Wednesday, 1 December 2021

Turning The Tables: The UK’s Case For Buying The Bayraktar TB2

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
Out of all of the countries reportedly interested in acquiring the Bayraktar TB2 unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV), the United Kingdom is arguably the most notable. Currently operating a significant fleet of WK450 and MQ-9A Reaper U(C)AVs in service with the Army Air Corps and Royal Air Force, one might argue that another UAV system wouldn't be the first priority on the long wish list of the British Armed Forces. However, when approached from a broader perspective the acquisition of TB2s would fit in the country's recent attempts to meet the challenges of future warfare through the acquisition of flexible and more affordable armament.

The Turkish Minister for Industry and Technology Mustafa Varank revealed in mid-October 2021 that the UK is seriously interested in Turkish UCAVs, stating that "The United Kingdom is interested in Turkish Armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. Now they have to decide. We have presented them with our options. They are currently seriously considering these options." While a concrete interest in Turkish weaponry by Great Britain (and not vice versa) is arguably a first in the history of both countries, the announcement by Mustafa Varank nonetheless received little to no news coverage outside of Turkey. [1]
The UK's recent interest in Turkish UCAVs (i.e. the TB2) is certainly not the first time the country voiced its admiration for Turkish UCAVs. [2] During a webinar organised by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in December 2020, Secretary of State for Defence (Minister of Defence) Ben Wallace stated that the Bayraktar TB2 has the capability to present "real challenges to the enemy, being responsible for the destruction of hundreds of armored vehicles and even air defense systems in Syria, Libya, and elsewhere". [1] Speaking about how the design of the TB2 came to be, Wallace further argued that "The roots of these drones are born out of Turkish innovation. Prevented from gaining access to exquisite foreign programs, they did what we used to do so well – they innovated." [1]
Wallace's statements were a rare praise for Turkish-produced weaponry at a time when Turkey's role in NATO is frequently questioned by political organisations in some Western countries. Even though no public statements regarding a possible acquisition have yet been made by the British Ministry of Defence, the motivation behind the UK's interest into Turkish UCAVs, those produced by Baykar Tech in particular, is nonetheless worth investigating. This is the first in a series of articles that will examine the potential benefits and pitfalls of a UK venture into Baykar products – specifically the Bayraktar TB2 and TB3 – and look at the synergy with platforms currently in UK service.

Innovation in the British Armed Forces has been somewhat of a mixed success for the UK in the past years, with equipment programmes like the Ajax (Scout SV) family of armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs) grabbing headlines every few months as new problems appear to bring the vehicle further away from ever entering operational service. Other significantly delayed, failed or cancelled upgrade programmes like those of the Challenger 2 and Warrior IFV have meanwhile meant that a part of the British Army not only lags significantly behind its most likely opponents, but also of allied countries like Germany and France.
Faced with a declining defence industry that frequently sees significant delays or issues in programme management, the UK has increasingly been looking at foreign defence manufacturers for the acquisition of military equipment. This shift certainly isn't unique to the United Kingdom, with countries like France, Germany and the U.S. similarly looking at the defence industries of other nations rather than relying on fully indigenous development and production. To highlight just a few notable cases: France replaced a large part of its small arms inventory with German HK416 and HK417 rifles while Germany and the U.S. selected Dutch and Italian shipyards for the design of their frigate classes.

No article on the current state of the UK's defence industry can be written without mentioning the Ajax AFV. In July 2021 it was reported that issues with these vehicles are so significant that the successful conclusion of the project is currently uncertain. [3]

