SEAD on the cheap
Do unmanned aerial vehicles represent a evolution of warfare or revolution? This question has been floating around the minds of analysis, academics and military professionals in the past 20 years since the use of armed UAVs has exponentially increased, such as Predator/Reaper class of MALE (medium altitude, long endurance) drones that was driven by the US war on terror. This allowed commanders to watch and surgically strike from thousands of miles away, but were limited in that the slow flying drones were suitable only for environments where the enemy did not possess fighters or SAMs – the so called 'permissive environment' of Afghanistan.
But UAV roles are now expanding and evolving. Take the SEAD (suppression of enemy air defences)/DEAD (destruction of enemy air defences) mission. This 'Wild Weasel' mission usually involves dedicated aircraft, highly-skilled pilots, EW and anti-radar weapons for this high-risk 'cat and mouse' game of hunting and killing SAMs. If the SAM and radar operators are skilled in relocating and in keeping their electronic emissions to a minimum, the best that can be hoped for is that SAMs may be suppressed long enough in a certain area to allow strike aircraft, fighters or helicopters to go about their business. In short, it is a complex and highly challenging mission.
Indeed the emergence of 'triple digit' SAMs such as the Russian S300/S400 systems with their ability to deny large areas of airspace to manned aircraft, was one of the drivers for the US to develop the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning.
However the emergence of the Turkish-built Baykar Bayraktar TB2 drone is now turning conventional SEAD/DEAD thinking on its head. First flown in 2014, this small (39ft wingspan), propeller-driven drone has now proved itself to be a deadly weapon in several conflicts, from northern Syria, to Nagorno-Karabakh and now Ukraine. This tactical UAV features an endurance of 27hrs, cruise speed of 70kt and can be armed with precision micro-munitions like the MAM-C/MAM-L giving a punch far larger than its size might suggest.
In the 2020 conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan successfully used Tb2s to strike Armenian tanks, artillery and vehicles – as well as reportedly hit SAM units. In Libya too, Russian-built SA-22 Pantsir S1 SAM/air defence vehicles were also successfully destroyed by TB2s. Meanwhile in 2022, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, saw Ukrainian TB2s also go into action, destroying Russian vehicles, tanks and fuel trains. UAV footage released by Ukraine Ministry of Defence also shows that TB2s have been successfully hunting down SAM systems like the SA-11/SA-17 Buk, SA-15 Tor, and SA-22 Pantsir S1.
That is not to say that the results of TB2 in the Nagorno-Karabakh War did not go unnoticed. Images of Russian tanks with 'slat cages' mounted on the top of turrets that have deployed to Ukraine show how the threat of these drones and micro-munitions has been considered. Unfortunately, this still leaves the tank vulnerable to NLAW and Javelin AT missiles. It also has to be remembered that SAM vehicles, with missiles ready for launch, usually on top, make for vulnerable targets even for small missiles hitting from above.
A revolution in SEAD?
The question then, on many observers minds, then is how this small, slow twin-boom UAV, powered by 100hp piston engine, is able to survive and even destroy these high-end, extremely formidable SAMs and air defence systems?
Part of the reason, potentially, when assessing its performance in Ukraine, may be sub-standard training of Russian forces. Many analysis have noted that despite Moscow's military reforms and new equipment, the training, logistics and tactics of these forces have not measured up to previous expectations.
However, the TB2 itself is a very sophisticated and clever piece of UAV design. Though not a 'stealth platform' as might be traditionally thought of, a look into the Command Pro database shows that, even relying on open-source information, it has a very low RCS (radar cross section). Additionally it has a operational altitude of 18,000ft, with its small size keeping it nearly invisible and inaudible from the ground. Its slow speed of 70kts also works against some modern radars and SAMs, which are configured to search for high-speed targets such as jets and missiles.
These design features along with smart tactics such as entering an enemy radar systems 'notch' where it filters out the ground, means that the TB2 can get extremely close to an SAM or air defence site, before being detected – allowing it to hunt and destroy these with a high chance of success. TB2s of course, have been shot-down and lost, but not in the numbers many expected against such lethal SAM threats.
The widespread success of the TB2 (which is now in the Command Pro database, version recon and version armed) thus has three implications for armed forces going forward. First is reduces the risk to pilots who previously may have been tasked to perform this highly dangerous and skilled 'Wild Weasel' SEAD mission.
Second, is that its use by Azerbaijan, Ukraine and Turkey heralds an era of 'SEAD for all' where almost any country can now exploit the capabilities of these drones to negate or reduce the threat from enemy IADS and SAMs – withou needing hugely expensive US-style levels of dedicated aircraft, training, and weapons. As well as Turkey, Ukraine and Azerbaijan the list of international operators also includes Pakistan, Morocco and Qatar, and this is likely to expand even further given its operational, combat-proven success.
Finally it poses challenge for SAM operators and armed forces, such as Russia and potentially China that place a large emphasis on layered air defences, with short, medium and long-range SAMs providing an overlapping network. Short-range systems like the SA-15 Tor are already tasked with providing close-in defence to strategic SAMs like the SA-21/S400 family, but the combat performance of the TB2 and loitering munitions potentially means that a new class of SAMs, radars or even AAA to defend these may be needed.
This Turkish UAV then, barely known, even in defence circles before 2020, is thus becoming a symbol, much like the US Predator or Reaper before it, of this new era of drone warfare. It is even entered the general public's consciousness with an Ukrainian song 'Bayrakter' taunting Russian forces appearing on YouTube. But must of all, it has upended previous military thinking, that the SEAD/DEAD mission either needs highly trained pilots in dedicated 'Wild Weasel' platforms, or expensive stealth fighters.