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The game-changing Turkish drones tormenting the Russiαns? (VIDEO INSIDE)

The battle for Snake Island has been one of the most strategic – and symbolic – of the war in Ukrαine. In the early days after the invasion, it was on this rocky island, which sits in a strategic spot in the Black Sea south of Odesa, that Ukrαiniαn soldiers were heard telling the Russiαn warship to “go home”, to use the most polite translation.

Today, Russiα has control of the island, but it is tenuous. This week, several videos were released of Ukrαiniαn Bayraktar TB2 drones – commonly known as Bayraktars – destroying vehicles on Snake Island, including a Raptor patrol boat.

This marked the the first time a warship has been sunk by a drone. Videos show a calm scene, with the Russiαn soldiers milling around, evidently unaware of the hell their sleek white assailant, cruising unmanned 15,000ft above them, is about to unleash.

ᴛʜᴇ ʙᴀʏʀᴀᴋᴛᴀʀ ʜᴀs ʙᴇᴇɴ ᴀ ᴍᴀᴊᴏʀ ᴅᴇғᴇɴᴄᴇ ᴀɴᴅ ᴘʀ ᴄᴏᴜᴘ ғᴏʀ ᴛᴜʀᴋᴇʏ

Then, all of a sudden the picture erupts in an explosion, and the target is on fire. In intercepted radio chatter, Russiαn soldiers who survive the attack bemoan the “f— Bayraktar” that keeps shooting at them.

If the British-made NLAW anti-tank missiles have attracted more attention, at least in the UK media, the Turkish-designed Bayraktars have been just as critical.

While Ukrαiniαn soldiers have reportedly shouted ‘God Save the Queen’ as they fire the NLAWs, the Bayraktar has its own song, a surprisingly catchy ditty celebrating the drone’s effectiveness. (Sample lyric: “He makes ghosts out of Russiαn bandits: Bayraktar, Bayraktar”).

ᴀ ʙᴀʏʀᴀᴋᴛᴀʀ ᴛʙ𝟸 ᴅᴜʀɪɴɢ ᴀ ʀᴇʜᴇᴀʀsᴀʟ ᴏғ ᴀ ᴍɪʟɪᴛᴀʀʏ ᴘᴀʀᴀᴅᴇ ᴅᴇᴅɪᴄᴀᴛᴇᴅ ᴛᴏ ɪɴᴅᴇᴘᴇɴᴅᴇɴᴄᴇ ᴅᴀʏ ɪɴ ᴋʏɪᴠ, ɪɴ ᴀᴜɢᴜsᴛ 𝟸𝟶𝟸𝟷 – ᴀᴘ

A baby lemur, born in Kyiv zoo this March, was named after it. Since the start of the conflict there have been more than 800 confirmed Bayraktar strikes, mostly on tanks and other armoured vehicles. The Russiαns claim to have shot down dozens of the drones, but more keep appearing.

It is only the latest triumph for the Bayraktar, which has defied critics since it first delivered live munitions in 2016, against the Kurdish PKK group. Before it came along, drones were increasingly seen as anachronistic: useful against poorly armed opponents, in counterinsurgencies, but too vulnerable to modern air defence to be much use against a well matched opponent.

Although it has decent range, altitude and communications equipment, the Bayraktar has a cruising speed of 70 knots (130kph), which ought to make it a sitting duck. Yet Bayraktar has shrugged off these concerns, proving its critics wrong many times over in situations – often against Russiαn-made equipment – where they ought to have been weak.

“You would expect the Bayraktar to be extremely vulnerable,” says author and drone warfare specialist David Hambling. “It has no stealth. It is basically a World War One aircraft. It is similar to a Sopwith Camel in terms of performance, except it’s not as manoeuvrable.

The Russiαns should have destroyed them on the runway, or their planes should have knocked them out of the sky, or their integrated air defence should have taken them out very easily. None of that happened.” Nobody knows quite why it has been so successful, he adds. Partly it could be “chronic Russiαn incompetence,” or possibly it is being assisted by electronic countermeasures.

Still, he adds, “the Bayraktar is a very sound basic design. It carries four small laser-guided anti-tank missiles, and if nothing is stopping it, it can go around plinking targets for as long as there are targets to plink. We’ve seen it doing very well.”

Whatever the reasons for the Bayraktar’s success, it has been a major defence and PR coup for Turkey, which is fast becoming a drone superpower. American-made drones, particularly the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper, widely considered the best in class, are expensive and complex.

Combined with their perceived vulnerability, this has meant that recent years have seen a doubling down on the next generation of manned rather than unmanned aircraft, in particular the F-35 Lightning. By comparison, the Bayraktar is cheap, effective and easy to maintain, a kind of drone version of the AK-47.

“How much they cost is a rabbit hole,” Hambling explains, “but it is somewhere between $1m and $10m, whereas an F-35 is $100m. It is expendable: you can lose them and it doesn’t matter that much. It is piston-driven (rather than jets), it doesn’t have lots of complicated onboard electronics, and it can operate from austere airfields.”

Ukrαine is not the first time the TB2 has defied expectations, especially when operating in contested airspace. In Libya in 2019-20, the drones proved effective against Russiαn-made systems being used by the Libyan National Army. During Operation Spring Shield in Syria, TB2s destroyed more than 70 Syrian vehicles.

