Libya’s deadly game of drones

The war in Libya has international backers on opposing sides supporting their own interests. In the first conflict where unmanned aerial systems (UAS) are making up the bulk of the air operations, both sides have successfully attacked opposition aircraft. Alan Warnes reports.

Turkey has been propping up the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), recognised by the United Nations as Libya’s Government.
The GNA is trying to stem the advances of Benghazi’s Libyan National Army (LNA), led by Khalifa Haftar and backed by the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and supported by the USA.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood factions within GNA. Along with Qatar, he helped the rise of the organisation in Egypt during 2011, before it was crushed.
This saw both Turkey and Qatar ostracised by former Arab allies Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The latter, alongside Egypt, do not want Erdogan, funded by the Qataris, doing the same in Libya.
Ukraine has joined the Turkey and Qatar side and, according to one source, is now a huge source for weapons.
Against a backdrop of unserviceable old helicopters and combat aircraft, both the GNA and LNA have resorted to fighting each other with armed unmanned air vehicles (UAVs).
The Bayraktar TB2, operated by Turkey but purchased by Qatar, is the GNA’s UAV of choice. The drones are thought to have been delivered aboard a ship in May and subsequently split between Misurata and Tripoli-Metiga, with Turkish personnel operating them.
As recently as June 21, the Libyan Address Journal reported that eight GNA pilots went to Turkey to learn how to operate the Bayraktar UAS, although another 12 refused.
The Israeli Orbiter-3 UAS, manufactured by Aeronautics, has also been operated by the GNA, with two of three allegedly delivered to the GNA being shot down at the end of July. The Orbiter-3 can stay airborne for up to seven hours and is used in the intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) missions. The drone was probably supplied by another supporting country.
On the opposite side, the LNA troops are being supported by the Wing Loong II, acquired from China by the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The aircraft has been heavily modified with a Thales data-link system and Israeli optics.
Since April, when Haftar started his march on Tripoli, both the Bayraktar and Wing Loong II have been involved in some significant attacks.
On July 25, several Bayraktars were used to attack and subsequently destroy two Ilyushin Il-76 military transport aircraft operated by Ukraine’s Air Europe airfreight company, at Al Jufra Air Base. A hangar was also destroyed at the base, which was being used as a key staging post for supporters of General Haftar’s LNA.
Haftar is also believed to have lost many of his top officers in the attack.
The LNA exacted revenge on August 6, when at least one Wing Loong II fired at and destroyed another Ukraine registered Il-76, operated by Cargo Alfa Air. The aircraft had landed at Misrata Air Base from Ankara, at around 10.30pm, with ammunition and UAVs, when it was hit.
The LNA attacked Misrata twice on August 15 and 16 because, it says, the Turkish have a large presence where the drones are thought to be operating from. A warehouse there, housing Turkish unmanned combat aerial vehicles, was completely destroyed, according to the LNA.
Meanwhile, the attack was condemned by the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) because of the destruction to the airport and the possible loss of civilian lives.
In a significant milestone in the drone war, a Wing Loong II, operated by the UAE, was taken down by an anti-drone system on August 4.
While flying an armed mission over Misrata, it suddenly plummeted and crashed into the desert, having been targeted by an anti-drone system.
I understand that the Turkish Air Force has been operating Boeing E-7Ts off the coast of Libya to provide signal intelligence (SIGINT) capabilities to Turkish forces on the ground. These aircraft are tracking the Wing Loongs, allowing the Turkish anti-drone systems to be deployed to jam and bring them down.
It is unclear which system was used, although Aselsan, one of Turkey’s premier defence companies, has among its range of products, the cost-effective HASAVAR system handheld-backpack anti-drone jammer.
With the proliferation of these armed drones, the race to acquire anti-drone weapons is now on. While the UAE Wing Loongs are being launched in Libya, they are actually being controlled by operators in ground control stations in the UAE.
The Bayraktar TB2 is the most successful indigenous armed unmanned aerial system built in Turkey. Having earlier produced the prototype Tactical Block 1 (TB-1) in 2005, the Istanbul-based Bayraktar company opted to develop a TB-2 variant for the army, which made its first flight in June 2009.
The first 12 were delivered in two batches – six by November 2014 and another six by June 2015. Initially they were used for the intelligence surveillance reconnaissance (ISR) role with the army, which started testing an armed version in December 2015, with the first firing in June 2016.
Bayraktar company general manager, Lufti Bayraktar, said: “Since the army first fired weapons in combat there has never been any collateral damage. High-quality imaging by the L3 Wescam MX-15D easily distinguishes armed militia from civilians. And the weapon is small, so the impact area is small.”
With weight being a critical factor, Roketsan designed the mini smart munition (MAM) with the laser version (MAM-L) now being mounted underneath the UAS. The drone was fitted initially with two pylons, but two more have since been added.
Without weapons it can fly 24 hours; with a full weapons payload for 14 hours. “But that’s still a lot,” Bayraktar said.
On July 16/17 this year, a Bayraktar TB2 achieved a significant milestone when it flew for 27 hours and three minutes during a demonstration in Kuwait.
There are thought to be 86 armed Bayraktar TB2s operated by Turkey’s Gendarmerie General Command, the General Directorate of Security Forces and the National Intelligence Organisation (MIT).
Both Ukraine and Qatar have also bought the Bayraktar TB2, with the latter probably sending them to Libya. Qatar is investing a lot of money into the Turkish systems and Turkey is operating them.
The Bayraktar company was developing a 5-6 ton UAS but has remained tight-lipped about its work since entering the Libyan theatre of operations.
The Bayraktar UAS saw service in Syria against Daesh, and its MX-15D electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) turret can ‘lase’ for attack platforms. However, in Libya it is believed to be doing all the work itself.
China has made a lot of progress with customers in the Middle East and north Africa. The AVIC Wing Loong (Pterodactyl) II is highly sought after.
To date, the China National Aero-Technology Import & Export Corporation (CATIC) has two customers for the unmanned combat air vehicle, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
The WL II has a total armed payload of 480kg covering three hard points under each wing. Up to 100kg of weapons can be loaded on the two inside ones, and up to 50kg on the outside.
The 50kg anti-armour Blue Arrow-7 (BA-7) has, until recently, been the weapon of choice and played a massive part in customer campaigns, destroying pick-up trucks etc.
But CATIC is believed to have started replacing them with the smaller 16kg TL-2 bombs, and the two inside weapons pylons can carry three munitions each. A CATIC spokesman said: “You don’t need such big weapons as the 50kg BA-7 to hit vehicles, and with TL-2s on board, the Wing Loong II can fly more than 20 hours.”
CATIC is also planning to integrate the TY-90 air-to-air missile on to the WLII’s outside hard points, which will give the UAV the ability to shoot down helicopters. These attributes should be ringing alarm bells for the GNA.
Another option could be the 50kg laser-guided AG300/M bomb, packed with a 26kg warhead with a longer range than the BA-7, which only has a 8-9kg warhead.
CATIC added: “When firing the BA-7, the WLII has to decrease its height, whereas the AG300/M doesn’t because of its longer range. So, the WLII does not need to drop down into the range of the weapons that are being fired at it.”
The UAE has significantly altered the Wing Loong IIs for its operations. The datalink has been enhanced with a Thales system, and the electro-opticals have been improved by the Israelis. They are being flown by controllers back in the UAE.