TB2 enrages Russia and reiterates its value to Ukraine
The apparently successful employment of Bayraktar TB2s by the Ukrainian Armed Forces against Russian ground targets — and the evident failure of the Russian Aerospace Forces or SOF to destroy the Turkish-made aircraft — builds on the significant successes the MALE UCAVs had against far less sophisticated militaries in Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh.
The Ukrainian military has been careful to maintain operational security around its use of TB2s by leaking on social media only a few examples of successful strikes since the Russian invasion began on 24 February.
TB2s had destroyed or neutralised the following targets by 7 March, according to visually verified data collected by OSINT analyst Oryx: one AFV, five towed artillery pieces, five SAM systems, one communications station, two logistics trains and 20 trucks or jeeps.
One major difference is observable when comparing TB2 strikes in Ukraine with its previous missions, said defence technology consultant and author David Hambling.
‘They appear to have been carried out on undemanding targets — either stationary or slow-moving vehicles [specifically trucks and light armoured vehicles] — with drivers unaware of the threat where no great or improved capability is required to hit and destroy them,’ he said.
Shoulder-launched rockets and ATGMsappear to have been successful in destroying or damaging Russian heavy armour (Oryx figures show that 131 MBTs had been lost by 7 March), so arguably there is no need to use TB2s to prioritise these targets yet.
The Russian military has had years to practice its tactics and CONOPS, as well as real-world battle experience in Georgia, Syria and eastern Ukraine in recent years. Russia also possesses advanced air defence systems, EW and jamming capabilities, so its failure to destroy Ukraine’s TB2s is just as puzzling to Western experts as other Russian tactical and strategic shortcomings.
Although it remains too early to draw definitive conclusions, some key facts of the war so far can explain how the TB2s have been able to destroy Russian convoys.
Some Russian SAM equipment (such as this 9A310M1 transporter-erector-launcher for the Buk-M1-2) has been targeted by TB2s. (Photo: Ukrainian MoD)
One of the more obvious facts is that Russia has still not been able to establish air superiority over Ukraine, 12 days into its invasion. Had the Russian military airspace dominance early in the conflict, the TB2s would (in theory) not have been able to fly as freely, partly because it lacks air-to-air armaments.
In addition, online satellite images show that Russian efforts to destroy airfields and runways have been largely inaccurate.
Another reason why TB2s have been able to hit targets with its laser-guided MAM-L missiles is that many Russian vehicle convoys have been deployed far beyond their air defence umbrella — and there is anecdotal evidence that some SAM batteries are inactive because they are entangled in kilometres-long military traffic jams.
Lacking an effective overwatch to protect against attack from the air, these convoys are vulnerable to aerial attack, and Ukraine has exploited this with their TB2s.
Speaking publicly before Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his war on Ukraine, the head of Ukrainian Air Force military UAV programmes revealed that several officers had spent three months in 2019 receiving TB2 training at a facility in western Turkey owned by Baykar Makina, which manufactures the UCAV.
At that time, sources believe that Ukraine was operating 20 TB2s with four more on order. Since then, on 2 March the Ukrainian MoD revealed more ‘combat-ready’ TB2s had been delivered (open-source flight tracking websites showed multiple Turkish military transport flights to Poland over the preceding days).
This turn of events could perhaps have been anticipated. Turkey’s recent shift towards Ukraine is telling, especially after Ankara on 27 February used its powers under the Montreux Convention to cut off warship access to the Black Sea by blocking passage through the Bosphorous and Dardanelles.
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