ROME – First there was the video from Libya of a Turkish drone destroying a Russian Pantsir missile defense system.
Next came the seasoned S-300 air defense system – also Russian – which was shot down in Nagorno-Karabakh by an Israel-made Harop-loitering ammunition.
In the conflicts in Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh last year, unmanned platforms often worked on the ground-based systems with which they were supposed to be neutralized in a short period of time and paved the way for simple attacks on troops at risk.
Experts also say the balance of power between drones and air defense systems will become a key to global wars in the near future.
“Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh and Syria have just shown us that large-scale UAVs can make life extremely dangerous if a field force cannot protect their airspace,” said Justin Bronk, an Air Force research fellow at Royal United Service institute in England.
The Bayraktar TB2 armed TBrakt drone in Turkey made headlines during the Libyan conflict last year. Turkey used the platform to defend the United States-backed Tripoli government against the strongman Khalifa Hifter, who relied on Russian pantsir systems.
The TB2 were able to fire their Roketsan ammunition from out of range of the Russian systems and scored hits, halting Hifter’s advance.
“Turkey has also dispatched engineers to improve the drones’ software on the fly, while the UAE-operated Chinese UAVs in support of Hifter did not have a similar learning curve,” said Jalel Harchaoui of Switzerland-based Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime.
“The brave and effective use of TB2 in Nagorno-Karabakh in October was made possible by the previous success in Libya,” he added.
Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave of Azerbaijan ruled by renegade ethnic Armenians, has been a focal point between Azerbaijan and Armenia for years. It exploded in a short and bloody war between September and November.
Turkey, which was backing Azerbaijan, reportedly sent UAV trainers ahead of the conflict. TB2s floating alongside Israeli ammunition soon achieved success. The Dutch war research group Oryx reported 134 Armenian tanks destroyed compared to 22 lost by Azerbaijan.
“Turkey built its UAV expertise after leasing Israeli UAVs and then used that expertise to build its own after frustrations over the limits of using Israeli systems,” Bronk said. “The TB2 has a similar aerodynamic profile to the Heron, while the Turkish Anka UAV is similar to the Hermes 450.”
Manufacturer Bayraktar has sold the TB2 to Qatar and Ukraine, while Serbia is considering buying and raising the profile of the TB2 as a competitor to the Chinese Loong II wing, of which 50 have been exported.
“China and Turkey are vying for sales, which begs the question: why doesn’t Russia have the equivalent of a TB2 to sell? I am very surprised that they are almost non-existent in this market,” said Harchaoui.
The drone’s contribution to the Nagorno-Karabakh hostilities came at a price as Canada halted arms exports to Turkey, claiming the TB2 contained Canadian parts, while a UK company that supplied parts for the drone also canceled its contract .
A number of nations, including the United Kingdom, are now stepping up their defenses against ground forces, Bronk said.
“Faced with this threat, the British Army recently ordered a short / medium haul [surface-to-air missile] System called Sky Saber. If deployed forward in significant numbers, it should dramatically reduce the army’s vulnerability to surveillance and attack by enemy UAVs in situations where friendly air cover is not available, ”he said.
However, drones are not invulnerable, he added. “US. And British reapers and predators in Syria had a lot of problems with Russian electronic warfare. Since the Reaper can be targeted, you can imagine that less sophisticated platforms can be more easily affected,” he said.
Bronk believes that more military personnel will spend more money on air defense to offset the drone threat – “especially in countries without strong air forces”.
“One option is the Russian SA-17 system with a range of 75 kilometers compared to 10 kilometers of TB2 missiles, or the cheaper and more closed SA-15 with a range of 10 kilometers. Western products include that [National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System] NASAMS, which is already helping to defend Washington DC with a range of about 15 kilometers and NASAMS 2 with a range of 30 to 40 kilometers, ”he said.
Peter Roberts, director of military science at the Royal United Services Institute, said the world is awakening to the reality of modern warfare. “For a while there was a romantic view that either drones or tanks or missiles alone would win wars,” he said. “There is no silver bullet on the battlefield, and this is an era that is rediscovering that.”
Roberts added that urban warfare, like the art of deception, is experiencing a revival in war. “Whether it’s the Russians in Ukraine or the Iranians, the use of bait is back – something we once knew about and forgot in the 1990s.”
The world is also returning to an era of proxy wars, he said, from Libya to Nagorno-Karabakh to Yemen.
“This means that wars on the fringes of the great powers have been waged with mercenaries and sponsored guerrilla groups and insurgents,” he said. “It also means more sophisticated weapons in the hands of smaller, non-governmental groups like the Houthis in Yemen who use cruise missiles and ballistic missiles and drones. It can be very nasty. “