Wednesday 12 October 2022

Guardians Of The Steppe - Kazakhstan’s UAVs

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

In November 2021 it was announced that Kazakhstan had signed a contract with Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) for the delivery of three TAI Anka unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs). [1] Their purchase comes some five years after the Kazakh Air Force first acquired an armed drone capability in the form of four Wing Loong Is from China. [2] Rather than acquiring additional Chinese-made UCAVs, in 2021 Kazakhstan thus turned to Türkiye to press on with its armed drone programme. Other suppliers of UAVs to Kazakhstan are Israel and Russia, which both have delivered a number of reconnaissance UAVs.
The acquisition of the Turkish TAI Anka ends years of speculation that Kazakhstan was looking to purchase the type. Already in 2018 it was reported that Kazakhstan Aviation Industry (KAI) had signed an agreement with Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) to produce the Anka UAV and TAI Hürkuş advanced trainer and ground attack aircraft in Kazakhtan. [2] This agreement never appears to have come to fruition, and for some time it was believed that Israel would ultimately secure a deal to provide Kazakhstan with a MALE UAV capability other than the Chinese Wing Loong I already in service. [3] [4]

The original order for just four Wing Loong Is could indicate that Kazakhstan acquired the type for doctrine-building and training purposes, only to later settle on a type that was to be acquired in larger numbers. Kazakhstan became the second neighbour of China after Myanmar to acquire Chinese-made UCAVs. [5] It is not known if China has imposed any restrictions on the use of UCAVs near the border with China as previously reported by some sources. The Wing Loong Is are stationed some 800km away from the border with China at Taraz close to Kyrgyzstan, which recently became an operator of the Bayraktar TB2. [6]

Kazakhstan's Wing Loong Is were first unveiled during the KADEX-2016 exhibition of arms and technologies and the Defender of the Fatherland Day parade in 2017, when two examples were paraded through the streets of Astana (nowadays known as Nur-Sultan). Rather than flying over the venue or being installed on trailers, as is common in countries like Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Ukraine, the Wing Loong Is were ironically towed behind U.S. HMMWV IMVs. One Wing Loong I later also participated in KADEX-2018, where it was put on static display. [7]

Two Wing Loongs Is are paraded through the streets of Nur-Sultan (Astana) in 2017.

Operating alongside the Wing Loong Is are at least two types of Israeli reconnaissance UAVs and a small number of Russian Orlan-10E drones. The Skylark I-LEX by Elbit Systems was the first reconnaissance UAV to enter service with the Kazakh Armed Forces in 2014. The type is meanwhile also produced in Kazakhstan through a joint venture between Kazakhstan and Elbit Systems. [8] The country's unmanned ambitions extend beyond merely assembling foreign types however. A fledging R&D UAV industry exists that so far has spawned several drone designs. The most promising of these is the Shagala, which passed state trials in early 2021. [9] [10]

Surveillance Unmanned Aerial Vehicles - Operational

Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles - Operational

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles - Prototypes

Acquired along with the Wing Loong Is were Blue Arrow 7 air-to-ground missiles (AGMs) and YZ-100 guided bombs. No advanced payloads are believed to have been purchased for the Wing Loong Is, and the drones operate with just a FLIR turret under the fuselage. Footage of a Kazakh Wing Loong I striking a simulated target using a Blue Arrow 7 AGM can be viewed here. [11] A report on Wing Loong I and Elbit I-LEX operations in Kazakhstan can be watched here. [12]

After their arrival to Kazakhstan in 2017, the Wing Loong Is were based at Taraz airport near the border with Kyrgyzstan. At one time Taraz was home to the 157th helicopter regiment operating some forty Mi-17s and eighteen Mi-26s helicopters. As operations of this regiment began to wind down in the 1990s, Taraz was reverted to civilian use long before the arrival of the Wing Loong Is. Four hangars were erected in the area formerly used by the Mi-26s. Only one of the hangars is dedicated to housing the Wing Loong Is, with the other three hangars acting as shelters for the ground control stations (GCS) and other associated vehicles and equipment.

Two Wing Loong Is visible in front of their hangar at Taraz, 20th of June 2019.

Kazakhstan is soon set to operate a number of UAV designs sourced from China, Israel and Türkiye. In addition to acquiring these foreign designs, the country also intends to involve its own defence industry through the assembly of Israeli UAVs in Kazakhstan and the design and production of indigenous UAVs. In November 2020 it was claimed that Kazakhstan was also interested in acquiring the Turkish Bayraktar TB2. [13] While it remains unknown if an acquisition of the TB2 will actually materialise, it is certain that Kazakhstan will continue to look for new ways to expand on its existing unmanned aerial capabilities.

The first TAI Anka UCAV for the Kazakhstan Air Force.

[5] Chinese drones a killer eye in the sky in Myanmar
[6] Turkish Drones Are Conquering Central Asia: The Bayraktar TB2 Arrives To Kyrgyzstan 
[8] Factory for production of SkyLark-1LEX UAVs opens in Kazakhstan
[9] Ұшу аппараттары І Ғылым
[10] Kazakhstan’s ‘Shagala’ Drone Completes Test Flights 
[11] Қазақстандық армия ҰҰА қарқынды дамытуда / БПЛА: казахстанская армия развивает оружие будущего
[12] «AQSAÝYT». Қарулы Күштеріміздің қолданысындағы ұшқышсыз ұшу аппараттарының мүмкіндігі қандай?
[13] Kazakhstan may ditch Chinese UAVs for Turkish Bayraktar TB2s, Russian media claims