Thursday 16 December 2021

Berdimuhamedow’s Birds Of Prey: The Italian Falco XN UAV In Turkmenistan

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

Turkmenistan is a major purchaser of Italian goods, armament and (notably) marble. Its capital Ashgabat has been recognised by Guinness World Records as having the world's highest density of buildings made from white marble, earning it the nickname of 'white city'. [1] The country's affection for anything Italian is carried over in the inventory of the Turkmen Armed Forces, with anything from combat aircraft, armoured vehicles and anti-ship missiles having been purchased from Italy in recent years. [2] [3] The Italian ARX-160 is also the armed forces' standard issue service rifle, and this year's independence parade showed that arms purchases from Italy are still very much ongoing. [4]
Some ten years ago, the Italian Falco XN unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) designed by Selex ES was one of the first Italian defence products to be acquired by Turkmenistan. [5] [6] The Falco also represented the country's first larger UAV, supplementing a number of compact and lightweight types like the Israeli Orbiter 2B and Skylark already in service with the Turkmen Armed Forces. While it was the first drone of its size class to become operational in the Central Asian region, the Falco UAV was largely overshadowed by the arrival of Wing Loong I, CH-3A and WJ-600A/D unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) from China a few years later.

Corresponding to the small numbers acquired by Turkmenistan, amounting to just three UAVs, and the little amount of footage released by Turkmenistan of its military conducting exercises, very little is known regarding the Falco XN's operational service in the country. The type has only been sighted once outside of the yearly independence parades, in which the UAV is a regular participant. Nonetheless, the seconds of footage in which a Falco made a brief appearance were enough to find out that the Falcos are based at Ak-Tepe-Bezmain air base located near Ashgbat. In the footage the Falco can be seen flying over a horse geoglyph, which was created outside of Ashgbat in 2013.

A Turkmen Falco UAV equipped with a Tamam FLIR turret flies over the giant horse geoglyph near Ak-Tepe Bezmain air base. Note the end of the runway in the top left corner.

The Falco UAV has meanwhile entered service with Pakistan, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Turkmenistan, with the fall of Libyan leader Gaddafi in 2011 preventing a sale of several systems to Libya. The system boasts an endurance of up to 14 hours at a maximum altitude of 5,000 metres. The manufacturer Selex ES offers a number of sensors for integration on the Falco, including three types of FLIR turrets, a multi-mode surveillance radar and PicoSAR or Osprey multi-mode AESA radars (the latter was acquired by Poland for its Bayraktar TB2s). [7] The Falco can also carry the SAGE electronic warfare suite, but unlike the similar looking CH-3A from China, the Falco can't be equipped with any armament. [7] Turkmenistan is believed to have acquired its Falcos in a purely reconnaisance configuration equipped with just a FLIR turret under its fuselage.

Ten years after the acquisition of the Falco UAVs Turkmenistan again turned to Italy to strengthen its air force. In May 2020 the Italian Senate disclosed that Turkmenistan had placed a 293.1 million euros order for four M-346FAs (Fighter Attack) and two M-346FTs (Fighter Trainer) in 2019. [8] Also acquired from Italy were two C-27J NG transport aircraft. [9] Along with the purchase of five A-29B Super Tucano turboprop light attack aircraft from Brazil, these acquisitions show that Turkmenistan's attempts at modernising its armed forces are anything but a token effort, with its air force now operating the region's most advanced combat aircraft and U(C)AVs. [10]

Turkmenistan's six Italian M-346 combat aircraft in close formation.

An An-74TK-200 leads two C-27J NGs during Turkmenistan's 30th anniversary of independence parade in September 2021.

With further development of the Falco that would include an armed version and other Italian drone designs such as the Hammerhead MALE UAS effectively halted (or in the case of the Falco Xplorer ISR, offering little in new capabilities) there is little chance of another Italian drone type ever entering service with Turkmenistan. Instead, the country has recently purchased types from China, Israel and Turkey, and is likely to rely on the latter two countries for the acquisition of more unmanned capabilities in the future. One day, such types will doubtlessly end up replacing the Falco UAV. Until then however, the Falco UAV will continue to see faithful service with this perhaps unexpected operator.

[1] Turkmenistan's Capital Named World's 'White-Marble' City
[2] Italian Allure - Turkmenistan’s M-346 Combat Jets
[3] Small But Deadly - Turkish Fast Attack Craft In Service With Turkmenistan
[5] Italia: ecco le armi esportate da Berlusconi a dittatori e regimi autoritari
[9] Italian Allure - Turkmenistan’s M-346 Combat Jets
[10] Turkmen Tucanos: Turkmenistan Unveils A-29B Attack Aircraft