Few modern weapons have achieved the iconic status of the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drone. Grainy footage from the drone’s cameras showing ill-fated targets in Syria, war zones Nagorno-Karabakh and Ukraine blasted by its laser-guided bombs cemented its reputation as a highly effective lethal weapon.
The drone first came to international attention during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, where Azerbaijan’s TB2 fleet was crucial in determining the outcome of the war.
Azerbaijan’s modernized armed forces used the TB2 to great effect against the Armenians, who attempted to reuse the tactics, techniques, and procedures that had plagued them in previous conflicts in the region in 1994.
More recently, the TB2 has been instrumental in Ukraine’s resistance to Russian invasion, inflicting huge casualties on Russian forces and playing a key role in perhaps some of the war’s greatest casualties. such as the sinking of the Russian cruiser Moskva and seriously damaging the frigate Admiral Essen.
These successes have placed the TB2 and Turkey’s burgeoning drone industry in the international spotlight, creating a niche for Turkey in today’s growing combat drone market and positioning it as a strong player against major drone manufacturers. such as the United States and China.
The TB2 is classified as a Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) drone, referring to systems that normally fly between 10,000 and 30,000 feet with a range of 24 to 48 hours.
According to Baykar, the drone’s manufacturer, the TB2 has an operational altitude of 18,000 feet, a service ceiling of 27,000 feet, a range of 27 hours, and a cruise speed of 70 to 120 knots. It can carry four laser-guided munitions and can perform a target designation role using its on-board laser designator.
Other drones in the same category include the American-made MQ-9 Reaper and the Chinese-made CH-4B Cai Hong. Although the TB2 is nowhere near as advanced as these drones, it compares quite favorably in terms of cost, range, armaments, payload, and available support compared.
The TB2 is profitable for potential buyers at $5 million per unit, in contrast to the MQ-9’s $32 million price and the CH-4B’s $4 million per unit price. The TB2 has also proven its reliability in combat, unlike the CH-4B, which is said to be plagued with maintenance issues and accidents. Jordan chose to sell its entire CH-4B fleet after only three years in service.
Range is another key difference. The TB2 has a range of just 300 kilometers, unlike the MQ-9’s 1,850 kilometers and the CH-4B’s 2,750 kilometers.
Unlike US and Chinese drones, which are widely used in strategic-level intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) roles over large swathes of territory such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Xinjiang, and the South China Sea , the TB2 is used in more tactical roles on the battlefield such as target designation and precision strikes.
The shorter range also reduces operating and maintenance costs, which are key considerations for cash-strapped armed forces.
The TB2 also has a rather small payload capacity of 150 kilograms, usually equipped with four Turkish-made MAM-L and MAM-C laser-guided bombs. The MAM-L is a 22 kilogram micro-munition with a range of 15 kilometers, while the MAM-C is a smaller 6.5 kilogram munition with a range of 8 kilometers.
Earlier versions of the TB2 used UK-made Hornet bomb racks, allowing compatibility with Western guided munitions. Turkish-made bomb racks remain compatible with Western weaponry, as shown by the US plan to arm Ukrainian TB2s with lightweight Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System (APKWS) rockets.
Payloads and targets
This gives drones low-cost distance capability, increased effectiveness against moving targets, and the ability to carry six rockets instead of four laser-guided bombs.
However, the TB2’s light payload limits it to attacking small targets, such as tanks, light armored vehicles, soft-skinned vehicles, and unprotected personnel. Its ability against larger and more important targets such as major surface warships and fortified bunkers has yet to be proven.
In comparison, the MQ-9 and CH-4B carry larger payloads and have a wider choice of ammunition. The MQ-9 has a payload of 1,701 kilograms and can deploy eight Hellfire or combined air-to-surface missiles with 227 kilogram Paveway II laser-guided bombs.
The CH-4B has a smaller payload of 250 to 345 kilograms and can carry a variety of Chinese-made air-to-surface missiles and laser-guided bombs.
The TB2 is a centerpiece of Turkey’s unconditional ‘drone diplomacy’, allowing it to escape ostracism and isolation from Europe and the United States while forging new partnerships with client states.
Drone diplomacy also offers Turkey profitable long-term partnerships on sales of spare parts, ammunition, training, maintenance and other technical assistance.
However, the Turkish drone industry may not be as independent as it seems, as the TB2 largely uses foreign-made components from Canada, UK, France , Germany, Austria and the United States.
Turkey may require permission from these countries to export TB2, which may hamper its drone diplomacy efforts in some places, especially with sales to countries facing human rights controversies.
While Turkey has worked to reduce its dependence on foreign technology, it still faces difficulties in manufacturing critical components domestically, such as motors, microchips and sensors.
By contrast, the United States has traditionally maintained a restrictive policy on drone exports, approving sales of the technology only to its closest allies such as the United Kingdom, Australia, Japan and the United States. France.
Under the Barack Obama administration, U.S. drone sales were reviewed on a case-by-case basis and customers had to agree to end-user terms, end-use monitoring, and appropriate-use principles before sales are permitted.
This restrictive policy has allowed other players such as Israel and Turkey to capture significant shares of the potential US drone market.
The Trump administration has eased US policy on drone sales, with the Biden administration continuing the policy, which may start to reduce drone sales in Turkey.
While China follows a no-strings-attached policy similar to Turkey’s, buyers of its drones have complained of a lack of service and maintenance documentation, scarcity of spare parts and even frequent crashes.
Some buyers have thus switched to the use of manned aircraft for the tasks previously devolved to their CH-4B fleet, have turned to the purchase of TB2s from Turkey, or are still continuing their efforts to buy American drones.
Despite the poor reputation of Chinese drones in terms of reliability and after-sales service, China continues to sell its drones for strategic stealth purposes to countries that consider American equipment to be unaffordable or otherwise unobtainable.
The Turkish TB2 thus strikes a favorable balance between price and capacity, being more affordable and accessible than American drones while being much more reliable and efficient than Chinese models.