Mass-market military drones have changed the way wars are fought

Mass-market military drones are one of MIT Technology Review’s 10 Breakthrough Technologies of 2023. Explore the rest of the list here.

When the United States first fired a missile from an armed Predator drone at suspected Al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan on November 14, 2001, it was clear that warfare had permanently changed. During the two decades that followed, drones became the most iconic instrument of the war on terror. Highly sophisticated, multimillion-dollar US drones were repeatedly deployed in targeted killing campaigns. But their use worldwide was limited to powerful nations.

Then, as the navigation systems and wireless technologies in hobbyist drones and consumer electronics improved, a second style of military drone appeared—not in Washington, but in Istanbul. And it caught the world’s attention in Ukraine in 2022, when it proved itself capable of holding back one of the most formidable militaries on the planet.

The Bayraktar TB2 drone, a Turkish-made aircraft from the Baykar corporation, marks a new chapter in the still-new era of drone warfare. Cheap, widely available drones have changed how smaller nations fight modern wars. Although Russia’s invasion of Ukraine brought these new weapons into the popular consciousness, there’s more to their story.

Explosions in Armenia, broadcast on YouTube in 2020, revealed this new shape of war to the world. There, in a blue-tinted video, a radar dish spins underneath cyan crosshairs until it erupts into a cloud of smoke. The action repeats twice: a crosshair targets a vehicle mounted with a spinning dish sensor, its earthen barriers no defense against aerial attack, leaving an empty crater behind.

The clip, released on YouTube on September 27, 2020, was one of many the Azerbaijan military published during the Second Nagorno-Karabakh War, which it launched against neighboring Armenia that same day. The video was recorded by the TB2.

It encompasses all the horrors of war, with the added voyeurism of an unblinking camera.

In that conflict and others, the TB2 has filled a void in the arms market created by the US government’s refusal to export its high-end Predator family of drones. To get around export restrictions on drone models and other critical military technologies, Baykar turned to technologies readily available on the commercial market to make a new weapon of war.

The TB2 is built in Turkey from a mix of domestically made parts and parts sourced from international commercial markets. Investigations of downed Bayraktars have revealed components sourced from US companies, including a GPS receiver made by Trimble, an airborne modem/transceiver made by Viasat, and a Garmin GNC 255 navigation radio. Garmin, which makes consumer GPS products, released a statement noting that its navigation unit found in TB2s “is not designed or intended for military use, and it is not even designed or intended for use in drones.” But it’s there.

Commercial technology makes the TB2 appealing for another reason: while the US-made Reaper drone costs $28 million, the TB2 only costs about $5 million. Since its development in 2014, the TB2 has shown up in conflicts in Azerbaijan, Libya, Ethiopia, and now Ukraine. The drone is so much more affordable than traditional weaponry that Lithuanians have run crowdfunding campaigns to help buy them for Ukrainian forces.

The TB2 is just one of several examples of commercial drone technology being used in combat. The same DJI Mavic quadcopters that help real estate agents survey property have been deployed in conflicts in Burkina Faso and the Donbas region of Ukraine. Other DJI drone models have been spotted in Syria since 2013, and kit-built drones, assembled from commercially available parts, have seen widespread use.

These cheap, good-enough drones that are free of export restrictions have given smaller nations the kind of air capabilities previously limited to great military powers. While that proliferation may bring some small degree of parity, it comes with terrible human costs. Drone attacks can be described in sterile language, framed as missiles stopping vehicles. But what happens when that explosive force hits human bodies is visceral, tragic. It encompasses all the horrors of war, with the added voyeurism of an unblinking camera whose video feed is monitored by a participant in the attack who is often dozens, if not thousands, of miles away.

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By: Kelsey D. Atherton
Title: Mass-market military drones have changed the way wars are fought
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Published Date: Mon, 30 Jan 2023 09:00:00 +0000

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