Sunday, 23 October 2022

Mountain Drones: Kyrgyzstan’s Bayraktar TB2s

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
In late October 2021 it was announced that the mountainous country of Kyrgyzstan had placed an order for three Turkish Bayraktar TB2 UCAVs from Baykar Tech. [1] The news of the deal came as a surprise not only because Kyrgyzstan was previously not believed to have a requirement for UCAVs, but also because Kyrgyzstan possesses little in the way of an air force in the first place. In fact, the Kyrgyz Air Force first began to operationally deploy fixed-wing aircraft in 2018, and that only because it received two An-26 transport aircraft from Russia free of charge. [2] On the 18th of December 2021 the much-anticipated TB2s entered service with the Kyrgyz State Border Guard Service. [3] The TB2s are the first aerial assets known to have entered service with the State Border Guard. In October 2022 it was further revealed that Kyrgyzstan is eyeing the acquisition of several Bayraktar Akıncıs. [4]

Kyrgyzstan used its newly-acquired Bayraktar TB2 unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) in action already in September 2022 during a series of border skirmishes over an old water dispute between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. [5] Tajik forces used tanks and artillery to advance into one Kyrgyz village and shell the town of Batken. Possessing no surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems in the area capable of shooting down the TB2, Tajikistan lost at least one Grad-1 multiple rocket launcher (MRL) and an ammunition truck to the invisible scourge flying above. [5]

A Tajik 122mm 9P138 'Grad-1' MRL that was struck by a Kyrgyz TB2 during the latest round of border skirmishes between both countries in September 2022.

The Kyrgyz Air Force was established in July 1992, taking over the assets of the former Soviet Air Force stationed on its territory. Kyrgyzstan was home to the Frunze Military Aviation School, which trained mostly foreign pilots on the L-39 and MiG-21. [6] Large numbers of MiG-21s were left at Kant air base in 1992, along with a number of An-2, An-12 and An-26 transports and Mi-8 and Mi-24 helicopters. The newly-established Kyrgyz Republic lacked the funds, pilots and above all, need, to operate such a massive fleet, and operations of all but the An-2s, Mi-8/24s were quickly abandoned.

In the decades that followed, the Kyrgyz Air Force would continue to make use of several Mi-8s and Mi-24s operated out of Prigorodny heliport in the capital Bishkek, and one S-75 and two S-125 SAM sites positioned around the capital. Kant air base continued to see use as a storage depot for some fifty MiG-21s and several transport aircraft until most of these had been scrapped by 2015. Until June 2014, Manas International Airport (IAP) was used by the United States to support the War in Afghanistan. Just 35 kilometres away from Manas, Russia established its own air base at Kant which it is able to use until at least 2027 when the current lease will run out. [7]

The arrival of a Russian Air Force contingent equipped with Su-25s and Mi-8s to Kant in 2003 was accompanied by the donation of four L-39s to Kyrgyzstan. Nonetheless, its air force appears to have made no effort to actually operate the aircraft, presumably because these offered little new capabilities over the armed Mi-8s and Mi-24s already in use. The acquisition of Bayraktar TB2s by Kyrgyzstan is thus all the more notable because in the TB2 the Kyrgyz military finally appears to have found a military asset that offers required capabilities at a price that is actually attainable.

One of Kyrgyzstan's two An-26s donated by Russia in 2018. These are the only fixed-wing aircraft of the Kyrgyz Air Force that are currently operational (yet rarely flown).

Kyrgyzstan's four L-39 jet trainers that it received from Russia in the early 2000s. It seems unlikely that these aircraft will ever fly again. Each aircraft features just one hardpoint under each wing for a maximum of two light bombs or rocket pods.

Interestingly, the Kyrgyz Air Force continues to make use of the Soviet Air Force roundel on its aircraft and helicopters, while the State Border Guard uses a roundel incorporating a yellow sun that is also found on the country's flag. The Kyrgyz Air Force's roundel can create some confusion with the Russian Air Force's aircraft and helicopters stationed in Kyrgyzstan, which similarly make use of the red star roundel but with a small blue band around the red star. Despite the Kyrgyz State Border Guard TB2s seeing combat during the September 2022 Kyrgyzstan–Tajikistan border skirmishes, the Kyrgyz Air Force has never been deployed in anger. Had Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan deployed its aircraft and helicopters during the clashes, anti-aircraft gunners would have to take extra care not to shoot down friendly aircraft since Tajikistan ironically too still uses the Soviet red star roundel.

The Kyrgyz Armed Forces has for the most part relied on Russian generosity for the acquisition of new equipment ever since its establishment in 1992. In 2018 and 2019 Kyrgyzstan received four Mi-8 helicopters and two P-18 radars free of charge. [8] [9] Also supplied by Russia over the last decade were four L-39s jet trainers, two An-26 transport aircraft, several dozen BTR-70M and BRDM-2M armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs) and small arms and ammunition. In 2020 it was announced that the transfer of Buk-M1 SAM systems to Kyrgyzstan was being discussed with Russia. [10]

Other sources of arms and equipment include China, which has delivered a range of small arms and armoured vehicles starting in the late 2010s and the United States, which donated 45 Ford Ranger pickups, 44 Polaris ATVs and an unknown number of Navistar International 7000 trucks. [11] Türkiye's military support has so far encompassed the construction of a new building for the Military Institute (formerly the Frunze Military Aviation School), the donation of miscellaneous equipment and training Kyrgyz military personnel in Turkish defence institutions. [12] [13] [14]

Russian-donated BRDM-2M and BTR-70Ms are flanked by a Chinese Dongfeng EQ2050 and a Smart Hunter air defence radar.

