Photo for illustrative purposes.
Photo for illustrative purposes.

Massively launching UAVs in Syria and Libya may have turned Turkey into a “unmanned vehicle power”. However, this action is also a “double-edged sword”.

From success in the Idlib war, Syria

The Turkish Armed Forces’s (TAF) “Spring Shield” operation from February 27 to March 5, 2020 was an extremely fast and furious reaction. At that time, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) was storming under the support of the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) in Idlib province, northwestern Syria.

In the face of SAA’s air defense as well as VKS’s dominance over Syria sky, TAF leaders decided to choose Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) as the main force for air support.

According to Ankara, besides a large number of enemy motor vehicles, missile fire from Turkish-made UAVs neutralized at least eight Syrian Pantsir-S1 and Buk-M1-2/M2E combinations.

Since the success in Idlib up to now, TAF has maintained two types of UAV Bayraktar TB-2 and ANKA-S in military operations, especially in the Libyan battlefield, where Ankara is also conducting a massive intervention similar to Syria.

MAM-L and MAM-C missiles on the Bayraktar TB-2 UAV.
MAM-L and MAM-C missiles on the Bayraktar TB-2 UAV.

The advantage of Turkey UAVs on the battlefields of Syria and Libya

With complete localization, Ankara can quickly increase the number and quality of UAVs, and proactively bring them to the battlefield when required.

Although hard to compare with the notorious American UAVs (MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper), the Bayraktar TB-2 and Anka-S are both capable of maintaining flight durability for 24 hours, allow them to maintain for a long time above the targets.

Since 2016, TAF has been deploying a solution to support firepower of tactical artillery and missile systems with UAVs, in the same way that the Russians succeeded with the Orlan-10 UAV and the 152 mm howitzer in Syria.

Bayraktar TB-2 has a payload of 55 kg while ANKA-S, a SATCOM capable variant (communications satellites), has a payload of 4 times, about 200 kg.

With such a payload, (1/40 compared to the Su-24 and A-10), UAVs often carry only smart weapons with high accuracy. In combat missions, both UAVs carry MAM-L and MAM-C smart munitions manufactured by Roketsan.

The MAM-L, which Ankara claims is primarily used in the Idlib battlefield, weighs 22 kg, has a range of 8 to 14 km, is guided inertia and supported by GPS navigation with different types of warheads, including armor penetration, hight explosive, and heat.

MAM-C is a smart bomb smaller than MAM-L, only about 6.5 kg, suitable for softer targets (enemy infantry targets).

Pantsir-SM complex is said to have appeared at Bani Walid
Pantsir-SM complex is said to have appeared at Bani Walid

Diamond cuts diamond

Although the Turkish UAVs are active in both Syria and Libya, in both of these battlefields they face two problems from the Russians.

First, the Turkish UAVs must operate within the operational range of Russia’s Pantsir-S1 anti-aircraft complex, each that carries 12 57E6 missiles and two 2A38M anti-aircraft guns.

The 57E6 missile has a maximum range of 20 km and an effective altitude of 15 km, while the autocannon can cover an area with a range of 4 km and an effective altitude of 3 km.

The fact in both Syria and Libya show that, in order to destroy the old Pantsir-S1 systems that Russia sells to Syria and the UAE (aid to the Libyan National Army – LNA), TAF also had to trade dozens of Turkish UAVs.

Russians also do not easily give up before tactics “swarm UAV” of Turkey. In a recent upgrade of the Pantsir-S1 manufacturer, the interceptor 57E6M-E has been upgraded to a range of 30 km and a maximum altitude of up to 18 km.

It is likely that Russia has not provided upgraded missiles to Middle East partners yet. However, the appearance of the Pantsir complex on the KAMAZ chassis at Bani Walid base on 25 May almost coincides with the information that 13 Turkish UAVs shot down in 72 hours. That has partly confirmed its technical superiority.

Given the aforementioned specifications, one scenario is that the Bayraktar TB-2 and ANKA-S UAVs will be destroyed shortly before they were close enough to launch MAM-L / C smart ammunition. This is quite understandable.

Moreover, the MiG-29 fighters of the Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF) and the Libyan National Army (LNA) will also be a serious threat to the Turkish UAV. Against Russian air superiority fighters, the Turkish UAVs will become “mobile targets” because they are not equipped with defensive and air-to-air capabilities.

A prototype of the UAV Akinci.
A prototype of the UAV Akinci.

Did Turkey usher in the era of combat drones?

Unlike the expensive UAVs used in reconnaissance or terrorist missions, Turkey’s use of UAVs as an offensive platform with a numerical advantage has opened the door to Access to the art of unmanned 21st century warfare. Over time, more modern types of UAVs, with greater payloads, will soon be introduced by TAF.

These include the Uinc Akinci UAV program (Raider) with a payload of 1,350 kg that can carry the SOM-A smart bomb (upgraded from conventional bombs Mk-82 and MKk-83) or cruise missiles with a range of 250 km and Gotkdoğan and Bozdoğan air-to-air missiles. Turkey will also apply more artificial intelligence (AI) to Akinci, opening up new technological breakthroughs.

Or as UAV Aksungur, a “new horizon” helps to increase the anti-submarine warfare capability of the Turkish Navy, thanks to the ability to drop sonobuoy buoys and magnetic anomaly detection (MAD).

Turkey still has much to do with unmanned systems to replace imported products such as Harop/Harpy 2 suicide drones, or more accurate long-range artillery to coordinate with reconnaissance UAVs, such as the way the Russians did in eastern Ukraine.

The massive launch of UAVs in Syria and Libya shows that Turkey has become a “drone power”. However, this action can also become “double-edged sword”. Will Ankara’s current advantages remain, when their rivals had both technological and financial capabilities began to study “bloody lessons”, and focused on developing “anti-UAV” systems to counter Turkey’s tactics. Perhaps we will get an answer when the “G hour” of the Idlib duel is coming very close.

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