The UK's interest in the Bayraktar TB2 is all the more exceptional because it not only involves a country the defence products of which haven't truly found a market in Western Europe yet, but it also addresses a requirement the British Armed Forces was previously not thought to have. The Royal Air Force currently operates a fleet of ten MQ-9A Reapers in the unmanned combat aerial vehicle role. [4] [5] The MQ-9As are set to be replaced by sixteen MQ-9B Protector RG1s from 2024 onwards. [4] The UK has a stated requirement for twenty Protector RG1s while the US, apparently expecting a larger purchase, approved the sale of twenty-six systems to the UK. [4]
Sixteen Protector RG1s (itself a weaponised version of the MQ-9B SkyGuardian) appear to be a sufficient number to support current UK military operations around the world, with several systems available for emergency deployments (for example over Afghanistan or Iraq) if the need arises. The Protector RG1 comes equipped with advanced sensors and an impressive weapon payload capacity of up to eighteen MBDA Brimstone 2 ground attack missiles or twelve Brimstone 2 missiles and two 230kg Paveway IV GPS/INS and laser-guided bombs.
However, the hefty price tag of the Protector RG1 makes the type ill-suited for operations over contested areas with significant concentrations of enemy air defences present. Although one could argue that the success of the Bayraktar TB2 over Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh has proven that such operations are indeed feasible, the TB2's small size (in turn making it a more difficult target to track and engage), excellent electronic warfare (EW) and spoofing resistancy as well as the low price of each system mean its deployment such conflicts is a significantly different consideration. Indeed, these factors are sure to have been key in the decision to deploy the TB2s in the face of modern Russian air defence and EW systems. By contrast, the large size and high costs of the Protector RG1 make it a far less attractive choice for operations in which significant attrition due to enemy actions can be expected.
The ineffectiveness of a range of Russian, Belarusian and Soviet electronic warfare system against the Bayraktar TB2 likely surprised not only the crews of these systems, but also the companies that designed them. The CEO of Baykar Tech Haluk Bayraktar has stated that Russian EW systems have proven completely 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". [6] Combat operations over Nagorno-Karabakh, Libya and likely Syria appear to confirm the validity of Haluk Bayraktar's statements.

Jammer and deception systems known to have been employed against the Bayraktar TB2 without success

  • R-330P Piramida-I (Used by the Armenian Armed Forces in Nagorno-Karabakh)
  • Avtobaza-M (Used by the Armenian Armed Forces in Nagorno-Karabakh)
  • Repellent-1 (Used by the Armenian Armed Forces in Nagorno-Karabakh)
  • Borisoglebsk-2 (Used by the Armenian Armed Forces in Nagorno-Karabakh)
  • Groza-S (Used by Wagner PMC in Libya)
  • Groza-6 (Used by the United Arab Emirates Armed Forces' in Libya)

Russian-made Avtobaza-M (Left) and Repellent-1 (Right) EW systems in service with Armenia. Among the most capable EW systems in Russian service, they nonetheless proved incapable of hindering Bayraktar TB2 operations over Nagorno-Karabakh.

The UK paid a total of $82 million for three Protector RG1s, three ground control stations and support equipment in July 2020. [7] When also factoring in the costs for armament the total acquisition price rises substantially. In fact, just arming a Protector RG1 with Brimstone 2 missiles (i.e. excluding the cost of the drone itself) exceeds the production costs of an entire Bayraktar TB2 UCAV complete with a full load of armament. The costs of a Brimstone 2 missile has been quoted as over 126,000 USD (excluding development costs), compared to an estimated 25,000 USD for the MAM-L munition that arms the TB2.

Boasting an impressive payload capacity, fully arming a Protector RG1 with Brimstone 2 missiles costs in excess of $2.2 million.

For further comparison, Morocco paid just 70 million USD for thirteen Bayraktar TB2s, four ground control stations, a simulator as well as network-based data tracing and archiving software in 2020. [8] In the same year, Poland signed an agreement for four systems with six TB2s each. The contract also includes ground control stations (GCS'), synthetic aperture radars (SARs), simulators, munitions, spare parts, logistical support, and a training package. Each system of six TB2s comes at the cost of 67 million USD including the above mentioned items, which is significantly lower than what the UK paid for three Protector RG1s ($82 million). [9]
Although the Protector RG1 and Bayraktar TB2 are truly in a different category, with the Protector RG1 placed in between the capabilities of the TB2 and Bayraktar Akıncı, the Protector RG1 arguably does little to expand on the capabilities of the TB2 in most situations where it is required such as those over Afghanistan and Iraq. In turn, the TB2 likely does little to complicate already existing logistics while enabling the UK to carry out unmanned operations completely independent from the United States. The 27 hour endurance of the Bayraktar TB2, although less than the 40 hours of the Protector RG1, is still more than enough to operate in support of extended ground operations, and is almost twice that of the Watchkeeper WK450's 14 hour endurance. [10] [11] [12]

