Thursday, 16 June 2022

Baltic Bayraktars - Lithuania Eyes Buying TB2 UCAVs

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

The Republic of Lithuania managed to grab headlines with its successful crowdfunding campaign to raise funds for a Turkish Bayraktar TB2 unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) for the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Almost 6 million euro was raised in just three and a half days mostly by Lithuania – a country of only 2.8 million people. During a visit to Baykar to discuss the delivery of the TB2 (which Baykar decide to donate free of charge) in June, Lithuania's Deputy Defence Minister Vilius Semeška revealed that the acquisition of six TB2s for the Lithuanian Air Force had also been discussed. [1]
Though equipped with a number of modern transport aircraft and helicopters, the Lithuanian Air Force currently possesses no aircraft that can be armed. Instead, NATO's Baltic Air Policing mission provides a Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) capability in the airspace over and near the three Baltic countries of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. These aircraft operate in a purely defensive role however, and the Baltic states are reliant on the deployment of additional aircraft to provide air support during wartime conditions. The acquisition of cheap, armed drones like the TB2 could greatly enhance Lithuania's own striking capabilities, enabling it to hit targets far beyond the range of its artillery.
Lithuania is the second Baltic state to express an interest in the Bayraktar TB2 after Latvia's Minister of Defence previously announced his country's intention to procure the TB2 from Baykar Tech in May 2021. [2] However, a Latvian acquisition of the Turkish UCAV appears to have been delayed over the country's requirement to involve local subcontractors in major defence projects inked with foreign companies. With even less defence industry to speak of than Latvia, a similar requirement is unlikely to affect or delay an eventual acquisition by the Lithuanian Air Force.
With the Baltic states eager to expand their military capabilities in close cooperation with each other, a joint procurement of the TB2 system is not unthinkable, potentially saving costs while expanding capabilities through greater integration and information sharing. The acquisition of enough TB2s also enables the Baltic states to participate in NATO missions with a minimal footprint, carrying out surveillance or even air strikes. The purchase of enough TB2s could perhaps also make the establishment of a local maintenance facility in Latvia a worthwhile venture.

Lithuania currently operates the smaller U.S.-made ScanEagle (pictured) and RQ-11 Raven UAV platforms.

In addition to striking enemy targets with up to four 15+km-ranged MAM-L/C or 9km-ranged Bozok munitions, the TB2 can also be used to detect enemy positions or troop concentrations through the long range of its EO/IR sensor (which is well over 75km against targets such as vehicles) and signals intelligence. These targets can then be engaged by artillery and heavy mortars. Lithuania currently fields 18 PzH 2000 self-propelled guns (SPGs) acquired secondhand from Germany starting in 2015. Three more SPGs were acquired to serve as a source of spare parts. The PzH 2000 combines mobility with a long range (35km, or 67km with rocket assisted projectiles) and high firing rate for maximum effect on target. This includes the ability to engage in Multiple Rounds Simulatenous Impact (MRSI) engagements, wherein the autoloader automatically selects charges that will cause up to five munitions to follow a trajectory that will result in their simultaneous impact, after which the PzH 2000 can swiftly relocate to avoid counter-battery fire.

Other artillery systems in Lithuanian service include 43 German-delivered 120mm Panzermörser M113 self-propelled mortars (SPMs) that can lob shells to a range of more than 6km, and 54 World War II-era 105mm M101 howitzers with a range of 11km (which are mostly kept in reserve). Additionally, in June 2022, Lithuania's Minister of Defence Arvydas Anušauskas announced the acquisition of 18 155mm Caesar 6x6 SPGs from France. [3] [4] Integration of reconnaissance drones with these artillery systems would maximise their effect on target; a UCAV thus constitutes something of a force multiplier for several weapons systems already, or soon to available to the Lithuanian Land Forces.

A Lithuanian 120mm Panzermörser. The fire-control, command and control systems of these SPMs were upgraded by Elbit of Israel in 2015. [8]

What Lithuania's 105mm M101 lacks in range it partially makes up for in the numbers available to reserve forces (54).

In May 2021 it was revealed that the Baltic states plan on further expanding their fire support capabilities through a joint procurement of an MRL system. [6] Lithuania has meanwhile accelerated its planned MRL purchase amid Russia's military buildup around Ukraine and its subsequent invasion of the country. [7] Although secondhand U.S. M270 MLRS currently appear the most likely candidate, another suitable option is perhaps even more cost effective and would work well together with the TB2: The 230mm TRLG-230, which has a range of up to 70km. This MRL can fire guided rockets that can hit targets designated by TB2s by fitting a laser guidance kit to the rocket. The launching vehicle for the TRLG-230 guided rocket is modular, and can also be used to launch 122mm and 300mm rockets by simply swapping the rocket pods or launch tubes.

The TRLG-230 guided MRL with a range of up 70km.

Unlike Estonia and Latvia, Lithuania possesses a medium range surface-to-air missile (SAM) capability in the form of the Norwegian NASAMS 3. Estonia is poised to acquire the same system for its own military, and Latvia has a similar requirement for a ground-based air defence system. [8] A total of two batteries were received by Lithuania in 2020. The 25km+ range of the associated AIM-120C missile allows the engagement of high-flying targets. These missiles could in the future be supplemented by the shorter-ranged infrared-guided AIM-9X and the radar-guided AMRAAM-ER, which boasts a range of some 50km. The Russo-Ukrainian War has showed that the Russian Air Force tends to avoid operations over highly contested airspaces. As such, using the NASAMS 3 as a deterrent to Russian aircraft flying over the battlefield would likely increase the TB2's survivability during wartime.

A Lithuanian NASAMS 3 launcher.

Though military investments in the Baltic region often tend to be overlooked in favour of developments in Western Europe, it is these countries that are at the forefront during the current tensions between Russia and NATO, and would be the first to face off against a potential Russian invasion force. Correspondingly, each of these nations have made great strides towards building up a realistic warfighting capability that can also act as a deterrent in peacetime. For Lithuania this includes the introduction of impressive numbers of mechanised armour, modern artillery systems and advanced air defence systems. To this list could soon be added the Bayraktar TB2, a weapons system that would open up entirely new capabilities, making Lithuania's (and with it, the Baltics') deterrent that much more convincing.

[1] Lithuania and Turkey sign agreement on Bayraktar drones purchase
[2] Business In The Baltics: Latvia Expresses Interest In The Bayraktar TB2