The Kyrgyz Air Force
Over the years, the Mi-8 has become the workhorse of the Kyrgyz Air Force. Some five examples still remain active with the Kyrgyz Air Force after one example crashed during a mission to rescue a Japanese climber in 2018. [15] Two Mi-24V attack helicopters also nominally remain on strength with the Kyrgyz Air Force, although these appear to be seldomly flown. Instead, the Kyrgyz Air Force deploys its Mi-8MT(V) in a gunship configuration. These rotorcraft can be armed with up to six rocket or gun pods and some examples additionally carry a 7.62mm PK LMG in their nose. Kyrgyzstan has also deployed its Mi-8s as makeshift bombers armed with up to six bombs each.

The Mi-8s are usually equipped with 57mm UB-16 and UB-32 or 80mm B-8 rocket pods. This example also carries a 7.62mm light machine gun (LMG) in the nose.

Kyrgyzstan's Mi-8s have also been spotted deploying P-50T practise bombs. The fact that the Kyrgyz Air Force is now able able to deploy precision-guided MAM-series of munitions will likely be highly appreciated.

While the reconnaissance capabilities of the Bayraktar TB2 will likely be highly appreciated by the State Border Guard, the introduction of MAM-L and MAM-C precision-guided munitions allows for new capabilities entirely. The TB2 can be armed with up to four MAM munitions, which contrary to helicopter-dropped bombs can hit their targets with high precision. The introduction of INS/GPS to the MAM-series has meanwhile increased the range of the munition from 7km to upwards of 14km, positioning the TB2 as Kyrgyzstan's most revered asset that can locate targets and subsequently target them either with its own munitions or by directing other fire-support assets against them.

The past and the future symbolised in two images.

Kyrgyzstan's TB2s are equipped with an Aselsan CATS FLIR turret rather than the WESCAM MX-15D or the ARGOS-II HDT. The modularity of the TB2 enables the fitting of several different types of FLIR systems, a feature that likely has contributed further to the drone's commercial success. Like the TB2s received by Turkmenistan in 2021, Kyrgyzstan's examples feature a number of improvements over earlier versions of the drone, including a second tail-mounted camera for night operations and an anti-jamming device on top of the fuselage.

Kyrgyz President Sadyr Japarov inspects one of the Bayraktar TB2s. Note the two cameras fitted to the tail. The lower one is used during night operations.

The Bayraktar TB2s are based at a newly-constructed facility at Jalal-Abad airport in the west of the country. [16] This facility was constructed in November 2021 shortly before the delivery of the TB2s. Due to the mountainous terrain of Kyrgyzstan and the lack of major population centers, few airports are located throughout the country. Nonetheless, the TB2s have sufficient range to cover almost the entirety of the country when operating out of Jalal-Abad.

Jalal-Abad Airport, the home of Kyrgyzstan's three TB2s.

Other UAVs in Kyrgyz service
The Bayraktar TB2 is not the first type of UAV to be acquired by Kyrgyzstan. In late August 2021 it was revealed that Kyrgyzstan had procured WJ-100 reconnaissance UAVs from China. [17] [18] The WJ-100 is equipped with a FLIR turret but unlike the Bayraktar TB2 is unarmed and has an endurance of just three hours (compared to some 27 hours for the TB2). [18] The Kyrgyz Armed Forces are to be further strengthened through the acquisition of six Russian Orlan-10 UAVs, which have also entered service with the Russian Armed Forces stationed at Kant air base. [19] [20] The country has also developed a smaller UCAV type known as the Saara-02, which is currently undergoing testing. [21]

Two WJ-100s on display during Kyrgyzstan's 30th anniversary of independence parade in August 2021.

At first glance, the acquisition of three Bayraktar TB2s by Kyrgyzstan might seem less spectacular than the purchase of TB2s by countries like Ukraine and Morocco. Nonetheless, there is perhaps no sale that demonstrates the benefits of the TB2 so much as the one by Kyrgyzstan. Having for decades operated no armed fixed-wing aircraft due to a lack of funds and expertise, the TB2 (and in the future: the Akıncı) presents itself as the first asset that combines effective results with reliability and low acquisition and operating costs. With three out of five Central Asian countries now operating Turkish drones, all eyes are on Uzbekistan and Tajikistan as Turkish drones are rapidly conquering the regional UCAV market.

The Chairman and Deputy Chairman of the Cabinet of Ministers of the Kyrgyz Republic, Akylbek Japarov and Kamchybek Tashiev, hold an Akıncı model together with Baykar Tech CEO Haluk Bayraktar.

[2] Two two military aircraft handed over to Kyrgyzstan by Russia
[3] Беспилотники «Байрактар» поступили на вооружение Пограничной службы ГКНБ
[5] Documenting Losses During The September 2022 Kyrgyzstan–Tajikistan Border Clash
[6] Soviet 5th Training Center in Frunze Between 1956 and 1992
[7] In controversial move, Russia set to own runway at military base in Kyrgyzstan
[8] Russia donates two helicopters to Armed Forces of Kyrgyzstan  
[9] Sergei Shoigu: Kyrgyzstan can always count on support of Russia
[10] Russia and Kyrgyzstan discuss delivery of air defense systems, helicopters
[11] A Vehicles Handover Ceremony with U.S. Ambassador T.Gfoeller to Kyrgyzstan
[12] Turkey to build military institute in Kyrgyzstan  
[13] Turkey donates military equipment to Kyrgyzstan
[14] From Turkey With Love: Tracking Turkish Military Donations
[15] ASN Wikibase Occurrence # 213092 
[17] Kyrgyzstan Independence Day Parade & Celebration August 31, 2021
[18] China-made WJ-100 Blade UAV makes debut in Kyrgyzstan
[19] Kyrgyzstan Orders Byratkar Drones from Turkey, Orlan-10E UAVs from Russia
[21] В Кыргызстане впервые выпустили беспилотник

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