As the mass-produced version of Turkey’s new Akinci drone passed its maiden flight test, Poland announced that it will buy several models of its ancestor, the Bayraktar TB2.
“We negotiated a contract for the purchase of four sets, that is 24 aircraft, armed with anti-tank missiles,” Poland’s defence minister Mariusz Błaszczak told state radio in a May interview. The first are to be delivered in 2022.
Poland is the fifth of six nations to buy the TB2, following Azerbaijan, Morocco, Qatar and Ukraine, but preceding fellow NATO member, Albania. The unmanned aircraft has also taken to the skies over the Eastern Mediterranean and Libya, where it played a decisive role for the Government of National Accord against the renegade general, Khalifa Haftar.
The development of Turkish drone technology has been a generational effort and the result of a two-decade drive toward indigenous design and production across the country’s defence sector. In 2018, Turkey generated around $2.2 billion in sales, making it the world’s 14th largest arms exporter at the time. And while many analysts believe that several challenges – such as a nationwide brain drain – could slow the industry’s growth, the UAV programme has made Turkey an important player in the global drone market.
For decades, the United States and Israel have been the leading producers and sellers of surveillance drones, effectively holding a de facto monopoly over the industry. Figures from 2019 show that 49 countries were operating at least one UAV made in the U.S. and 39 had acquired at least one from Israel. Both, however, have been reluctant to export armed drones during their years at the top, although today, Washington is working to expand its policy so that previously prohibited governments can purchase their large, strike-capable crafts.
Delivering drones like the MQ-9 Reaper to any nation that wants them is partly aimed at appeasing American manufacturers and increasing weapons sales by the billions. It is also hoped that pitching to governments far and wide will steal market share from China, a country that has emerged as a major competitor in recent years. For example, from 2011 to 2019, 11 countries bought armed drones from China compared to one, France, that struck a deal with the United States.
Drones have proliferated from China in far greater numbers than the U.S. recently due to the relatively fewer restrictions Beijing imposes on its customers – even if those states have a history of violating international law and human rights. China’s CH-4 and Wing Loong models have been delivered to the likes of Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who have used them extensively and controversially across the Middle East and North Africa. In fact, of the 11 to purchase Chinese-made armed drones, all but two were nondemocratic in the first year of acquisition.
Not all who are unable to buy American military drones place orders with China, however. Turkey has also shaped the global drone market to its advantage, making lucrative but strategic deals along the way. Most have involved the Bayraktar TB2 which its manufacturer, Baykar Makina, claims to have included in more than 200 deliveries to domestic and foreign services. Azerbaijan, Qatar, and Ukraine have all received the TB2 since 2018, with Morocco, Poland, and Albania next in line. Each is also a natural candidate for Baykar’s latest drone, the Akinci, as proven by Doha’s willingness to finance the project.
Turkey has been prepared to temporarily align itself with anyone, forgoing traditional alliances to share expertise and secure multi-million-dollar deals. It has squared off with Saudi Arabia in Libya’s civil war, but is co-producing a MALE drone with two manufacturers from the kingdom. It has purchased the S-400 air defence system from Russia, but is jointly developing the Akinci and a TB2 variant with Ukraine. And it has riled NATO repeatedly over recent years, but is keen to show that it supports the alliance’s efforts to deter Russia by building drone relationships with member states.
Another reason for Turkey’s prestigious reputation in the worldwide market is because its products have scored high-profile successes on the battlefield. Since 2015 – when a rocket was first fired from a Turkish-made drone – Ankara has deployed its unmanned fleet to great effect in Syria, Libya, the South Caucasus and within its own borders. Some observers have voiced reservations about the armed UAVs on display in these conflicts, however, following Turkey’s incursion over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, there has been widespread acknowledgement that the TB2 and others are now combat-proven machines.
It is a label that will please Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, considering military force has become a key element of the president’s aggressive and ambitious foreign policy. To Turkey’s producers, it is perhaps of less value, as the different ways in which their drones have been used in combat has done much already to attract potential suitors. In other words, during each foreign military operation over the past five years, Turkey has been showcasing a new approach to drone warfare in order to boost sales.
Take Operation One Homeland in the battle between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Bayraktar TB2s, which were likely flown by Turkish operators, were used to pinpoint and destroy high-value, land-warfare assets belonging to Armenia, as well as squads of soldiers. One estimate put material losses from TB2s at over 500, including 90 tanks. To date, it is the most powerful demonstration of how small, versatile, cheap combat drones can expose heavy ground units and decisively shape the outcomes of conflicts.
Since the war’s end, the United Kingdom has expressed an interest in procuring inexpensive armed drones, with Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, saying that the TB2 is a symbol of how others are now “leading the way”. It is possible that European powers are feeling embarrassed for sleeping on Turkey’s rise as a drone superpower. After all, the campaign over the South Caucasus strongly resembled Operation Spring Shield months earlier, with several Turkish drone trends appearing in both conflicts. Examples include integration with land-based fire support; suppression of opposition air defences; systematic hunting of ground resources; and exploitation of drone footage for propaganda purposes. Of course, achieving success in Syria, Libya, and Nagorno-Karabakh makes it easier for manufacturers back home to advertise their products, but taking a unique approach to drone deployment is a selling point in itself.
Turkey has derived a prestige in the global drone industry which challenges the decades-long belief that the United States and Israel are the exclusive developers of unmanned aerial technology. Along with China, the country can be described as a second-tier exporter who is not only shaping the market to its own benefit, but also having a significant impact on drone proliferation. Indeed, because of Ankara’s willingness to fulfil orders previously shunned by the U.S. and Israel, a growing number of militaries have some level of lethal drone capability.
Azerbaijan, Qatar, Tunisia and Ukraine are all customers of Turkey, for instance. Poland, a NATO member, recently committed to buying several Bayraktar TB2s, as has Morocco and Albania. A delegation from Hungary is to visit the country for testing, while other European governments have expressed interest in acquiring Turkish-made drones. Word has even spread as far as South Asia.
There is no doubting that the age of proliferation has begun. Perhaps the opportunity to apply meaningful controls has now passed, perhaps not. Turkey, meanwhile, is a prime example of how UAV technology can be easily replicated and exported. And with a new generation of armed drones coming off the production line, the country no longer intends to simply follow the global market, but rather lead it.