- In this special Long Read, guest writer Samuel Brownsword lays out the rise of Turkey as a drone superpower, as well as its increasing use of armed drones, both within and without its borders.
In late February 2020, at least 33 Turkish soldiers were killed in an airstrike in Syria’s Idlib province which Ankara blamed on the government of President Bashar al-Assad, although many suspected that it was in fact carried out by Russian forces. At the time, those monitoring events in Syria feared that the attack could trigger a direct confrontation between Turkey and Russia, a supporter of Assad. Events leading up to this incident had already strained relations between the two countries and threatened to rupture defence, energy, and trade links. However, Ankara’s response not only marked the beginning of a new stage in the Syrian civil war, but yet another escalation in global drone warfare.
Beginning on March 1 and lasting for five days, Turkey launched an innovative drone operation against Syrian forces, targeting armoured vehicles, chemical weapons depots, and air defence systems. The Turkish air force utilised its indigenously-developed armed drones to conduct what it said were hundreds of strikes, claiming that more than 2,500 pro-regime fighters had been killed. Although these figures cannot be verified, and are likely exaggerated, many saw the operation as a success as it halted the Syrian Army’s advance toward Turkish-backed forces in Idlib and pressed Moscow into brokering a ceasefire.
So, how did Turkey reach this moment? Why, out of the two dozen countries with armed drones, is their programme now under worldwide scrutiny? And is it as potent and sophisticated as some observers claim?
Turkey first entered the drone age in 1995 with the acquisition of several GNAT 750s from US firm General Atomics. At this stage, the country had no domestic drone programme and was reliant on imports. As well as the US, Ankara placed orders with Israel, which had been using drones in combat since the 1970s. According to reports, Turkey agreed to be the 2005 launch customer for Israel Aerospace Industries’ Harop loitering munition in a $100 million deal. An additional contract, for 10 Heron drones, was signed between the two parties around the same time. This particular deal, however, was beset by delays and accusations of sabotage.
These early foreign-made drones were too primitive and unreliable to aid the Turkish government in their conflict against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK. For example, the GNAT 750s were able to provide footage of PKK movements along the border with Syria and Iraq, but by the time the video had been analysed and orders given to forces in the field, the separatist fighters had repositioned. These disappointments, therefore, prompted Turkey to begin development on its own unmanned aerial vehicle.
In 2004, Ankara awarded Turkish Aerospace Industries a contract to manufacture a medium-altitude long-endurance drone, which would later be unveiled as the Anka. It took to the skies for the first time on December 30, 2010, but reportedly crash-landed after 15 minutes. Several other prototypes suffered the same fate. Despite this difficult birth, the Turkish government signed an agreement with TAI in 2013 for 10 Ankas. And three years later, the unmanned craft made its operational debut, conducting a four-hour observation flight over Turkey’s eastern province of Elazig.
Around the time TAI was spearheading the country’s early efforts to develop a domestic drone, a 26-year-old Turkish student with a doctorate from MIT was trying to gain support for a UAV he had built. In 2005, Selçuk Bayraktar hosted a group of Turkish bureaucrats at an airfield as he gave a demonstration of how his small homemade drone could take-off, fly, and land without any issues. After Bayraktar collected his craft off the landing strip, he gave a speech in which he argued that Turkey could lead the rest of the world in drone production if projects like his were financed. He predicted it would take five years.
Bayraktar’s pitch failed to convince the audience that he and his family’s company, Bayraktar Makina, could add to Turkey’s drone programme. The Bayraktar name was, at the time, unknown by those in the upper echelons of the government, which often awarded contracts based on loyalty, not merit. However, after winning a competition in 2006, Bayraktar was tasked with delivering 19 hand-launched reconnaissance systems to the Turkish Army. The company, as a result, started to gain admirers in the right places and would soon be at the forefront of the country’s entire drone industry thanks to some seismic developments in international relations.
