. Future Pakistani investments aimed at further developing their prowess in this field are highly likely however, and perhaps indeed already underway. Whatever their current development status, each such weapons system would be reliant on reconnaissance by assets such as UAVs to utilise their full potential.

Yet another potential for close synergy comes through the Pakistani Air Force's fleet of Mirages, JF-17 and F-16 multi-role fighter aircraft. Although the use of aircraft was largely forgotten during the Nagorno-Karabakh War in favour of ground-based assets, the Azerbaijani Air Force played a vital role during the conflict as well, striking Armenian bunkers and trenches with precision-guided munitions launched from Su-25 close air support aircraft. Many of these targets were spotted and designated by Bayraktar TB2s, allowing the drones to continue to strike targets even after exhausting their own munitions.

A Pakistani Air Force JF-17 sports two indigenous laser-guided munitions under its wing pylons

One type of weapon system that is surprisingly still lacking in the inventory of the Pakistani Army is a long-range anti-tank guided missile (ATGM) system. Pakistan currently uses the Kornet-E and Baktar-Shikan ATGM, which is an indigenous copy of the Chinese HJ-8 that first entered service in the 1980s. Although still capable in its intended role, the Baktar-Shikan is in a different class than the Spike ATGMs used by Azerbaijan entirely, with a range of just 4km compared to the 10km of the Spike-ER II. The purchase of long-range ATGMs could do much to increase Pakistan's ground warfare capabilities, though a helicopter-launched version for the Army's future attack helicopters soon to be acquired from Turkey or China could be equally effective (Pakistan's four Mi-35Ms currently use the 9M120 Ataka ATGM).

Another class of armament that is also absent in the inventory of the Pakistani military is that of loitering munitions. Neighbouring Iran and India currently operate several types of loitering munitions, with Iran being responsible for their profileration and use throughout the Middle East. As recently as September 2021, the Indian Army signed two contracts for the supply of 100 Israeli SkyStriker loitering munitions (to be produced in India) and 100 locally developed 'swarm drone units' boasting either a 5kg or 10kg warhead. [10] These will supplement the Israeli IAI Harop munitions already in service with India, and further increase the advantage India currently has over Pakistan in this field.

Contested airspace

Opposing any UCAV operations by Pakistan are a large number of Indian surface-to-air missile (SAM) and electronic warfare systems positioned throughout the country, mostly concentrated next to the border with Pakistan. Although India has invested heavily in the procurement of modern SAM systems such as the Israeli Barak 8 and Spyder SR and is currently in the final phase of designing a number of modern indigenous SAM systems, much of its current inventory still consists of legacy systems like the 9K33 Osa, 9K35 Strela-10 and 9K22 Tunguska. These systems and many others were soundly defeated at the hands of Bayraktar TB2s, and even more modern SAMs such as the Tor-M2 and Pantsir-S1 fared little better.

India's electronic warfare capabilities present somewhat of a wild card. Nonetheless, there is little reason to suggest that they would fare any better than the modern Russian systems pitted against the TB2 over Nagorno-Karabakh. [11] The drones' survivability in the face of an array of EW systems likely indicates that the TB2 makes use of onboard systems for electronic countermeasures while perhaps also being supported by allied electronic warfare systems such as the Koral. The CEO of Baykar Savunma Haluk Bayraktar stated that 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''. [12]

A complete Indian Samyukta Mobile EW system. It remains to be seen if these and other Indian-designed systems can perform any better than their Russian counterparts.

Cooperation with Pakistan's defence industry
Pakistan's National Engineering & Scientific Commission (NESCOM) and the Pakistan Aeronautical Complex are both involved in the design and production of UAVs. Cooperation with drone technology and perhaps even the production of TB2s in Pakistan would provide valuable knowledge that could help elevate Pakistan's nascent UAV industry to a truly effective level. A deal with Baykar could also translate into the establishment of a local maintenance facility to perform depot-level maintenance and rebuilds. Furthermore, the modularity of the TB2 enables customers to integrate their own payloads into the UAV. For Pakistan specifically, this could include indigenously designed munitions and radars.

Factors like the ones mentioned above combined with its low cost, high effectiveness 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. With the notion that UCAVs are of little use in conventional conflicts successfully challenged coupled with their well known effectiveness in counter-insurgency operations, many more nations are sure to be interested in acquiring these systems in the near future. Precisely these feats are likely what makes the TB2 an attractive prospective to Pakistan; perhaps soon it will fly under Pakistani skies, adding to a growing list of operators worldwide.

[1] Turkey In Talks With 10 Nations Including Pakistan To Sell Its Most-Powerful Drone – Bayraktar TB2 UCAV?
[4] Jordan Sells Off Chinese UAVs
[8] The Fight For Nagorno-Karabakh: Documenting Losses On The Sides Of Armenia And Azerbaijan
[11] Business In The Baltics: Latvia Expresses Interest In The Bayraktar TB2
[12] Russian Electronic Warfare Systems Cannot Beat Bayraktar UAVs: Baykar  
  Guided Deterrence: Pakistan’s Fatah MRLs