How relatively cheap Turkish drones have had an outsized impact on recent conflicts.
At a trade show in the Azerbaijani capital Baku on May 28, crowds that gathered to snap selfies alongside a Bayraktar (“Flag Bearer”) TB2 drone illustrated the celebrity the aircraft has achieved since its maiden flight in 2014.
In Ukraine, where at least 36 of the TB2 aircraft have been purchased by the country's armed forces, a song was famously penned to honor the drone and several Ukrainian animals have also been named Bayraktar as a tribute.
Ukrainian protestors have also been filmed singing the Bayraktar song to taunt Russian troops.
The Cessna-sized drone hit the headlines again on May 29 when a Lithuanian crowdfunding effort raised 5 million euros to purchase a TB2 for Ukraine as the country fights the ongoing Russian invasion.
The TB2 was developed in Turkey by Selcuk Bayraktar, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has been compared to America’s Elon Musk for the unique military aircraft he has developed and a lively social media presence that is sometimes vicious toward his critics.
Bayraktar, who is the chief technology officer of the defense company Baykar, became a son-in-law to Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he married the Turkish president’s daughter in 2016.
The Bayratkar TB2 can stay aloft for up to 27 hours powered by a simple propellor engine and can fly up to 150 kilometers from its base. The aircraft can also be fitted with four "smart micromunition" missiles accurate enough to destroy armored vehicles from several kilometers away.
But the aircraft is seen as revolutionary for its relatively low cost and easy availability. Large U.S.-made military drones such as the MQ-9 Reaper cost tens of millions of dollars and even countries that could afford such tech are unlikely to try and acquire it.
Washington only approves military sales to a select few governments and pricey American combat drones are widely seen as failing to live up to the ‘afford to lose’ concept of unmanned aircraft.
Turkey, with an authoritarian Islamist president at the helm, has fewer qualms about selling its weaponry and the TB2 is currently in use by at least 11 militaries. Several more countries are awaiting delivery including Poland -- the first EU country to purchase the drones.
The price per unit of the Bayraktar TB2 has not been made public but the Lithuanian organizers of the recent crowdfunding campaign have suggested that 5 million euros was enough for one aircraft. It's unclear if an attendant command station will be purchased along with the drone.
TB2 drones have been used by Turkey in what it calls “counterterrorism” operations against Kurdish militants and in Libya’s ongoing civil war. But their devastating impact was most widely seen during the 2020 conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh when TB2s were deployed by Azerbaijan against ethnic Armenian forces.
Dozens of videos were released by Azerbaijan showing Armenian fighters fleeing as missiles hissed toward vehicles that in previous conflicts would have been safely out of sight behind tree lines or hills.
An Armenian fighter whom RFE/RL spoke to in 2020 said drones could be heard “constantly” in the sky overhead during the massive Azerbaijani offensive to retake Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenian soldiers were forced to walk alone in the open as the only 'defense' against Bayraktar missiles. A single fighter was apparently seen as not worth being killed with an expensive missile.
The impact of the TB2 in the Ukraine conflict initially appeared to be significant, with Kyiv posting several videos of major targets including Russian naval vessels being destroyed, but the release of such videos has slowed and the Russian military claims to have shot down dozens of the aircraft.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy recently hinted that the slow, easily-detected drone may have become easy pickings for Russian anti-aircraft systems, telling journalists at a press conference that a "history" of air defense means that "with all due respect to Bayraktar, and to any hardware, I will tell you, frankly, this is a different war.”
“Drones may help, but they will not make the difference,” he added.