In this cross-posting from World of Aviation’s sister title Defence Connect, Dylan Nicholson considers how unmanned aerial vehicles are turning the tide in Turkey’s conflict with Syria, and its implications for the future of drone warfare.
On 1 March, the Turkish military launched an air assault on a number of Syrian government targets in retaliation for an attack that killed 34 Turkish soldiers. The highly successful strikes were not completed by squadrons of F-16 but by squadrons of armed UAVs.
It now seems that Turkey has found a new proving ground for its drones; the skies over Libya. Not only are they proving effective they are turning the tide in an increasingly complex war muddied by proxy forces, militia, extremist groups and states with opposing interests.
March drone attacks in Syria
In a heavy response to an air raid on a Turkish mechanised unit near Idlib city that killed 34 soldiers, the Turkish forces unleashed dozens of armed drones in a series of attacks on Syrian targets.
It has claimed the attack was successful in destroying dozens of Syrian government tanks, armoured personnel carriers and air defence systems, momentarily halting the Syrian army’s advance on Idlib.
The drone strikes occurred under a new operation, titled Operation Spring Shield, and Turkish sources are claiming that so far the operation has neutralised a total of 2,557 regime forces, also destroying 135 tanks, more than 40 armoured vehicles, 45 cannons, 44 multiple rocket launchers, 12 anti-tanks, 29 anti-aircraft weapons, one drone, eight helicopters, nine ammunition depots, seven ammunition ramps and two jets as of 2 March.
Operation Spring Shield marked the fourth Turkish military operation in northern Syria.
The attack involved two types of drones, both domestically produced in Turkey; the Barayktar TB2 and the heavier armed, satellite-linked ANKA-S, which saw its operational debut over Idlib.
The drones were used in a number of ways, including:
- As spotters for long-range artillery, identifying Syrian convoys and armoured columns and relaying their position to self-propelled guns and rocket launchers that could destroy them before they moved away;
- Targeting enemy positions themselves with a number of different munitions that have all been domestically developed to ensure compatibility with Turkish drone designs; and
- To engage Syrian aircraft and anti-aircraft positions when armed with the correct ordnance for the first time over a conventional battlefield in which the opposition has an active air force and air defence system.
Sitki Egeli, an assistant professor at Izmir University of Economics and the former director of international affairs for Turkey’s Undersecretariat for Defense Industries, in an interview with Syria Direct highlighted new tactics being introduced by the Turkish forces.
“This is the first time weaponised drones are used to such an extent by a regular army against another state actor. Here you see a large scale use of drones as if they were manned aircraft,” Egeli said, referring to the way drones were performing co-ordinated attacks in squadrons rather than acting individually. This also led some media sites to label them drone swarms.
Defence analyst Arda Mevlutoglu also pressed on the ability for Turkey to use drones very effectively: “Turkey’s use of drones in this operation is unprecedented in modern military history. Their effective use seems to have changed the dynamics of the Syrian civil war and diplomatic manoeuvres.”
“The Idlib operation is the first time Turkey has used drones in large numbers simultaneously for artillery and surveillance.
“They can also identify and illuminate targets for fighter jets operating from across the border.
“This provides high precision long-range strikes, enabling Turkey to bypass the Idlib airspace yet managing to inflict heavy casualties to Syrian Arab Army targets.”
Turkey has an estimated 94 TB2 drones produced by Bayraktar, according to Dan Gettinger of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, New York.
The TB2 is a small drone that can carry limited munitions, but enough to destroy armoured vehicles. It has been used in Idlib alongside the ANKA drone from the state-owned Turkish Aerospace.
Turkey is the “leader of a group of new nations that are investing a lot in this technology and trying to make an impact”, Gettinger said.
Airpower has played an increasingly important role in the Libyan conflict. The relatively flat, featureless desert terrain of the north and coast means that ground units are easily spotted, with few places to hide.
The air forces of both the United Nations-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) and eastern-based commander Khalifa Haftar and his self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) use French Mirage and Soviet-era fighter jets, aged and poorly maintained.
While manned fighter aircraft have been used, the air war has been mostly fought by drones. With nearly 1,000 airstrikes conducted by UAVs, UN Special Representative to Libya Ghassan Salame called the conflict “the largest drone war in the world”.
