Monday 17 October 2022

Turkmenistan’s Path To Drone Power

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

The Central Asian region isn't exactly well-known for its armed-drone prowess. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan currently operate small numbers of unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), with Kyrgyzstan having entered the age of drone-powered warfare only in late 2021. [1] Whilst Uzbekistan possesses a modest unmanned aerial reconnaissance capability in the form of several RQ-11 Ravens received from the US in 2018, it can be argued that only one Central Asian country has been constantly expanding its unmanned arsenal to keep up with the newest trends: Turkmenistan.
Over the past decade, Turkmenistan has built up its unmanned aerial capabilities through the acquisition of several U(C)AV types from China, Türkiye, the U.S., Israel, Italy and Belarus. At the same time, the country has also attempted to set up a production line for several UAV designs sourced from Belarus, although the types assembled so far are limited in mission scope and capabilities. [2] Still, it is entirely possible that experience gained with their production could one day lead to the licence production of larger systems from Belarus or a different country entirely.

But in the late 2000s such ambitions were still a distant dream, with Turkmenistan operating little in the way of UAVs up until that point. In fact, its only unmanned aerial systems consisted of large numbers of La-17 target drones the country inherited from the Soviet Union after achieving independence in 1991. For its first true unmanned aerial vehicles, Turkmenistan turned to Israel for the acquisition of Orbiter 2Bs from Aeronautics Defense and Skylarks from Elbit respectively. Both of these reconnaissance UAVs remain in active service today.

A Turkmen Orbiter 2B is catapulted into the air.

In 2009 it was reported that Turkmenistan was in the process of purchasing a number of ZALA 421-12 unmanned aerial systems from Russia for use with the Ministry of Internal Affairs in counterterrorism operations, with the Russian ZALA Aero company apparently outbidding British and Israeli companies also participating in the tender. [3] Whether this acquisition actually materialised remains unknown however, as the type has never been spotted in Turkmenistan despite the frequent sighting of other UAV types.

In the early-2010s Turkmenistan also sought to fulfill a requirement for a larger UAV type with a longer endurance. Rather than purchasing these from Israel, Turkmenistan contracted the Italian Selex ES company for the delivery of three Falco XNs. [4] These were delivered in 2011 and stationed at Ak-Tepe-Bezmain air base near the capital Ashgabat, which has become the main hub for Turkmen UAV operations. [5] With an endurance of up to 14 hours, the Falcos gave Turkmenistan a true unmanned reconnaissance capability years ahead of any other Central Asian country.

In 2013 came the surprise announcement that Turkmenistan and Belarus had signed an agreement to set up a production line for Belarusian UAVs in Turkmenistan. [2] Construction of 'The Center for Unmanned Aerial Vehicles' began the same year, and the facility was opened by President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov in August 2015. During the opening ceremony, the now former President signed a Busel M UAV, one of the three types selected for production at the Center. Known as the 'Asuda Asman' (Meaning: Calm Sky) in Turkmenistan, the Busel M along with the larger Busel M40 UAV and Busel MB2 UCAV are presumably still in low-rate production. [6] The licence production of the Busel MB1 loitering munition by Turkmenistan has also been speculated, but remains unconfirmed.

The launch of a production line for UAVs in Turkmenistan was a notable feat, as the country had no defence industry to speak of prior to the establishment of the UAV Center. The production of the first UAVs was scheduled to commence in the second half of 2016, although this appears to have been delayed for some time. [6] In the same year it was also announced that negotiations were underway for the supply of Burevestnik MB UCAVs from Belarus, likely to be produced at the Center as well. [7] An eventual deal for the systems failed to materialise however. When President Berdimuhamedov visited the 'The Center for UAVs' again in February 2021, it was reported that the facility was to be modernised to increase its production capacity, possibly paving the way for the production of newer designs. [8]

Former President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow stands next to a licence-produced Busel M40 UAVs and Busel MB2 UCAVs.

The mid-2010s would see a drastic expansion in Turkmenistan's unmanned capabilities when it received the first out of a total of four UAV types acquired from China. These included the country's first (true) UCAVs, consisting of the CH-3A and the jet-powered WJ-600A/D. [9] [10] The CH-3A can be armed with two AR-1 air-to-ground missiles (AGMs) with a range of some 10 kilometres while the WJ-600/AD is armed with two CM-502KG AGMs with a range of at least 20 kilometres. The other two drone types acquired from China are the S300 and ASN-9 target drones to replace the La-17, with a number of commercially available designs completing Turkmenistan's Chinese drone lineage.

The CH-3A.

The WJ-600A/D.

Turkmenistan also sought to expand on its manned reconnaissance capabilities through the acquisition of five DA-42MPP surveillance aircraft from Austria. It is believed that these were specifically acquired with border surveillance duties in mind. Turkmenistan shares a volatile 804km-long border with Afghanistan, prompting Turkmenistan to increase its military presence on the frontier on several occasions. The DA-42MPPs are equipped with a FLIR turret mounted underneath the nose, and their 13 hour endurance makes them ideally suited for surveillance duties.