In 2010, Turkey’s relationships with Israel and the United States was turning sour. In truth, diplomatic relations between Turkey and the former were completely derailed in May of that year after an Israeli raid on an aid flotilla bound for Gaza left nine Turkish nationals dead. The US would later refer to the fragile security situation between Turkey and Israel as a reason for rejecting Ankara’s request for armed Predator drones. Congress also objected to providing Turkey with the Predator’s deadlier older brother, the Reaper. Ultimately, Turkey decided to go it alone and plans to arm a domestically-produced drone were accelerated by then prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, with Bayraktar at the front of the queue. Erdoğan’s relationship with the Bayraktar name was also deepening on a personal level through his daughter, Sümeyye, who eventually married Selçuk in May 2016 in front of 6,000 guests.
A breakthrough came at the end of 2015. In yet another demonstration by the Bayraktar family, a drone called the TB2 test-fired a rocket from an altitude of 16,000 feet, successfully hitting its target. It was the first armed UAV flight in the country, and it received plaudits from within the Turkish military and media. A recent investigation by the Guardian revealed, however, that while the armed TB2 is locally manufactured, it could not have reached the point where it was able to fire a rocket without help from the United Kingdom. Selçuk Bayraktar has denied this allegation, claiming that his company had not purchased a critical missile component from Brighton-based EDO MBM Technology, but instead designed its own “much more advanced model at an affordable cost.”
What is not disputed is that the Bayraktar TB2 drone has transformed Turkey’s 35-year conflict against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. Since 2016, Ankara has utilised its fleet of TB2s, which current estimates put between 92 and 94, in operations against Kurdish militias in northern Syria and Iraq. Of greater significance is the fact that TB2 drones have also been used in strikes against PKK militants and Kurdish civilians in at least 11 Turkish provinces. Such domestic operations are what separates Turkey from the other countries to have used UAVs to conduct aerial strikes. In short, Turkey is the only nation to routinely use drones within its own borders, against its own citizens.
In September 2015, Pakistan became the first country to conduct a drone strike on its soil. The Pakistani Army used a rebadged Chinese UAV to hit a compound in the Shawal Valley of North Waziristan, reportedly killing three terrorists. Iraq and Nigeria followed, but all these countries’ use of armed drones, on their territory, has been sporadic and largely for propaganda purposes. Turkey, however, has long had the appetite to use drones against Kurdish fighters in its south-east region. As a US diplomatic cable from 2009, released by WikiLeaks, stated: “Turkey seeks to acquire, on an urgent basis, its own UAV capability to be able to continue anti-PKK ops without US assistance.”
Turkey realised its ambition in late 2016. Bayraktar TB2s officially began patrolling the skies over the eastern and south-eastern Anatolia regions in September and, according to the then Turkish Defence Minister, 72 militants were eliminated in the first two months. Again, these figures are likely exaggerated. Since their deployment, TB2s have been accumulating hundreds of thousands of flight hours in domestic operations against the PKK, flying out of Turkey’s network of airports under the control of the Gendarmerie. They have also been racking up the kill count.
According to the Intercept, since 2016, airstrikes involving drones have claimed the lives of at least 400 people in south-east Turkey. The PKK has launched counter-attacks, usually on poorly-defended security outposts, but Ankara’s new military technology has significantly narrowed their field of manoeuvrability and flushed many militants from mountainous strongholds. Drones appear to have tipped the scales in this four-decade-long conflict and, despite reports that drone strikes have also killed civilians, the Bayraktar TB2 has taken on a cult-like status among the Turkish population.
Turkey’s extensive deployment of armed drones to kill its citizens, within its borders, is unique. No member of the ‘striking at home’ club has been able to keep pace with Ankara’s incessant operations. But this is not the only reason Turkey stands out from the crowd. Of the nine other countries to have conducted drone strikes, as stated at the outset, Turkey is the first to use weaponised UAVs in a mass coordinated offensive, against another military, over a conventional battlefield.
Operation Spring Shield
The March attack saw Turkey launch dozens of drone strikes in Syria as part of a combined air and ground operation known as ‘Spring Shield’. It was retaliation for the deaths of 33 Turkish soldiers days earlier, as well as a counteroffensive against the Syrian Army who – with help from Russia and Iranian-sponsored militias – were advancing on a Turkish-backed coalition in the north-western province of Idlib. For five days, Turkey’s drones targeted armoured vehicles, air defence systems, and opposition personnel before a ceasefire was agreed between Erdoğan and Vladimir Putin.
