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Drones: The Future of ‘Budget’ Air Power?

The Russia-Ukraine War has once again shown that the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drone – and other generals of its size – can play a valuable role in conventional war.

Currently, the Ukrainian Air Force is reportedly using the TB2 destroy armour and coordinate its artillery strikes. It is also seeking additional drones to expand its inventory. Riding on its success in the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, more countries are lining up to buy the TB2, including NATO states, such as Poland and Latvia.

Basically, at one end, established air forces are building drone wings to complement their existing strike and reconnaissance capabilities. However, at the other end, it seems that states with smaller air forces – or those without established air power – could seek drones like the TB2 as well.  For these countries, the TB2 and its contemporaries could be an accessible way to building air power capability.

Consider this point: If a country cannot afford a 4+/4.5-generation fighter platform, could drones be a way to acquire stand-off range, precision-strike capabilities? Could a large force of these drones establish some measure of deterrence capability in some regions?

Redefining Cost and Capability

According to the OEM Baykar Makina, the Bayraktar TB2 has a maximum take-off weight (MTOW) of 700 kg and a payload of 150 kg. It can carry up to four guided munitions. The TB2 offers a range of under 300 km and an endurance of up to 27 hours. It can fly up to 18,000 ft and 25,000 ft.

In real-world scenarios thus far, the TB2’s operators have deployed the drone for anti-armour operations, ISTAR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and target acquisition), and SEAD/DEAD (suppression or destruction of enemy air defence). This is in addition to counterinsurgency (COIN) operations.

However, there’s a major caveat. It is unclear to what extent (if at all) the TB2’s users faced up against any counter-drone tactics or technologies. Interestingly, the common denominator in every one of the TB2’s conventional operations thus far is Russia. In each instance, the TB2 took on Russian armaments. It is not known to what extent Russia employed effective electronic jamming measures or if it even has a cohesive counter-drone strategy in play. Russia may not be taking the TB2 (or drones in general) seriously because, at least at this time, Ukraine does not have a large enough force to trigger a big shift in power dynamics.

That said, is the end-user concerned about losing drones? In a conventional war, the point of using a TB2-type drone is to sustain losses. So, the end-user will likely take counter-drone measures into consideration when building their risk-reward framework. One measurement might be the cost of losing drones relative to the cost of an enemy losing the target asset. For example, the TB2 end-user might be willing to sustain large drone losses if it means neutralizing a strategic air defence system, like the S-400.

In terms of cost, the low acquisition cost is not the only factor that favours drone acquisitions. The entire drone stack is markedly lower in cost compared to a manned fighter aircraft. The drone’s maintenance or logistics set-up is more affordable. The systems are simpler and leverage more commercially available off-the-shelf (COTS) technologies. Moreover, attrition from accidents or combat would not cause a major set-back to the end-user’s drone program – again, thanks to low cost.

Overall, drones like the TB2 can give countries with dated fighter fleets or non-existing air power systems the ability to add a genuine strike capability. Granted, drones may not fundamentally alter the balance of a region. However, their inclusion can create layers of complexity in an environment. Ultimately, TB2-type drones are a stand-off range precision-strike capability.

Moreover, even if the country in question lacks modern manned fighters, they could still invest in drones as well as land-based cruise missiles, loitering munitions, and electronic warfare assets. They can create a contested environment within and near their borders, thereby creating major strategic effects.

Currently, China and Turkey have shown a willingness to sell drones as well as an assortment of supporting warfare assets (like cruise missiles, electronic warfare systems, etc). Collectively, these systems could still be more affordable than inducting a manned fighter, at least in sizable numbers. In fact, some countries could even shift to producing TB2-type drones under license, even if they do not use the latest multirole fighter aircraft. Ukraine is such a state.

Evaluating the Proliferation Risk

It will be worth seeing how policymakers interpret or manage the transfer of these drones, particularly to countries that do not currently maintain sizable air power capabilities.

It may sound odd to spotlight such countries. The regions of these countries did not have such air power elements. Thus, these regions may have had a measure of stability. However, these drones could erode that stability and, potentially, create new problems within those regions.

Alternatively, the United States, United Kingdom, France, and other countries with overseas bases might be concerned about the free-flowing transfer of drones. They may run into situations where countries in close proximity to their overseas bases could potentially operate drones. This could create new risk factors when it comes to maintaining such overseas deployments.

Thus, Quwa expects to see a renewed effort to curb the trade of drones. These new controls may involve more binding restrictions on the range and payload of marketable drones. This could potentially happen through the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and, potentially, other multi-lateral accords.

Likewise, there will likely be a stronger investment in counter-drone technology. In this regard, countries may look at solutions that jam the communication links between the remote-operator and the drone.

One can also expect a stronger emphasis on low-cost, scalable anti-air solutions. The latter could drive market forces to invest in Point Defence Missile System (PDMS)-type solutions, like the Rolling Airframe Missile, Denel Rheinmetall Cheetah, and others. There will likely be more interest in laser/directed energy weapons as well. However, scalable anti-air solutions against large drone deployments will be a challenge.

The world has yet to see a ‘mass’ simultaneous deployment of TB2-sized drones (e.g., by the dozens and hundreds). Though possible, this may not happen in reality. However, mass drone deployment will occur, but through smaller loitering munitions. These are expendable and attritable by design. These drones are only meant to fly once and, ultimately, hit a target. Once paired with autonomous operations capabilities, drone warfare could spiral into a difficult to control and stop/neutralize challenge.

The technical capacity to stop such a situation may come into existence, but it may not be feasible from a cost standpoint. Thus, to neutralize the threat, the likeliest direction will involve multilateral controls and policies among the suppliers.

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