Friday, 2 September 2022

Will Saudi Arabia Buy Bayraktar Drones?

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
Türkiye's unprecedented drone success propelled by Baykar Tech is only set to increase after the effective use and popularity of the Bayraktar TB2 during the 2022 Russo-Ukrainian War. [1] One of the countries that has recently shown an interest in Baykar's products is Saudi Arabia, which already operates a sizeable fleet of Chinese and Turkish unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs). [2] Although this fleet is sometimes reported to consist of hundreds of locally-manufactured Chinese UCAVs, the actual composition and size of Saudi Arabia's drone fleet is largely unknown. What is known is that the country's UCAVs have been deployed intensively against Houthi rebels in neighbouring Yemen since 2018. [3]

Unable to procure armed drones from the United States, Saudi Arabia has mostly relied on China for the purchase of UCAVs. This has manifested in the acquisition of significant numbers of Wing Loong I, Wing Loong II and CH-4Bs from the mid-to-late 2010s onwards. These supplemented several types of South African, Italian and German-made reconnaissance UAVs already in action over Yemen since start of the Saudi Arabian-led intervention in the country in March 2015. [3] In 2019, Saudi Arabia further expanded its drone arsenal with the acquisition of the Turkish-made Lentatek Karayel-SU UCAV, which is soon to be produced in Saudi Arabia under the designation of Haboob. [4]
In addition to these types, Saudi Arabia is currently developing several more UCAVs in cooperation with foreign companies and scientists. The first of these, the Saqr-1, is based on the design of the South African Bateleur MALE UAV by Denel Dynamics. The smaller SkyGuard is a local design that was first presented in 2017. Another design known as the Samoom is a larger twin-engined type with seven hardpoints. Lastly, Saudi Arabia has struck a deal with China to produce the heavy three/twin-engined TB001 UCAV as the Al Eqab-1 and Al Eqab-2. [5] [6] A plan to jointly design and produce UAVs with Ukraine appears to have been cancelled as a result of the Russo-Ukrainian War. [7]

The proposed double-tail Al Eqab-1/2 (TB001). Although a contract for the TB001 was signed in 2019, the current status of the programme remains unknown.

Amid these developments, reports have been abuzz since 2017 regarding a possible deal between Saudi Arabia and the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) for the establishment of a production line and regional maintenance center in Saudi Arabia that would eventually churn out some 300 CH-4Bs over the next decade (making Saudi Arabia the largest operator of UCAVs in the world, assuming current statistics). [8] Whether such an agreement was ever signed or planned in the first place is unknown, and it does not appear to have come into fruition as of the writing of this article.

Due to the Kingdom's existing fleet of UCAVs and the prospect of several locally-produced types entering service in the coming years, one might argue that an interest in the Bayraktar TB2 and Akıncı is perhaps surprising. Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia wouldn't be the first nation to acquire UCAVs from a multitude of sources. In fact, even Saudi Arabia's three Chinese UCAV types originate from three different manufacturers. The tendency to diversify arms purchases is reflected in the equipment inventories of most Gulf states, often to safeguard deliveries in case of an arms embargo. In the case of drones, it also provides an interesting opportunity to compare performances to weigh in on future acquisitions.

Saudi Arabia's interest in the TB2 and the Akıncı likely has much to do with the TB2's impressive service record and the novel features of the Akıncı. Although Chinese UCAVs have seen extensive combat use as well, most notably over Libya and Yemen, their performance often left much to be desired, with Jordan even offering its CH-4Bs for sale less than two years after acquiring them. [9] The CH-4B fared little better in Iraq, with eight of its 20 CH-4Bs crashing within a timespan of just a few years while the dozen remaining examples remain mostly grounded due to a lack of spare parts. [10] [11] Saudi Arabia is visually confirmed to have lost at least 12 CH-4Bs over Yemen in the past four years. [12]

A Saudi CH-4B UCAV. Note the lack of any country markings on the fuselage and tail.

Perhaps as a result of the poor availability and service record of Chinese armed drones, Saudi Arabia has already turned to Turkey for the acquisition of UCAVs since at least 2017. Although initially interested in the TAI Anka UCAV by Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI), the Kingdom ultimately struck a deal with Vestel (the military branch of which has since rebranded as Lentatek) for an unknown number of Karayel-SUs in the late 2010s. [13] [4] These were rushed into action over Yemen almost immediately, so far leading to the visually confirmed loss of four of them. [3] The local production of the Karayel-SU platform by Intra is set to commence in mid-2022 after a 1.5 years long delay due to COVID-19. [4] Lentatek will supply critical components, which will then be assembled in Saudi Arabia. [4]

The Karayel-SU 'Haboob' in Saudi Arabia. The type is equipped with four hardpoints for MAM-C/L or other small munitions.