Given teh aforementioned reasoning, it's not unlikely that the UK might forgo the acquisition of the last four Protector RG1s in favour of buying the Bayraktar TB2. The acquisition of four Protector RG1s is likely to cost the UK in excess of 110 million USD (excluding armament), which is to what Poland paid for two TB2 systems with six Bayraktar TB2s each (including GCS', SARs, simulators and training, munitions, logistical support and spare parts for $134 million). TB2s could replace Protector RG1s on most missions at home and abroad, presenting a far more economical option in both acquisition and operating costs. Data released by the US Air Force shows that the MQ-9 Reaper costs 3,624 USD per hour to fly (compared to $20,809 for an F-16). [13] In comparison, each flight hour of the Bayraktar costs the equivalent of just 925 USD dollars, a fraction of the costs of the MQ-9 Reaper (and by extension the Protector RG1). [14]

The failure of European defence manufacturers to design and produce an UCAV like the TB2 might seem surprising, but actually fits in a larger trend of inefficiency that appears inherent to many European defence projects. The countries of Germany, France, Italy and Spain are currently jointly developing the MALE RPAS 'Eurodrone', a twin-turboprop MALE UAV designed by a consortium of Airbus, Dassault Aviation and Leonardo that is set be introduced in 2029 (four years later than originally planned). [15] In August 2020, the French Senate sharply criticised the MALE RPAS as being "too heavy, too expensive and therefore, too difficult to export" due to specifications set out by Germany. [16]
The MALE RPAS's unconventional dual engine configuration was a demand from Germany, which is concerned that engine failure of a single-engined UAV could lead to the drone crashing into a house. [17] The decision to settle for a dual engine configuration was much to the dismay of France however, which has been a vocal critic of the drone's subsequent increase in costs and weight. [17] Coming in at a staggering 11,000kg, the MALE RPAS is more than twice as heavy as the MQ-9 Reaper. A French politician part of the French Development Agency, even criticised the MALE RPAS as suffering from "obesity". [17] The final design is likely to combine all the maladies of European defence projects, including significant delays, over-engineering, excessive expenses and inferiority to already existing designs.

A product of compromise all the while contributing little in terms of new capabilities compared to US, Israeli or Turkish drones, the MALE RPAS encapsulates everything that's wrong with European defence projects.

It should be metioned that in many cases the failure to bring defence projects to a success are not only the fault of their designers, but also caused by significant oversight issues within the armed forces or Ministry of Defence. One other major problem facing European defence projects is that these often seek to reinvent the wheel, designing yet another system in an already saturated market of products also produced by the U.S. or even other European countries. In the case of the Ajax AFV, the British did opt to base the vehicles on an already existing design but ultimately changed the specifications of the vehicles so much that it might well be called an entirely new design altogether.
The British Armed Forces arguably has had more luck in buying finished or largely finished designs off the shelf. In 2018 the UK government announced that it was re-joining the Boxer armoured personnel carrier (APC) programme it previously left in 2003 to meet its Mechanised Infantry Vehicle (MIV) requirement. [18] The UK MoD intents to acquire between 400 and 600 Boxers with options for a further 900. [18] The production of the Boxer for the Dutch and German militaries had been scheduled to commence in 2004, but numerous design changes combined with political problems delayed production until 2008. While some ridiculed the UK's decision to re-join the programme after earlier leaving it, the UK was able to skip the delays and political problems by re-joining the programme at a later date.
The Royal Navy similarly opted for an off the shelf design for its new Type 31 class of frigates. In September 2019 the UK announced that it had selected the Arrowhead 140 design for its Type 31 frigate project, becoming known as the Inspiration class. The Arrowhead 140 design is based on the Danish Iver Huitfeldt-class with small modifications to meet UK standards. In July 2016, First Sea Lord Admiral Sir Philip Jones described the Inspiration class as "deliberately shaped with lessons from wider industry and off-the-shelf technology". [19] Potentially relevant to the acquisition of a third UAV system, the Type 31's introduction does little to decrease ship classes in the Royal Navy, as the UK is set to increase its number of major surface combatant classes from the Type-23 and Type-45 now to the Type 26, Type 31 and Type 32 frigates and Type 83 destroyer in the late 2030s. [20] [21]