Prior to the invasion of Ukrαine, however, Bayraktar’s most impressive test case was in the Armenian-Azerbaijan conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020, during which many videos showed TB2s destroying long columns of Armenian armour.

According to some reports, Armenia lost more than 200 main battle tanks, compared with just 36 for Azerbaijan. When more reports emerged that the drones were being used to attack civilian targets, Western firms that made parts for Baykar, including the Swiss navigation specialist Garmin, banned exports to Turkey, but the simple design meant Turkey has been able to source local replacements.

In 2019, after Bayraktars had been used in a series of deadly attacks on Kurdish-led forces in Syria, it was reported that a British component, the Hornet missile rack, had been crucial to the early development of the TB2.

In part, Turkey’s rise to the forefront of drone warfare is evidence of the power of unintended consequences. In 2005, when he was a doctoral student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a young engineer called Selcuk Bayraktar showed a group of Turkish officials a prototype drone his family business, Bakyar, had built.

“Boeing, Lockheed, these are big companies right?” Bayraktar said. “We are making those same systems. If Turkey supports this project, these drones, in five years Turkey can be at the forefront of the world, easily.” Within two years he had quit his degree and returned home to devote himself to improving Turkish drone capability.

At that time, Turkey mostly bought its drones from other countries. But American weapons exports are subject to congressional approval to help ensure they will not be used to inflict human rights abuses. This made buying armed drones difficult for Turkey, given its ongoing campaign against the PKK.

Weapons deals with the US had been especially problematic since 1975, when the US banned exports after the Turkish invasion of Cyprus. By developing its own system, Turkey bypasses these obstacles. Along with its main competitors, China and Israel, Turkey is doing a brisk trade selling the Bayraktar to other countries, including Morocco, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Poland, Niger, Qatar, Iraq and Albania.

“[The drones] are doing what they’re supposed to do, taking out some of the most advanced air defence systems and armoured vehicles in the world,” Bayraktar told The New Yorker magazine in an article published earlier this week. “Tactically, it’s right in the sweet spot,” he added. “It’s not too small, but it’s not too big.

And it’s not too cheap, but it’s not too expensive.” Selcuk who serves as Bakyar’s chief technology officer (his brother Haluk is CEO), has become a celebrity in his home nation. In 2016 he married the daughter of the president, Tayyip Erdogan, and has more than two million followers on Twitter.

“Selcuk Bayraktar has become a figure beyond politics over the past few years,” says Ufuk Ncat Tasci, a Turkish journalist and academic specialising in 21st century warfare. “He doesn’t just develop drones; he organises technology festivals and funds tech-related projects for young Turks through his T3 foundation. When you consider the diversity of Turkish people’s political views, it’s a surprise that when it comes to Bayraktar drones, the overwhelming majority of people embrace it as a joint achievement.”

Whatever the ultimate outcome of Russiα’s invasion in Ukrαine, it has already reshaped our understanding of drone warfare. Although Turkey, a Nato member, has exported Bayraktars to Ukrαine, it has remained technically neutral and has been careful not to excessively antagonise Russiα, which remains an important trading partner for a country where inflation hit 70 per cent in April.

In October, Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu, asked Ukrαine not to mention Turkey when talking about where its drones were coming from. The Turkish government, which has been trying to act as a peacemaker between the two countries, has been keen to stress that pre-war sales to Ukrαine were between private companies.

Bayraktar’s success in Ukrαine seems likely to prompt a renewed focus on drones for western nations. Bakyar, for its part, recently launched a more high-tech successor, the Kizilelma, a jet-powered, stealthier vehicle which will in effect be Turkey’s first unmanned fighter aircraft. In 2020, at a speech in the wake of the Armenian-Azerbaijan conflict, the British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace spoke admiringly of the Bayraktar.

“Prevented from gaining access to exquisite foreign programmes, they (Turkey) did what we used to do so well – they innovated,” he told a seminar at Rusi, a security think tank. Reports at that time suggested that the UK would be following the Turkish lead for its own drone programmes.

“Turkey is in a good spot at the moment,” says Huw Williams, head of EMEA news at defence intelligence provider Janes. “But we shouldn’t be surprised. They have a very capable aerospace industry. Other platforms have the same capabilities as the Bayraktar, but few of them have been armed in the same way. The Bayraktars are not invincible, but they are good, proven aircraft.”

Other tools have had a bigger impact on the course of the war. In recent statements, President Zelensky has downplayed their importance compared with other heavy weaponry. Smaller reconnaissance drones are being used to great effect to help direct artillery.

For symbolic impact, however, few weapons match the Bayraktar. Its onboard camera makes it an effective propaganda tool, because it gives the user live footage of its successes. It is unclear why the drones have been so effective against an enemy that ought to have been able to neutralise them.

But by being simple, effective and disposable, and able to be sent into harm’s way without risk to the user’s life, the Bayraktars are fulfilling the initial promise of drone warfare. Whatever shape the conflicts of the coming years take, it seems likely that those Russiαns on Snake Island will not be the last soldiers to bemoan the “f— Bayraktar,” stalking them from the air.