The local production of the Karayel-SU could be the final nail in the coffin for the Saqr-1 project. Under development by U.S.-based UAVOS in cooperation with the King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) since at least 2012, the Saqr-1 has undergone a number of revisions, with the latest iteration, the Saqr-1C, unveiled in 2020. None of these versions have entered service, with the smaller Saqr-2 and Saqr-4 versions also not progressing to actual production status. [14] Though boasting an impressive endurance of up to 48 hours, the Saqr-1 is equipped with only two hardpoints for the carriage of munitions (compared to four on the CH-4B and TB2), seriously limiting its usefulness as an armed drone. Whether the Samoom that is currently under development by Intra Defense is to take the Saqr-1's place as Saudi Arabia's first mass-produced indigenous UCAV, or will instead also face a protracted development cycle, internal opposition and ultimately cancellation as is common to most Saudi defence projects remains to be seen. [15]

The Saqr-1 that was developed from the South African Bateleur MALE UAV.

A 1:2 model of the upcoming Samoom. Note the mockups of the Chinese-made Blue Arrow 7 and TL-2 AGMs under the wings.

The even larger Chinese-designed Tengden TB001 can be armed with a variety of guided bombs, air-to-ground missiles (AGMs), anti-ship missiles and cruise missiles under its four underwing hardpoints. The Al Eqab-1 features an unconventional three-engined layout while the Al Eqab-2 is a twin-engined derivative of the Al Eqab-1 (TB001). Though a deal for the design was announced in 2019, development of the TB001 has dragged on to the point where it's currently uncertain whether Saudi Arabia is still actively pursuing the project for its own defence needs. [5]

The Tengden TB001.

Compared to the TB001 (Al-Eqab-1/2), the Bayraktar Akıncı is both a much more mature and a more conceptually advanced weapons system, incorporating a number of technologies that have yet to come together on a single mass-produced platform. These include several novel features for an UCAV, most notably the ability to launch 275+km-ranged cruise missiles, 150+km ranged anti-ship missiles and even air-to-air missiles (AAMs) at targets as far as 100 kilometres away. To accommodate these munitions, the Akıncı features up to eight underwing hardpoints and another one under its fuselage for a total of nine hardpoints. The latter carries the heaviest ordnance cleared for carriage on the Akıncı, comprising the (L)HGK-84, the NEB-84(T) penetrator bombs and the SOM-series of cruise missiles. The ability to carry these armament types turns the Akıncı into the first production multi-role unmanned combat aircraft in the world, and the fact that the munitions along with their guidance kits can be procured from Türkiye will surely be appreciated as well at a time when the U.S. has threatened to suspend the sale of bombs to Saudi Arabia on more than one occasion.

The Bayraktar Akıncı along with some of the weapon types it can carry on its nine wing and fuselage hardpoints.

While the Akıncı could replace several of the mission types currently carried out by manned fighter jets, a Saudi acquisition of the Bayraktar TB2 might be an attractive option as well. As a small and (excessively) combat-proven platform it fills an operational role similar to types already in service, but at a much higher safety rating and level of effectiveness. Where Chinese UCAVs have been somewhat crash-prone (especially in operations over Yemen), the TB2 has an excellent record in this regard and its ability to materially alter the course of conflicts is well documented. 

UCAVs visually confirmed to have been lost by Saudi Arabia over Yemen since 2018 (21)


A Saudi Wing Loong I UCAV plunges to the ground after having been hit on April 19, 2019 over Sa'dah Governorate, Yemen.

The biggest threat to drones flying over Yemen is a type of Iranian type of surface-to-air missile (SAM) known as '358' that the Houthis have fielded since at least 2019. The 358 uses a single-stage solid propellant booster to get to an altitude of between 8.000 to 12.000 metres before switching to a microjet that allows the missile to loiter for some time at a low speed that is just sufficient to catch up with drones and helicopters before striking them with the missile's infrared seeker and laser-proximity fuze. [16] The 358 can be disassembled into numerous parts to make it easier to smuggle to Yemen.

A seized '358' loitering surface-to-air missile system.

The 358 is not the only type of surface-to-air missile in Houthi service that can threaten the operations of UCAVs. While the TB2 and Akıncı fly too high to be targeted by MANPADS, Houthi rebels have attempted to make the most out of the SAM systems and arsenal of air-to-air missiles (AAMs) they took over from the Yemeni Air Force in 2015. [17] Even though most SAM systems and associated radar systems have since been destroyed by the Saudi-led Coalition, at least one 2K12 Kub (NATO designation: SA-6 Gainful) SAM system and its associated 1S91 SURN radar is still active and has been responsible for the downing of several of UCAVs in the past couple of years.