UAVs not only provide valuable information about the enemy that can be spotted a long way off, but they are able to attack any targets immediately with a far higher rate of success. In the event the drone is shot down and destroyed, the pilot is safe, back at base and able to pilot the next drone that takes off.
The arrival of Chinese-made Wing Loong drones in 2016 made a significant difference to the LNA’s military capabilities. First used in the battle for Derna in eastern Libya, the drones had a decisive impact on the outcome as forces loyal to Haftar battled fighters from the Shura Council of Mujahideen in a brutal confrontation for the city.
These Chinese-made drones, operated by pilots from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and flown out of the Al Khadim Air Base in the east, have a combat radius of 1,500 kilometres, meaning they can deliver precision-guided missiles and bombs, striking anywhere in the country.
These drones were used to great effect in the battle for Tripoli, which Haftar announced in April 2019 against the GNA. Government forces were repeatedly pushed back into a tight pocket as the capital was besieged by the LNA. Despite all the talk of “precision” airstrikes, the civilian casualty toll mounted as targets were hit in increasingly built-up urban areas.
There were now doubts that the UN-recognised GNA, led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, could hold out much longer, despite support from Italy and Qatar.
Turkish drones arrive on the battlefield
This all changed in December 2019 when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan confirmed Turkey would sharply increase its military support for Prime Minister al-Sarraj and the GNA.
Along with troops many sourced from Syrian rebel groups, President Erdogan sent Turkish-made armed drones, namely the Bayraktar TB2. Smaller and with a much shorter range than the Wing Loong, the Bayraktar was still able to engage and destroy the LNA’s ground targets, harass its supply lines, and attack forward air bases that were once considered safe. Pro-government ground troops could now advance with air cover, the enemy’s positions known to their commanders.
This, combined with the timely arrival of Hawk missiles, among other air defence systems, meant the main GNA airbase at Tripoli’s Mitiga Airport could now operate without fear of attack.
The effect was dramatic as the GNA launched a counteroffensive and in a lightning strike seized the coastal towns of Surman, Sabratah and Al-Ajaylat along with the border town of Al-Assah. This was followed up by repeated attacks on the Al-Watiya Air Base, which Haftar’s forces were using as their main point of operations.
The air base was finally retaken on 18 May, a severe blow to Haftar’s ambitions in western Libya as not only was it the LNA’s principal headquarters there, it was also his supply and logistics hub.
LNA units were forced to retreat, especially as their Russian-made, UAE-supplied, Pantsir S-1 air defence units were being comprehensively destroyed, leaving the retreating forces with little to no protection from air attacks. Media reports claimed sophisticated Turkish jamming gear was responsible for disorienting the Pantsir’s radar, leaving it vulnerable to airstrikes from the Bayraktar drones.
Further advances to the south and east of Tripoli significantly loosened Haftar’s grip on the capital, as forces loyal to him have been forced to retreat. Hundreds of mercenaries from the Russian military contractor Wagner Group have been evacuated from Bani Walid Airport.
In an ominous turn of events, the US Africa Command said Russian fighter jets flew from its Khmeimim Air Base in Syria to the LNA-held facility at Jufra, in central Libya, to bolster Haftar’s forces and their allies. Multirole MiG-29s and two Sukhoi Su-24 ground attack fighters were sent along with an escort of at least two Su-35 advanced 4.5 generation long-range fighter jets, in a clear signal to Turkey and the GNA that Haftar’s defeat should only go so far.
Drones for everyone
Drones were once limited to the world’s most advanced and powerful nations and their militaries synonymous with the war against terror and “precision strikes”. However, with new countries now developing their own domestically produced drones and exporting these to foreign conflicts relatively underdeveloped military forces are able to create almost spontaneous air power without the expenses of maintaining an entire air force of outdated fighter jets. In the case of Libya, the Chinese Wing Loong drones gave the LNA the upper hand against the UN-supported government and now Turkish drones have shifted the balance the other way.
What this also means is that Turkey has been able to find another proving ground for its domestic drone industry and yet another marketing victory in its search for new states who wish to build their own drone capability without the barriers of seeking US involvement.