Turkmenistan's entire fleet of DA-42MPP surveillance aircraft seen during the country's 30th anniversary of independence parade in September 2021.

While the earlier acquisition of CH-3As and WJ-600A/Ds made Turkmenistan a logical operator of the next systems in the Chinese UCAV lineage, either consisting of the CH-4B or the Wing Loong series, Turkmenistan instead turned to Türkiye for the acquisition of Bayraktar TB2s. Turkmenistan's TB2s come equipped with a German ARGOS-II HDT FLIR turret from Hensoldt rather than the WESCAM MX-15D or Aselsan CATS normally installed. [11] The TB2's armament consists of the MAM-L or MAM-C munitions, up to four of which can be carried. The TB2s acquired by the country also feature a number of improvements over earlier versions of the drone, including what appears to be an anti-jamming device located on top of the fuselage and a second tail-mounted camera for night operations.

Although Turkmenistan has historically operated its Chinese and Italian-made U(C)AVs out of Ak-Tepe-Bezmain air base near the capital Asghabat, it appears that the Bayraktar TB2s will be based at a newly-constructed drone air base. Situated north of Ashgabat, this small air base was still under construction during President Berdimuhamedow's visit to the area in February 2021. Located adjacent to 'The Center of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles', the base is the first of its kind in the region and clearly signifies the value Turkmenistan puts in UAVs and their effective operations. 

Renderings of the air base adjacent to the 'Center of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles'.

It was after the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War that Turkmenistan again sought to introduce an entirely new capability to its fleet of unmanned aerial systems. [12] This manifested in the acquisition of SkyStriker loitering munitions from Israel, a type which was used with great effect by Azerbaijan against Armenian forces during the 2020 War. It appears that through the acquisition of Bayraktar TB2s and SkyStrikers Turkmenistan seeks to closely replicate the unmanned offensive capabilities of Azerbaijan, which proved decisive during the 44-Day War. Another expansion of its growing arsenal came through the acquisition of ScanEagle 2 UAVs for use from the Turkmenistan Navy's Deniz Han corvette.

A Turkmen SkyStriker loitering munition seen here on its launch catapult.

A ScanEagle 2 onboard the Deniz Han Corvette.

The following section comprises a full accounting of Turkmen UAVs.

(Click on the UAV to get a picture of it in Turkmen service)

Surveillance Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles

Loitering Munitions

  • SkyStriker [2021]
  • Busel MB1 (Documented by a few sources, not yet seen) 

Vertical Take-Off And Landing Unmanned Aerial Vehicles


Target Drones

UAVs With An Unknown Purpose

Turkmenistan has also sought to address the threat of enemy unmanned aerial systems being used against it through the acquisition of several types of active and passive counter-UAV systems aimed at neutralising or disrupting the operations of UAVs. This has included anything from handheld drone guns to long-range surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems and even advanced jamming systems. The Turkmen Armed Forces operate a large number of modern SAM systems. [13] Several of the counter-UAV systems are produced at 'The Center of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles', which have so far been installed on buildings of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and on other government buildings. [8]

Several types of anti-drone radars and electro-optical devices on display at the 'The Center of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles'.

Also in the inventory of Turkmenistan are a number of German-made Rohde & Schwarz communications jamming systems. These highly-advanced systems can be used to intercept and disrupt communications between certain drones and their operator(s). The truck-based system features a combined wideband detector and exciter, which enables it to jam both normal and more advanced frequency-hopping radiocommunications systems. [14]

The acquisition of Chinese and Turkish UCAVs and Israeli loitering munitions has meanwhile turned Turkmenistan into a regional drone power. Considering the country's frequent investments in new arms and equipment, it is likely to further advance its unmanned capabilities to ensure its military maintains an edge over any possible opponent. Future additions to its drone arsenal could include types like the Israeli Hermes 900 and/or the Bayraktar Akıncı. The acquisition of these types could give the air force capabilities even its manned aircraft currently lack, such as surveillance, SIGINT, jamming and EW payloads and the capability to deploy stand-off precision-guided munitions.

[1] Turkish Drones Are Conquering Central Asia: The Bayraktar TB2 Arrives To Kyrgyzstan
[2] Belarus To Manufacture Drones In Turkmenistan
[3] Zala Aero To Deliver UAVs To Ministry of Internal Affairs of Turkmenistan
[4] Berdimuhamedow’s Birds Of Prey: The Italian Falco XN UAV In Turkmenistan
[6] Президент Бердымухамедов осмотрел центр по производству беспилотников
[7] Белоруссия начала поставку беспилотников в Туркменистан
[8] The President of Turkmenistan inspects the activity of the Center of unmanned aerial vehicles
[11] Turkmenistan Parades Newly-Acquired Bayraktar TB2s 
[12] Replicating Success: Turkmenistan’s Arsenal Of Israeli SkyStriker Loitering Munitions
[13] Including the FD-2000, KS-1A, FM-90, Pechora-2M and the S-125-2BM.

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