The war in Ukraine has raised questions about the role of airpower in modern conflict and, specifically, whether cheap, attritable platforms can have game-changing effects on the battlefield. The Turkish Bayraktar TB2 has emerged as one of the most well-known drones in the world, after videos from its sensors have been spliced and uploaded to a bevy of social media platforms. The TB2 is an effective, low-cost platform that can be produced with commercial, off-the-shelf parts, which drives down cost and makes maintenance affordable for many countries. The drone is not some magic weapon and is susceptible to air and ground defenses, but its approximate export cost of $5 million makes it a valuable tactical weapon for the modern battlefield.
The drone is roughly equivalent to the American-made MQ-1B, the workhorse unmanned aerial vehicle in the two-decade long war on terrorism. Moreover, the TB2 is effective at striking targets in areas with a small number of air defenses and for spotting targets for artillery and standoff strikes from manned fighters. Viral videos of the TB2 are a perfect example of modern warfare in the TikTok era. That said, the TB2 has a mixed track record against Russian air defense systems, sparking a vigorous debate among military analysts about whether the TB2 represents the future of warfare, or is an overhyped product that has benefited from a savvy and slick public relations campaign.
The challenge in evaluating the TB2 stems from what scholars refer to as the “dependent variable problem,” wherein the drone’s success is derived from edited videos, purposefully released, showing successful strikes on Russian-origin equipment. The TB2, therefore, is deemed revolutionary because the videos that have been released only show successful strikes. In reality, the TB2 is vulnerable to Russian air defenses, as the wars in Libya and Syria have shown, and indirect evidence in Ukraine also suggests.
Nonetheless, focusing solely on the drone’s survivability on a modern battlefield misses the point about its true value. The war in Ukraine has demonstrated that TB2 operators can absorb high rates of attrition, but they can quickly replenish stockpiles of the drone to keep aircraft in the air. These aircraft can then be used to augment Ukrainian capabilities for certain missions and continue to pressure Russian forces (without risking the lives of Ukrainian pilots). The drone’s commercial components and low cost of production makes this possible: The TB2 is so inexpensive that an operator can suffer high rates of drone attrition and keep on fighting with models that roll off the assembly line.
At this stage of the conflict, and with the information available to outside analysts, it would be unwise to make any definitive, broad-sweeping conclusions about the future of airpower. However, the TB2’s performance across conflicts in Syria, Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh, and now in Ukraine allow for some basic conclusions. Owing to the TB2’s slow speed, the design of certain Russian radars, and when the drone is flown by savvy operators, it can sometimes avoid detection from Russian ground-based radar. This evasion allows the TB2 to penetrate lightly defended airspace and to strike surface-to-air launchers and radars. In aggregate, the losses of TB2s to ground-based missiles are mitigated because the drone has a favorable rate of exchange, especially compared to more modern air-defense weapons tasked to kill it.
TB2s can also be flown in ways that confuse fighters devoted to shooting them down. In Ukraine, according to interviews with people familiar with the air picture, Ukrainian TB2 operators would fly at less than one thousand feet, in order to get lost in the ground clutter and hide from patrolling fighters. In areas where Russian ground forces and accompanying ground-based surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) were thinly dispersed, the TB2 would use terrain to hide from longer-range acquisitions radar and then pop up and strike targets of convenience. In areas where Russian defenses have been built up, the TB2 would fly out of range of Russian missiles and then support artillery strikes or scout for Ukrainian ground forces using its powerful optics to see far out on the battlefield. In certain instances, the TB2 could then be used to lure Russian fighters tasked with destroying them into the weapon-engagement zone of ground-based missiles, according to author interviews with American officials.
A mission-specific weapon
As the war has progressed, the TB2’s ability to operate in lightly defended airspace has decreased, as the war has shifted from Russia’s early operation, and Moscow has deployed heavier concentrations of low- and high-altitude radars and associated missiles. In the first few weeks of the war, Russian military officers chose to fight on multiple different axes, with lightly supported units. The TB2 feasted on this chaotic war plan. As Russia has recalibrated, shortened supply lines, and focused on Donetsk and Luhansk, the lack of propaganda videos released by Ukraine suggests that the TB2’s role has become more limited, perhaps it only serves as a scout for Ukrainian ground forces or to strike naval targets of opportunity in lightly defended airspace.
The challenge inherent in analyzing the TB2’s overall effectiveness is that the only available data for outside analysts is released by the Ukrainians themselves. Nonetheless, looking beyond the tactical vignettes, one lesson is to internalize how attrition would impact the US joint force. The TB2 is well suited for a war of attrition because it is inexpensive and, despite high rates of attrition in the conflicts where Russian SAMs are deployed, its producers have been able to rapidly make more, and Ukraine has been able to procure more to continue combat operations. This type of system, which is “good enough” for niche roles, has inherent value and packs a punch when an adversary gets lazy or makes a mistake. Thus, there does appear to be some value in producing commercially derived systems, or something equivalent, that can be rapidly fielded and used by ground forces. The concept appears similar to what the Marine Corps is currently experimenting with as part of the Force Design 2030 planning document. A cheap, mission-specific drone like the TB2 could be leveraged by smaller groups of soldiers for a bevy of missions, ranging from surveillance to strike, and could be used in nonpermissive areas to support evolving concepts to challenge great-power adversaries.
The TB2 is not a game-changer, nor does it represent some revolution of military affairs. It does, however, show how a well-built, commercially derived product can sustain attrition and keep on fighting. Such a capability is invaluable for all wars.
Aaron Stein is the chief content officer at Metamorphic Media and the author of The US War Against ISIS: How America and its Allies Defeated the Caliphate.
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