An Unmanned Interdictor: Bayraktar TB2s Over Libya

22.11.2021 -
UNITED STATES 

 

The Bayraktar TB2 is well known for its pivotal role in securing Azerbaijan's victory over Armenia during the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War. While no war in history was ever won by one weapon system alone, there can be no doubt that Azerbaijan's striking victory couldn't have been achieved without it. Less well known is the TB2's role in saving the internationally-recognised government in Libya (GNA) throughout 2019 and 2020, preventing a hostile takeover of the country by warlord Khalifa Haftar, whose Libyan National Army (LNA) received significant backing from the UAE, Egypt and Russia. [1]

The lack of recognition for the TB2's efforts are not in the least because of the lack of TB2 strikes published, especially when compared to the amount of footage released of drone strikes over Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh. Another contributing factor is the little media attention the conflict received throughout its more than six year duration. That said, the Bayraktar TB2 did rise to fame for destroying a small army of Russian-made Pantsir-S1s anti-aircraft systems deployed to Libya by the UAE and Russia, reportedly destroying at least 15 of such complexes, including nine examples in 72 hours. [2] Nine of the fifteen losses reported can currently be confirmed through visual evidence.

Enemy aircraft also found themselves on the receiving end of TB2 strikes, resulting in the destruction of three cargo aircraft and three fighter-bombers parked on air bases in Western and Central Libya. Continued LNA air operations launched from airports in these parts of Libya became significantly more dangerous as a result, and activities on al-Watiya air base even came to a halt. [3] In effect, al-Watiya was in lockdown since the summer of 2019, with Bayraktar TB2s enforcing the rules. The danger to cargo aircraft unloading their goods on the ground ultimately forced the LNA to transport most of its supplies via the road, severely complicating efforts to keep its forces in Tripoli supplied.

To make matters worse for the LNA, Bayraktar TB2s were then unleashed on the supply columns driving towards Tripoli through Western Libya, which even though protected by Pantsir-S1s proved easy prey to TB2s flying overhead. In fact, the mere presence of a Pantsir-S1 actually appears to have increased the chances of a supply column being targeted, with Pantsir-S1s proving all but incapable of engaging the threats flying overhead but providing the GNA with plenty of signals intelligence which allowed their location to be identified. In other cases, LNA soldiers escorting the convoys filmed themselves while underway, which can't have been beneficial to operations security either. [4]

On the ground, Turkey restructured GNA forces in Tripoli, allowing them to mount an effective defence of the city's suburbs and eventually take the fight to the LNA. Doing what the UAE failed to do, Turkey actually began to train local forces rather than merely supplying them with weaponry. This approach paid off tremendously, and now armed with anti-tank guided missiles, anti-materiel rifles and supported by artillery fire and several types of drones, GNA forces could now turn streets into killzones for anyone brave enough to contest them. Khalifa Haftar truly lost in June 2020, but it can be stated that his fate was set in stone upon the arrival of the first Turkish support in May 2019.

Drone strikes by TB2s continued to inflict heavy damage on LNA forces throughout 2019 into mid-2020. In the same timeframe, Turkish G-Class frigates also deployed to Libyan territorial waters. The long range of these ships' SM-1MR surface-to-air missiles provided an additional layer of air defence for GNA forces on the ground, as did the deployment of 35mm ACV-30 KORKUT self-propelled anti-aircraft guns (SPAAGs). While Bayraktar TB2s could avoid such weaponry by simply flying higher than AA guns can reach, Chinese UCAVs like the Wing Loong II operate at a much lower flight ceiling than their Turkish counterparts. Combined with the deployment of Hawk SAM batteries and 35mm GDF-003B AA guns, Western Libya was effectively sealed off to Emirati Wing Loong I and II drones.

 It was around late April 2020 that the GNA successfully pushed back the Libyan National Army from Tripoli, leading to a chaotic retreat from Western Libya and ending Haftar's long-held dream of capturing Tripoli and installing himself as self-proclaimed president of Libya. Soon after, the GNA captured al-Watiya air base on the 18th of May. [3] Not even one month later, on the 5th of June, 2020, the strategically located city of Tarhuna (which served as a giant supply depot for the LNA) was captured, marking the official end of the LNA's 14-month long offensive on the capital Tripoli. [5] In less than a year, Bayraktar TB2s had sent an entire army packing at the loss of fourteen TB2s shot down, a small price to pay for turning the tide of war.

For Turkey, its highly efficient use of drones has boosted its growing foreign policy assertiveness to shape an entirely new foreign policy: Bayraktar Diplomacy. Based around small-footprint interventions that seek to maximise both political and military impact at low financial and humanitarian cost, Bayraktar Diplomacy essentially constitutes a new type of warfare that is uniquely well-suited to the characteristics of modern-day wars. Although the drones through which it is typically effected are relatively cheap, and actually expendable, Bayraktar Diplomacy is so effective that it can be said to have decided the fate of nations: without the TB2 the GNA could well have been wiped out in Libya.

A list of targets confirmed to have been destroyed by Bayraktar TB2s over Libya can be viewed below. This list only includes destroyed vehicles and equipment of which photo or videographic evidence is available. In some cases this solely consists of footage that was recorded on the ground. In these cases, the use of an armed drone was reported by witnesses on the ground. Likely in an effort to attract as little attention to its operations as possible, very little footage of TB2 strikes over Libya has ever been released. Therefore, the amount of equipment destroyed by TB2s is significantly higher than recorded here. The list will be updated if more footage ever becomes available.

 

 

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