Paul Iddon
Sep 14 2019

Turkey is fighting a formidable drone war in Libya

Turkey has given decisive support to Libya’s Tripoli-based government, supplying it with armed drones that have carried out a series of air strikes on the besieging eastern forces of General Khalifa Haftar.

Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drones have carried out several air strikes on behalf of the Government of National Accord (GNA) and provided air support for its ground forces conducting counter-offensives, most notably helping them rout Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) in the city of Gharyan in late June, which hitherto had served as a major logistical hub for the siege. 

The LNA also has a fleet of Chinese-made Wing Loong II drones supplied by its main patron, the United Arab Emirates (UAE). They have attempted to destroy the GNA’s Bayraktar fleet, taking out a couple in air strikes against GNA bases.  

Turkey appears to have successfully managed to replenish those losses with the most recent resupply of Bayraktars reportedly taking place in late August. 

The GNA’s drones are based in Tripoli’s Mitiga International Airport and Misrata in northwestern Libya. The LNA carries out most of its air strikes from al-Jufra airbase in central Libya.

“The GNA received 12 Bayraktar TB2s in two batches – four and eight – between May and July,” said Arnaud Delalande, a freelance defence and security expert. 

“At least half of them have been destroyed during UAE airstrikes using Wing Loong IIs,” he said. “The second batch delivered in July was to replace the losses of the first.”

“It seems that a third batch was delivered in the end of August following new losses over the summer.”

Levent Özgül, a Turkish defence analyst, estimated there were “at least eight Bayraktar TB2s delivered to the GNA and based in Misrata”.

Oliver Imhof, a Libya researcher for the UK-based non-profit Airwars, which documents air strikes and casualties in the Middle East and Libya, said that “the GNA received another delivery of Turkish drones around August 27.” 

“The number isn’t really clear, but given the high volume of GNA strikes at the moment it should be similar to the six to eight drones it operated before,” Imhof said. 

While the number of Emirati drones operating in Libya is unclear, Imhof said both sides appeared to have similar capabilities based on the number of strikes they have carried out against each other, but the Emirati Wing Loongs had a longer range than the Bayraktars. 

Delalande also pointed out that the Tripoli government is at a disadvantage compared to its adversary “because the range of the Bayraktar is only 150 km without ground relay antennas contrary to Wing Loong, which use satellites”.

“The Bayraktars destroyed were all struck as they landed following their own missions,” he said. 

“They were probably spotted by ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance)/Wing Loongs after their air strikes.”

But, Delalande said, Turkish drones based in Misrata appeared to be under some kind of “protection bubble … No retaliation strikes were carried out by UAE drones despite Turkish drones bombing an LNA convoy in Tarhuna,” he said. “This could be explained by the recent presence of an air defence system on the airbase.”

“It seems that Turkey deployed relay antennas in July to increase the range of their drones notably to strike al-Jufra and destroy two LNA Illyushin Il-76 military transport planes.”

This all indicates that Turkey is not only denying the UAE-backed LNA air supremacy in Libya but is also proving very capable of striking the LNA on the Tripoli government’s behalf.

At the same time, it appears that neither side can prevail over the other for now. 

Özgül said an influx of more weaponry could potentially tip the balance in favour of the GNA. 

“Turkey may try to send bigger TAI Anka-S armed MALE SİHA (Medium Altitude Long Endurance) drones,” he said. “However, operation and maintenance may be problematic for these bigger aircraft rather than the small and effective TB2s.”

The Anka-S, like the Wing Loong II, resembles the American MQ1A Predator drone although is slightly heavier. 

More generally Turkish drones “are solid and robust, user-friendly and very effective compared to the Chinese series … Their small scale munitions (MAM-L and MAM-C) have pinpoint accuracy,” Özgül said. 

He also anticipates that Turkey would likely continue to supply the GNA with such equipment.

But Turkish shipments of such equipment can be vulnerable. The air forces of Egypt and Sudan, for example, could easily intercept cargo planes while the Greek and Egyptian navies could intercept ships en route to Libya. 

The key country that could hinder Turkey’s resupply efforts is Egypt. 

“If Egyptian forces decide to intercept these shipments they can easily do so,” Özgül said. 

Sebastien Roblin, a defence journalist and contributor to The National Interest, is sceptical that either the GNA or the LNA “can break their present stalemate through the aerial bombardment campaign, which will probably hit civilians at least as hard as any military targets.”

“Given the low cost of the drones, presumably both Turkey and Egypt and the UAE could continue deploying more into action, though one disadvantage Egypt and the UAE face is that they must acquire their drones from a third-party, China,” he said.   

By contrast, the GNA has a more reliable supplier since Turkey builds its own armed drones and, therefore, is not at risk of having its supply chain potentially severed by a foreign supplier. 

“The impression one gets is that for all the geographic breadth of LNA territory it currently doesn’t have enough support to break the GNA’s control over Tripoli and Misrata,” Roblin said. 

Since Libya descended into chaos shortly after the Arab spring began in 2011, arms from the country have shown up in other war zones such as Mali and even Syria. 

Imhof doubts that this would happen with either the GNA’s Bayraktar or the LNA’s Wing Loongs. 

“As we see more states like China or Turkey producing armed and unarmed drones with very little restrictions on their proliferation, there is certainly a chance of them ending up in the hands of non-state actors,” he said. 

“However, even though drones are often compared to video games, they are not as easy to operate.”

He cited the example of the GNA, which “still heavily relies on Turkish support to fly its drones … This might pose an obstacle to poorly resourced non-state actors.”

One solution Imhof suggested for preventing such lethal weapons systems from falling into the hands of non-state actors or terrorist groups is to “contractually bind the party purchasing the drone not to resell.”

“International agreements, which already exist for the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, for example, are also an option but difficult to reach,” he said. 

In the case of Libya, Imhof said “it would certainly help if Turkey and the UAE respected the UN arms embargo. 

“Other countries like the United States have also done a very poor job in penalising violations of the embargo,” he said.