Turkish drones have by now become regulars in many skies of the Middle East and North Africa, playing an unprecedented role in some of the region’s major flashpoints. Confirming a remarkable domestic technological advancement, Turkey’s unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) are at the forefront of an expanding indigenous defence industry, which aims to improve the country’s military might while serving as a launchpad of Ankara’s regional ambitions.
In a remarkable military turn, Turkish TB2 drones have now gained substantial freedom of action in Western Libya’s skies and helped to reverse the tide of the Libyan conflict in favour of the internationally recognized government in Tripoli, which has been under siege by General Khalifa Haftar’s forces since April 2019. Between May 17 and May 20, TB2 unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV) carried out most of the Government of National Accord’s (GNA) air sorties which destroyed several Pantsir S-1 air-defence systems operated by Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) and allowed GNA’s units to recapture the strategic Al-Watiya air base, along with a number of key villages south of Tripoli. In a similar vein, Turkish UCAVs made headlines during Ankara’s early March Spring Shield Operation in Syria, when they annihilated dozens of Syrian Arab Army’s armoured vehicles and fighters and halted the Baathist regime’s advance to regain the last rebel stronghold of Idlid, displaying both an innovative use of UCAV assets against conventional targets and unprecedented levels of tactical coordination (and efficiency) between drones, artillery and ground troops.
The drones flown by Ankara over Libya and Syria’s battlefields are the Bayraktar TB2 tactical UAV, made by president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s son-in-law Selçuk Bayraktar’s company Baykar Makina, and the Anka-S, a more advanced medium altitude long endurance (MALE) class platform produced by the state-backed firm Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI). Importantly, both models are domestically designed and built, highlighting Turkey’s rapid and remarkable progress in unmanned aerial vehicle technology as well as its emergence as one of the world’s main drone powers, and certainly the region’s major one. Operation Spring Shield marked the vastest combat use of the Anka-S so far, while the TB2 can now be considered the backbone of Turkey’s national UAV program, with more than 100 models entered into service within several Turkish security forces agencies, 180 thousand hours of flight, and hundreds of airstrikes.
A crucial aspect of Ankara’s drone program lies in its fully indigenous nature, revolving around an expanding domestic defence industry which can produce and supply all the required components, from the engines to the assorted array of ordnance needed to tackle a likewise diverse list of threats. The Anka-S, for instance, is now powered by the PD-170 turbo-diesel engine built by the state-controlled firm Tusas Engine Industry, and, together with the Bayraktar TB2, employs the MAM-L and MAM-C smart guided munitions developed by the Turkish manufacturer Roketsan. What is more, the two main UAV companies in the country – TAI and Baykar Makina – are already finalizing the development and testing of two new and more powerful UAV platforms, the Aksungur and the Akinci respectively, with the goal of meeting both Turkey’s domestic security threats and its engagement in an increasingly competitive regional landscape.
Turkey’s race to drone technology was motivated first and foremost by the need to collect intelligence and improve surveillance in its armed struggle against the Kurdistan Workers Party militant organization (or PKK) – considered a terrorist organization by Ankara and some Western countries. As a matter of fact, since their introduction in 2015, indigenous UCAVs have proven to be a game changer in counter-terrorism operations against the PKK, providing invaluable intelligence and targeted strikes that reversed the tide of a decades-long insurgency which has caused nearly 40 thousand deaths. Equally crucial were repeated US Congressional vetoes to Ankara’s requests to acquire state of the art drones such as the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper from Washington, thus prompting a domestic endeavour to produce UAVs autonomously. In retrospect, this “autonomisation” strategy is certainly paying off, as the Turkish UAV industry is now self-reliant, but it is not limited to drones, rather encompassing several defence sectors and products, from tanks to fighter jets. The aim is to modernize and innovate the national defence industry, reducing Turkey’s dependence on foreign support and components while turning Ankara into a major arms exporter over the next decade.
Drones are definitely a key part of this exporting policy and in recent years several countries, especially in the Middle East and North Africa, have added Turkish UAVs to their arsenal. Ankara’s best business partners in the region are Qatar, Tunisia, and Libya’s internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli. In the context of a long-term military cooperation partnership between Doha and Ankara, Qatari armed forces has recently received the first batch of six TB2 UCAVs and three ground control stations purchased in 2018, while Tunisia has just inked a $240 million contract with the Turkish Aerospace Industry for the supply of six Anka-S combat drones along with control stations and training assistance. Since May 2019, then, an unknown number of TB2 UCAVs together with the necessary equipment and trainers have been deployed in Libya as part of a broader military cooperation agreement with the GNA which also includes armoured vehicles and training support. Turkish drones have also made inroads in Ukraine, with six TB2 UCAVs, worth more than $69 million, having been purchased by Kiev in 2019. Although still lagging in terms of regional market share, Turkey’s drones have thus become full-fledged competitors of Chinese platforms such as the Wing Loong IIs, thanks to differentiated and customizable product offers. In parallel, new exports help Ankara to cement diplomatic as well as economic relations and enhance is reputation as a reliable military partner.
From a wider perspective, however, such a strategy mainly reflects Turkey’s simmering geopolitical ambitions in the region, with drones acting as a powerful deterrent and symbolizing the hard power side of Ankara’s influence projection not only in Libya and Syria, but also in the Eastern Mediterranean. In December 2019, for instance, a TB2 UAV was deployed to the Turkish-controlled Republic of Northern Cyprus, while other drones have been assertively protecting Ankara’s drilling vessels operating in contested Eastern Mediterranean waters. Such a move came amidst rising geopolitical tensions with Greece, Cyprus, Israel, and some European countries over exploration and exploitation rights for new hydrocarbon resources in the area.
All this being said, the current Turkish UAV strategy face several hurdles ahead. First, the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on both research and development and national spending in UAV technology. Baykar Makina, for instance, has temporary reconverted part of its engineering division to produce respiratory equipment, in a moment in which the constant support of TB2s is paramount for the GNA counter-offensive in Libya. Second, the undeniable vulnerabilities of Turkish drones in highly contested combat environments, as the high number of TB2s downed in Libya demonstrates. The Turkish military should therefore carefully review the cost-effectiveness threshold between affordable UAV losses and supply capabilities by Turkish companies. Finally, the inherent geopolitical implications of selling armed drones to a selected number of countries, that might further polarize an already tense regional scenario.