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Maldives starts flying Turkish drones for maritime surveillance

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CHRISTCHURCH, New Zealand — The Maldives government has introduced Turkish-built Bayraktar TB2 drones into service while standing up a new Air Corps tasked with monitoring the island nation’s maritime environs.

Three unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) were inaugurated in a ceremony at Maafaru International Airport in Noonu Atoll on March 15, according to the office of President Mohamed Muizzu. That same evening, one of the drones conducted a maiden patrol from the base.

The Maldives National Defence Force (MNDF) did not respond to a Defense News inquiry as to how many TB2s have been purchased, but the figure could be six, according to Turkish media.

Turkey delivered the Bayraktar TB2s to the Maldives on Mar. 3 in a transaction valued at $37 million.

The first Maldivian drone operators commenced training in Turkey in January, and a second batch is due home soon.

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Defence Minister Ghassan Maumoon referred to the TB2′s potential for strike missions, saying: “It’s a sophisticated technology platform used by developed countries worldwide. At the same time, it’s a weapon with firepower that can take defensive maneuvers to defend the country’s sovereignty, while focusing on surveillance and search and rescue.”

Lt. Gen. Abdul Raheem Abdul Latheef, Chief of Defence Force, said the creation of an Air Corps amounted to a “historic day,” outlining the force’s envisioned role in defending the country as well as helping fishermen and marine vessels in distress.

Muizzu acknowledged the Turkish government’s pivotal role in the deal. After his election in September 2023, Muizzu’s first official visit was to Turkey last November, where he toured several defense companies. Muizzu also noted that Turkey is providing the MNDF with other unspecified military equipment free of charge.

The Bayraktar TB2 is now used by 33 nations, and the global fleet achieved a cumulative 750,000 flight hours last December. Manufacturer Baykar declared exports worth a record $1.76 billion in 2023.

Muizzu also announced efforts to strengthen Maldivian military capabilities, including doubling the Coast Guard’s capacity. He revealed an initiative to recondition older equipment, expand the Air Corps fleet, and enhance land platforms.

The Maldives lie 230 nautical miles southwest of the Indian peninsula, and it possesses a 974,000km² exclusive economic zone. Five major international shipping lanes traverse its territory.

Muizzu’s “India out” election platform promised to remove Indian military personnel stationed in the Maldives. Around 80 uniformed Indians support a Dornier 228 maritime patrol aircraft and two Dhruv helicopters donated by India, and all will depart by May.

Delhi fears losing influence in the Maldives, even as Muizzu’s pro-China government signed an agreement on Mar. 4 where Beijing promised unspecified “gratis military assistance.”

Notably, in an attempt to strengthen its Indian Ocean presence, India opened a new naval base in Minicoy, within the Lakshadweep archipelago north of the Maldives, on earlier this month. India’s Lakshadweep islands lie about 130 kilometers (80 miles) north of the Maldives.

“The base will enhance operational reach and facilitate the Indian Navy’s operational effort towards anti-piracy and anti-narcotics operations in Western Arabian Sea. It will also augment Indian Navy’s capability as the first responder in the region and augment connectivity with the mainland,” an Indian Navy statement said.

The service said the base was part of a policy to “incrementally augment security infrastructure at the strategically important” islands.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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