The Boxer APC.

A rendering of an Inspiration class frigate that is based on the design of the Danish Iver Huitfeldt-class.

The desire to expand on existing capabilities through the acquisition of more flexible and affordable armament could also see British interest in another Turkish UAV: The Bayraktar TB3. Designed to be deployed from aircraft carriers and landing helicopter docks (LHDs) from the outset, these UCAVs could be deployed from the Royal Navy's two Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers with little to no modifications required. Due to their small size and foldable wings, numerous TB3s could be deployed on the aircraft carriers without decreasing the size of the F-35B and helicopter air wings. The Turkish TCG Anadolu LHD (and the follow-up vessel the TCG Trakya) are reportedly capable of carrying up to 50 Bayraktar TB3s, a number that can only increase for the much larger Queen Elizabeth class aircraft carriers. [22]

The Bayraktar TB3 can stay in the air up to 24 hours while boasting a 280kg payload capacity. [23] This could either consist of up to six MAM munitions, including the MAM-T with a 30+km range, a maritime surveillance radar or a combination of both. This enables the TB3 to engage enemy naval vessels, support amphibious landings and carry out maritime surveillance. These missions can be carried out at much lower operational and maintenance costs compared to F-35Bs and even helicopters. The Fleet Air Arm is currently studying the potential of adding combat drones to its aircraft carriers under Project Vixen. [23] While Project Vixen may not, itself, lead to an actual carrier-launched drone capability, the Royal Navy is already looking at the options for operating an unmanned aircraft ''as a complementary platform'' to manned aircraft from the decks of its aircraft carriers. [24]

The Bayraktar TB3.

While the UK might have missed the boat on designing an affordable UAV that offers high reliability and the capacity to be used in high end spectrums, an acquisition of the TB2 presents the country with the opportunity to join in on such a capability. The acquisition of weaponry from Turkey might look curious when looking at the UK's traditional suppliers, but as we have seen such an acquisition would be anything but novel in the history of the UK's arms purchases, with the purchase of the Boxer APC arguably serving as the best, most recent, example. The fact that this technology can be acquired from NATO ally with no strings attached will surely be appreciated as well.

Until recently Turkey was an arms importer from UK, acquiring anything from armoured fighting vehicles to SAM systems and anti-ship missiles, but the tables may now be turning. With Turkey on its way to meeting most of its domestic defence needs within the decade, the advanced designs its defence industry puts out could make it a market leader in not only UAVs, but also AFVs, missiles and ships. In the near future, these will be competing heavily for a significant market share of European arms procurements. The speed with which Turkey has reached this level of high tech industry has been remarkable, showing just what a team of motivated engineers supported, but not micromanaged, by its government can achieve in the shortest of timeframes.

[1] Turkey presents options to UK for armed drone purchase: Turkish minister
[11] UK’s first Protector RPAS takes flight
[13] The MQ-9’s Cost and Performance
[17] Le futur drone européen risque-t-il le crash définitif ?
[21] Type 83 destroyer: What we know so far
[24] Now The UK Wants To Add Combat Drones To Its Aircraft Carriers, But Is It Really Feasible?