Tuesday 4 January 2022

Replicating Success: Turkmenistan’s Arsenal Of Israeli SkyStriker Loitering Munitions

By Stijn Mitzer

Turkmenistan is a large recipient of Israeli arms and equipment, so far including weaponry like the TAR-21 assault rifle and several types of infantry mobility vehicles (IMVs). Arguably lesser known is Turkmenistan's inventory of Israeli-produced unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). This until 2021 consisted of familiar types like the Elbit Skylark and Aeronautics Defense Orbiter 2B, both solely used for reconnaissance missions. These were acquired in the early-2010s, presenting Turkmenistan's first UAVs that were not target drones inherited from the Soviet Union.

As Israel does not export any unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), Turkmenistan began purchasing CH-3A and WJ-600A/D UCAVs from China and later Bayraktar TB2s from Turkey to meet its armed drone requirement. [1] [2] Similarly, rather than purchasing the Israeli Aerostar, IAI Heron or Hermes 450, Turkmenistan turned to Italy for the acquisition of three Selex ES Falco XN UAVs instead. [3] These acquisitions appeared to have put an end to the chances of more Israeli UAV designs entering service with Turkmenistan's Armed Forces.
Turkmenistan's 30th anniversary of independence parade in September 2021 however revealed the addition of a new weapon system to the country's arsenal: loitering munitions. For their acquisition, Turkmenistan called on Israel's experience in UAV designs once more. Consisting of the proven SkyStriker type, the purchase of loitering munitions allows Turkmenistan to significantly expand on its existing unmanned strike capabilities. It doesn't seem implausible that the decision to purchase them came after witnessing their highly effective use above Nagorno-Karabakh.

During the conflict, Azerbaijan employed the STM Kargu, the Aeronautics Orbiter-1K (and the Azerbaijani-manufactured version the Zarba-K), the IAI Harop and the SkyStriker designed by Elbit Systems. All but the (Turkish) Kargu are designed and produced by Israel, which has remained the market leader in loitering munitions despite the advent of numerous other designers of such munitions around the world. Israel continues to introduce newer loitering munitions while also refining existing systems (such as the SkyStriker), making it unlikely that Israel is to lose its position in the near future.

The SkyStriker systems were used with great effect on the side of Azerbaijan against Armenian forces during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War and also in earlier skirmishes between both countries. Azerbaijan operates both the early variant of the SkyStriker (pictured below) and the newer variant, which is the variant that also entered service with Turkmenistan. The SkyStrikers are considerably less costly in their acquisition price compared to the IAI Harop, which cost an estimated one million dollars each. The mobile launching system for the IAI Harop can carry a total of nine loitering munitions for a price of nine million USD, roughly equal to the export price of two Bayraktar TB2 UCAVs! For this price, the IAI Harop comes with an impressive 1000km range and a 23kg heavy warhead. [4] 
In comparison, the SkyStriker boasts a range of some 100km while carrying a 5kg or 10kg warhead, which is enough to destroy most targets with a single hit. [5] [6] Upon reaching the target area, the munition can loiter and pursue the target for up to two hours with a 5kg warhead or up to one hour with a 10kg warhead. [5] If no target is found, the SkyStriker can return to base and be recovered. The munition uses autonomous navigation during its cruising and loitering phases, switching to the the gimbaled dual-IR seeker to lock onto a target. [5] During the final dive towards a target, the SkyStriker can reach speeds in excess of 555km and can withstand winds of up to 40 knots with only a slight decrease in accuracy. [5]

The towed launcher for the SkyStriker in service with Azerbaijan. This SkyStriker pictured is the earlier variant.

The purchase of SkyStrikers presents a significant boosts to Turkmenistan's unmanned strike capabilities. The acquisition of SkyStriker loitering munitions and Bayraktar TB2 UCAVs appears to closely mimic Azerbaijan's inventory of unmanned systems, which saw heavy action against Armenian forces during the Nagorno-Karabakh War. Elsewhere in the world other countries appear intent on replicating these successes too, with Morocco similarly acquiring Turkish Bayraktar TB2s and a yet unspecified type of Israeli loitering munitions (believed to be the SkyStriker). These nations are pioneers in the future of (unmanned) warfare, and more countries are certain to follow their example.

[2] Turkmenistan Parades Newly-Acquired Bayraktar TB2s https://www.oryxspioenkop.com/2021/09/turkmenistan-parades-newly-acquired.html
[3] Nurmagomedov’s Birds Of Prey: The Italian Falco XN UAV In Turkmenistan https://www.oryxspioenkop.com/2021/12/nurmagomedovs-birds-of-prey-italian.html
[5] SkyStrikerTactical loitering munitions for covert and precise airstrikes https://elbitsystems.com/media/SkyStriker.pdf
[6] Army buys 'Skystrikers' to carry out Balakot-type missions: How these drones act as force multipliers https://www.timesnownews.com/india/article/army-buys-skystrikers-to-carry-out-balakot-type-missions-how-these-drones-act-as-force-multipliers/807739