Combat drones for the Armed Forces of the Slovak Republic
The Minister of Defence of the Slovak Republic Jaroslav Naď recently informed the public on his Twitter account that the ministry is continuing its search for new combat drones for the Slovak Armed Forces. Specifically, on 13 April, when he published the post, a meeting was held with the head of Baykar, the company that produces the well-known Bayraktar TB2 drones.
Drones or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles are considered one of the most promising types of military equipment. Already today, drones are used for various kinds of tasks such as reconnaissance, guiding missiles, directing artillery fire, patrolling over designated objects, or also to attack land, sea or air targets. The leading countries in the production and use of unmanned aerial vehicles are the United States, Israel or China, but the growth of unmanned aerial vehicle development can also be observed in Russia or Turkey.
The popularity of combat drones has increased over the last few years, particularly due to the Nagorno-Karabakh War in 2020 and the current war in Ukraine. Both wars have seen the Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drones in action, and in both cases they have been and are being deployed against military equipment of Russian or Soviet origin. The Bayraktar TB2 drones belong to the MALE, or Medium-Altitude-Long-Endurance, category of drones. They can operate at altitudes of 5,486 to 7,620 meters and the maximum take-off weight of these drones is 700 kilograms. They can fly up to 27 hours in the air and their main armament consists of four MAM-L laser-guided bombs, or they can be armed with smaller MAM-C missiles. The Bayraktar TB2 drones are in the arsenals of Turkey, Azerbaijan, Morocco and the aforementioned Ukraine. Poland has also ordered Bayraktar TB2 drones in 2021.
It is thanks to the aforementioned military conflicts that many Western countries, including Slovakia, have been discussing the need to purchase combat drones, specifically Bayraktar TB2 drones. The current administration of the Slovak Ministry of Defence, led by Minister Jaroslav Nada, has been in favour of buying drones for the Slovak armed forces for a long time. The need to purchase this equipment has been repeatedly discussed by the State Secretary of the Ministry of Defence, Marian Majer, and by the Minister himself, Jaroslav Naď.
According to Jaroslav Naď himself on the social network Twitter, on Wednesday, 13 April, a meeting took place between the management of the Slovak Ministry of Defence and the head of the Turkish company producing the Bayraktar TB2 drones. The Slovak Minister of Defence further stated that negotiations on the purchase of new drones for the Slovak Armed Forces are continuing, and in addition to the Turkish manufacturer, negotiations are also underway with other possible suppliers.
The question then is what combat drones besides the Bayraktar TB2 are under consideration for Slovakia and whether there is perhaps a better solution than Turkish drones.
Hermes 450 and 900 drones
The Hermes 450 and Hermes 900 drones belong to the Hermes family of drones manufactured by the Israeli company Elbit Systems. Both systems belong to the MALE category, as does the Bayraktar TB2 drone. According to the manufacturer, the Hermes 450 drone is one of the drones with combat deployment experience, with a total of more than 300,000 flight hours. The Hermes 450 is the Israeli army's backbone platform in counter-terrorism operations. In terms of technical parameters, the Hermes 450 is similar to the Bayraktar TB2 drone. The Hermes 450 has a maximum takeoff weight of 550 kilograms and can operate for approximately 17 hours at a maximum altitude of 5,486 meters. In terms of operational use, the Hermes 450 drone can be equipped with different types of payloads for different types of missions and can also be adapted to a configuration for using two types of payloads at the same time. The Hermes 450 drone is one of the most used drones in the world.
The Hermes 900 drone is conceptually based on the Hermes 450 model and is an improved version of it. Compared to the Hermes 450, the Hermes 900 is slightly heavier (maximum take-off weight is 1,180 kilograms) and can operate at a maximum altitude of up to 9,144 meters with a flight endurance of almost 36 hours. The Hermes 900 is capable of operating in all weather conditions and, thanks to the use of two ground data terminals, can perform up to two missions simultaneously from the same control centre. Hermes drones are also equipped with advanced protection systems against electronic interference or against taking control of the drone.
Although Elbit has not publicly stated the possibility of using Hermes 450 and 900 drones for combat operations, according to some information, it is possible to equip both drones with AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, which are also used by UH-60M Blackhawk helicopters, which Slovakia also has in its arsenal. This could be an interesting factor for Slovakia, as it would unify the ammunition for the two types of combat equipment, which will of course simplify the purchase of this ammunition. At the same time, Slovakia would confirm the superior quality of its relations with Israel, with which, in the words of Slovak Foreign Minister Ivan Korčok, it is developing cooperation in many areas, including defence and security.
The MQ-9 Reaper from General Atomics was first introduced into the military in 2007, when it was adopted by the US Air Force, and the US Armed Forces currently operate more than 300 of these drones. The MQ-9 Reaper drones can also be found in various modified versions in several NATO countries such as the UK, Belgium and France. In terms of size, the MQ-9 Reaper drones are significantly larger and heavier than the Hermes and Bayraktar TB2 drones, which in turn allows them to carry a larger payload and also operate for longer periods of continuous operation. The maximum take-off weight of the equipped drone is 4760 kg and a fully armed MQ-9 Reaper can fly for up to 14 hours over the battlefield, for reconnaissance purposes the drone is capable of flying continuously for up to 30 hours. Similar to the Hermes drones, the MQ-9 Reaper can be armed with AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-ground missiles. According to Forbes, Ukraine, which is using Bayraktar TB2 drones in its ongoing conflict with Russia, has also expressed interest in purchasing US MQ-9 Reaper drones.
Although the MQ-9 Reaper drone is large and heavy, its acquisition for the Slovakian Armed Forces could also make sense. Besides the fact that the drone is armed with Hellfire missiles, the purchase of these drones would also deepen defence cooperation between Slovakia and the US. Slovakia, as already mentioned, operates UH-60M Blackhawk helicopters, the number of which is likely to increase, and in the near future the Slovak Air Force will become a user of F-16s, and the purchase of US drones would again expand the armament of the Slovak Air Force with modern, advanced equipment. In addition, the possible purchase of MQ-9 Reaper drones also has a strategic context, as the defence agreement between Slovakia and the USA is linked, among other things, to the development of defence capabilities.
Although the Bayraktar TB2 drones are most visible in light of the conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh and Ukraine, there are other options that may be more suitable for Slovakia than the Bayraktar drones. It is important that the Slovak Ministry of Defence chooses the best and most advantageous solution that will improve the capabilities of the Slovak Armed Forces and bring them closer to the armies of the 21st century.