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An Underdog Drone Became a Folk Hero in Ukraine’s Guerrilla Air Force

  • One of the many standouts in Ukraine’s defense is the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drone.
  • Bayraktar provides a live image of the battlefield and the ability to strike far behind Russian lines.
  • The Turkish drone has racked up nearly 800 targets, destroyed on three continents.

    The Russian invasion of Ukraine is not going the way Moscow intended, and one reason for that is a small, inexpensive Turkish combat drone. Ukraine’s small fleet of Bayraktar TB2 drones are giving the bear a good kicking, destroying surface-to-air missile batteries, fuel convoys, and other targets vital to Russia’s war effort. The drone, first flown in 2014, has destroyed 796 targets in five wars across Syria, Ukraine, and Ethiopia.

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    The Bayraktar TB2 is a medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) reconnaissance and strike drone. The drone is just 21 feet long with a wingspan of 39.5 feet, making it smaller than the U.S. military’s MQ-9 Reaper drone. A 105-horsepower turboprop engine drives a rearward-facing push propeller, giving it a cruising speed of 70 knots and a top speed of just 120 knots. Bayraktar can stay aloft for up to 27 hours, and reach a maximum altitude of 18,000 feet. It has a maximum payload capacity of 300 pounds.

    Bayraktar includes a sensor turret with an electro-optical camera, night vision, and a laser designator. This allows Bayraktar to loiter more than three miles above the surface of Earth, day or night, and give drone operators hundreds of miles away the ability to look down onto the battlefield in real time.

    Once the operators decide what to strike, they can point the drone’s laser designator at a target and release up to four Rocketsan MAM-C micromunitions. The small, laser-guided glide bombs are equipped with armor piercing, high-explosive blast fragmentation, and even thermobaric warheads. While MAM-Cs are small, weighing just 48 pounds each, laser guidance means the Ukrainians can place them exactly where they want them, maximizing their effectiveness.

    exercise sea breeze 2021

    Ukrainian servicemen push a Bayraktar TB2 UCAV at the Kulbakyne aerodrome during the Exercise Sea Breeze 2021, Mykolaiv, southern Ukraine.

    Yulii Zozulia/ Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty ImagesGetty Images

    The Oryx blog, which is tracking the Russian equipment that TB2s have destroyed, has visually verified the destruction of at least six air defense systems, two fuel trains, five howitzers, and more than 20 other vehicles. Bayraktar is rapidly achieving folk hero status. It’s even had a song dedicated to it.

    All of this for the reported fly-away cost of just $1 million per drone.

    Kyiv bought 20 TB-2s before the war and ordered another 24 shortly before the Russian invasion. In early March, Janes—a United Kingdom-based open-source intelligence company—reported that Turkey had airlifted TB-2s to Poland, which were then transferred to Ukrainian service.

    The Ukrainian military uses the TB2 for several roles, including reconnaissance and surveillance, suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD), destruction of enemy air defenses (DEAD), and battlefield interdiction. Bayraktars have destroyed Russian Buk medium-range surface-to-air missile launchers, paving the way for the surviving Ukrainian air force to conduct an air strike. Others have struck Russian convoys, destroying badly needed supplies headed to the frontlines. Yet another struck a Russian train carrying diesel fuel, depriving tanks and armored vehicles of the ability to advance deeper into Ukraine. The last role—interdicting convoys headed to the front with food, fuel, and ammunition—is especially important as Russian forces are known to be short on fuel and supplies.

    ukraine successfully tests bayraktar tb2 uav

    Former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko inspects the Bayraktar TB2 UAV’s test flight at the military base located in Hmelnitski, Ukraine on March 20, 2019.

    Anadolu AgencyGetty Images

    Bayraktar’s success against one of the world’s largest air forces is baffling. Russia’s air force vastly outnumbers Ukraine’s air force, and should have defeated it in the opening days of the conflict. Russia’s Aerospace Force has underperformed in Ukraine, declining to carry out air strikes against Ukrainian air bases and combat air patrols designed to sweep Ukrainian forces from the skies. Russian air defense systems, such as the Tor and Buk, should have cleared the skies of the slow-flying Bayraktars by now. It should be very difficult to operate Bayraktars over Ukraine, but it isn’t, and the plucky little drone is making Russia pay dearly for its mistakes.

    The TB2 is fast becoming a legend as it punches above its weight in a war for national survival. Bayraktar isn’t the fastest drone, the most heavily armed, or even the highest flying. It is the hero drone that the world needs.

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