The operation, although brief, was widely accepted as a success for Turkey as it prevented further gains being made by the Assad regime and momentarily stabilised the battleground. It also presented Ankara with the opportunity to market a further victory, which was the first and largest demonstration of a coordinated mass of drone strikes. Indeed, in the days following the battle for Idlib, Turkish defence analysts were not hesitant to use phrases such as ‘tactical game-changer’, ‘new military doctrine’, and ‘unprecedented in modern military history’ when discussing their country’s use of drones.
Turkey deployed the Bayraktar TB2 in north-western Syria and also gave a first operational appearance to the larger Anka-S. Despite not having proved itself in combat, the Anka-S reportedly featured a little more widely than the TB2 due to its defence system against electronic mixing. Still, both aircraft were used to an unparalleled extent, flying in large concentrations and connecting all aspects of the operation. They acted as scouts for supporting artillery, fired upon enemy positions, provided cover for forces on the ground, and even engaged in air-to-air combat. It was a unique show-of-force and a debut moment for a long-awaited drone capability.
Unlike their Turkish counterparts, Western observers have since voiced reservations about the armed drones on display in Spring Shield. Firstly, while acknowledging the tactical efficiency of the TB2 and Anka-S, critics argue that the element of surprise largely helped Turkey gain an advantage over the Syrian Arab Army. Once the SAA acclimatised to what was happening in the air, their defence systems were able to inflict several drone casualties upon the Turkish military. Questions have also been asked about the reach, vulnerability, and lethality of Turkey’s unmanned fleet.
Turkey plans to address these limitations, with the introduction of a new generation of indigenously-produced drones. One such model is TAI’s Anka-2, otherwise known as the Aksungur. Of greater note, however, is the new unmanned aircraft being developed by Bayraktar. The Akıncı can fly for up to 24 hours, has a maximum altitude of 40,000 feet, and a payload capacity almost five times greater than the TB2 at 900 kg. Having passed its maiden test on December 6, 2019, and a second round of flights the following January, the Akıncı is set to be operational with the Turkish military by the end of 2020.
With the addition of the Akıncı, Turkey will not only further consolidate its position as the most advanced new developer of armed drones, but strengthen its growing export policy. Ukraine’s armed forces, for example, are likely to receive delivery of the Akıncı as Kyiv has been collaborating with Baykar Defense on the project since August 2019. More specifically, the Akıncı project became a priority for both countries since a $69 million deal was signed in early 2019 for the transfer of six TB2s.
The TB2 drone has also been exported to Qatar, Tunisia, and the UN-recognised Government of National Accord in Libya, which is currently engaged in a civil war with Khalifa Haftar and his self-styled Libyan National Army. Initially, the drones were successful in disrupting Haftar’s supply lines and eliminating LNA commanders, and the air cover they provided also allowed the GNA to recapture a series of towns northwest of Tripoli. However, as Ramadan approached in April 2020, the Bayraktar’s sustainability and survivability once again came into question, with at least four being shot down before the end of the month. While the Turkish drones have undoubtedly had a real effect on the conflict in Libya, it is perhaps too early to assess their overall impact.
Turkey’s pursuit of drone superpower status began with the purchase of six rudimentary reconnaissance UAVs from the US in 1995. And it arguably came to an end twenty years later when Baykar Defense successfully test-fired a rocket from the country’s first indigenously-produced armed drone. Since then, Ankara and its rapidly expanding fleet of armed UAVs have gained worldwide attention. Not only is it the only state to frequently use drones to strike its citizens within its borders, but it is also the only state to use drones in a mass coordinated offensive against another military.
That was in Syria. Today, in Libya, the Turkish-backed Government of National Accord are putting on another unique display, using drones as a tactical unit for close air support and strategy. The fighting in Libya has also exposed some old wounds about the capabilities of Turkey’s drone inventory, which first surfaced in the battle for Idlib. Wreckage from crashed Bayraktar TB2s has been piling up over the last few months, bringing the craft’s survivability into question once more.
Of far greater concern is the growing civilian harm from Turkish action in Libya. Incidents like the one in Asabi’ah on May 20, and Sirte on June 6 renew calls for greater transparency and accountability in recording civilian deaths from belligerents. Indeed, ensuring proper oversight of Turkey’s drone industry will be an urgent priority in the years to come, especially the more it diversifies and gains a foothold in the global market.