Houthi rebels have also sought to convert Yemen's stock of IR-guided R-73E and R-27ET air-to-air missiles to makeshift SAMs by installing their launch rails on (pickup) trucks. The operation of these missiles was quickly improved through the coupling of U.S.-made ULTRA 8500 FLIR systems. [18] Nonetheless, their effectiveness is inherently limited by their short range when launched from the ground. Although Houthi rebels have also displayed radar-guided R-77 AAMs for use in the ground-to-air role, this would necessitate the adaption of at least one of the MiG-29SM's N019MP radars and related fire-control systems, which appears to have been outside the realm of possibilities. Whether this was due to technical difficulties or the destruction of all MiG-29SMs along with their N019MP radars by Coalition bombing is unknown.

A R-27ET infrared-homing air-to-air missile is launched from a truck-based launcher.

A 2K12 (Houthi designation: Fater-1) SAM system that has now been based on a truck, making the system more mobile and easier to hide from Coalition aircraft.

Iran's extensive support to the Houthi rebels has also resulted in the latter receiving a diverse arsenal of loitering munitions in addition to cruise missiles and even ballistic missiles. The loitering munitions consist of designs already in service with the Iranian Armed Forces or designs that have been specifically designed for use with proxy forces in Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq and Palestine. The small size of the drones makes them difficult to detect and shoot down even using the world's most modern air defence systems, and Saudi Arabia regularly has to deploy its F-15 fighter jets to tackle the threat of these loitering muntions before they find their way to targets located deep inside the Kingdom.
The costs of combatting small loitering munitions with U.S.-made AIM-9 Sidewinder and AIM-120 AMRAAM air-to-air missiles (AAMs) can justifiably be called exorbitant. When in late 2021 Saudi Arabia placed an order for 280 AIM-120 AMRAAMs to replenish its depleted stocks, it had to pay $650 million, or over $2.3 million per missile. [19] As the F-15SA fighter jet costs some $29,000 per hour to fly, the downing of a single loitering munition worth not more than ten thousand dollars costs Saudi Arabia an estimated $2.5 million (or closer to $5 million in case the first missile misses its target). [20] In comparison, the export price of an entire Bayraktar TB2 UCAV is estimated at roughly $5 million. Though the TB2 is typically not associated with the interceptor role, it should be noted that it can soon be equipped with Roketsan Sungur IIR-guided MANPADS boasting a range of some 8+km, with each hour of flight operations costing the equivalent of just 925 USD dollars. [21] 
The cost picture is even worse when using air defence systems like the Patriot. In 2017 the successful shootdown of a small quadcopter costing roughly $1,000 set the Royal Saudi Air Defense Forces back some $3 million. [20] The Akıncı itself in fact can be used for a very robust aerospace defence, making use of its capability to carry air-to-air missiles (AAMs), consisting of the indigenous Bozdoğan IIR-guided AAM and the (fire-and-forget) Gökdoğan BVRAAM, which uses an active solid-state radar to guide itself towards its target. The Akıncı's AESA radar enables it to autonomously pick out targets and then engage them with either to hunt enemy slow-flying aircraft, drones and helicopters at ranges of up to 100km. With its overlap in capabilities of the F-15SA especially against the type of threats the KSA is liable to be faced with, the Akıncı could constitute a much cheaper and convenient alternative.

Wa'aed, Shihab, Samad-3 and Qasef-2K loitering munitions put on display by Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Saudi Arabia seeks to localise at least 50% of its defence spending by 2030 as part of the country's Vision 2030, providing a stimulus for defence companies to investigate the possibility of setting up indigenous production lines. Despite the emergence of a number of (partially-)indigenous UCAV projects since the early-2010s there is as of yet little evidence that these will ultimately meet the requirements and needs of the Saudi Armed Forces. With Chinese-made drones suffering from high attrition and possibly even basic maintenance issues, the acquisition of the highly popular and proven Bayraktar TB2 and Bayraktar Akinci is not as unlikely as some would have expected. Although they were not designed in Saudi Arabia, cooperation with drone technology and perhaps even the production of Baykar products in Saudi Arabia would provide valuable knowledge that could help elevate the country's nascent UAV industry to a materially effective level. A deal with Baykar could also translate into the establishment of a local maintenance facility to perform depot-level maintenance. Such developments could provide a more realistic path to self-sufficiency in its defence needs than attempting to conjure up a fully-fledged drone industry from thin air.

[1] An International Export Success: Global Demand For The Bayraktar TB2 Reaches All Time High
[3] List Of Coalition UAV Losses During The Yemeni Civil War
[7] It is possible that this joint venture had already effectively ended before the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
[15] Intra’s Samoom: the future Saudi Armed Forces MALE unmanned air system 
[20] How much cheaper is the F-15EX compared to the F-35?