The Turkish Quest for Drone Supremacy
IndraStra Global

The Turkish Quest for Drone Supremacy

By Abhilash Halappanavar

The Turkish Quest for Drone Supremacy

It's almost 19 years since the first-ever drone attack was carried out by the U.S and today this technology is no longer exclusive only to the U.S. There are countries like Israel, Iran, Turkey, and few others who have developed and improvised this technology and have been using armed UAVs in combat. One of the countries which in recent times that has effectively developed and used armed UAV is Turkey. The Turkish drone program has come off age and has matured into a prime lethal force for the Turkish air defense forces. The Bayraktar TB2 (TB2) armed UAV's are the flagship attack drones deployed by the armed forces in areas of conflicts where Turkey is directly or indirectly involved. The success rate of the Bayraktar TB2 (TB2) has made many experts in the field compare it to the U.S Predator attack drone.

Image Attribute: The file photo of Byraktar TB2 (UAV)

Image Attribute: The file photo of Bayraktar TB2 (UAV)

The U.S reluctance to transfer the drone technology to Turkey sighting Israel's insecurity led the country to design and develop its class of attack drones. The credit mostly needs to be given to a Turkish MIT alumnus Selçuk Bayraktar[1] who changed the art of air warfare for his country. He pioneered and led this innovation in the Turkish armed drone technology. His company Baykar Defence mainly develops attack and surveillance drones as per the requirements of the Turkish forces and now the TB2 drone forms the backbone of Ankara’s aerial operations. It can fly at an altitude of 24,000 feet[2] for up to 24 hours and relies on ground control stations for communication. With a range of up to 150 kilometers, it can carry a payload of 120 pounds.

Such an air weapon system is shot in the arm for Turkey and its armed forces which are engaged on multiple fronts both inside and outside Turkey. The UAV program has been most effective against Turkey's war with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that is directly engaged in conflict demanding a separate Kurdistan carved out of Turkey. The effectiveness of drones like TB2 has reduced the mass movements and activities of PKK members. Since the last couple of years Turkish armed forces have pursued the PKK into northern Syria and Iraq the drones have made Turkish forces to eliminate fighters of the brigand group from the air, earning the admiration of a nation riding a wave of patriotism. These strikes have eliminated scores of rebel fighters including PKK chief Ismail Ozden[3] in 2018.

The recent victories for Turkey and its proxy forces in Northern Syria stand testament to Turkey's air prowess in UAV technology. In March 2020 the Turkish air raids through UAVs destroyed dozens of Syrian government tanks, armored personnel carriers, and air defense systems sharply halting Syria's advance towards Idlib [4]. The Turkish air offensive over Syria did not use manned aircraft but fleets of armed drones. Along with the Barayktar TB-2s, the newer UCAV (or unmanned combat aerial vehicle) was also used. The heavier, armed, satellite-linked ANKA-S saw its operational debut in the battle over Idlib [4] in North-Western Syria.

Image Attribute: The file photo of ANKA-S

Image Attribute: The file photo of ANKA-S

The Turkish drone power has propelled Turkey's dominance over Russia and its proxies in the Middle-East tilting the balance of power in Libya. In this Libyan civil war, Turkey, Qatar, and Italy with proxies are backing Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Fayez-al Sarraj who are in confrontation with Khalifa Haftar's Libyan National Army (LNA)[5] who is backed by Russia, France, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, as well as mercenaries recruited for services to him across Africa. The Turkish air defense systems through their indigenous UAV’s successfully helped out GNA in fighting off Haftar’s air force, supported by the Russians, Egyptians, and UAE. In the last few days, GNA gained military victories, which have reclaimed nearly all of western Libya from Haftar’s forces, through the support of Turkish air defense systems and drone campaigns that have hit Haftar’s bases and supply line.

This week GNA forces backed by Turkey captured Al-Watiya [5] airbase which is the headquarters of the LNA’s western operations with Haftar's fighters expelled from this airbase GNA has made a significant gain in western Libya. This has hit Russia more than Haftar or his army as the Turkish TB2 drones took out at least three Russian Pantsir S-1 (SA-22 Greyhound) air defense systems thereby exposing the vulnerability of Russian equipment and its backing capabilities for its proxies in Libya and Syria. The TB2 drone under the GNA is operated by Turkish personnel. Turkey has forced Haftar to abandon his attempt to take Tripoli and his forces are on the run. The neutralizing of the Russian Pantsir air defense system by the Bayraktar TB-2 is another feather in the cap for Turkey.

Image Attribute: Ukraine received its first Bayraktar TB2 UAV in March 2019 / Photo by Oleg Katkov

Image Attribute: Ukraine received its first Bayraktar TB2 UAV in March 2019 / Photo by Oleg Katkov

The drone technology that trickled from the U.S. to Turkey is now spreading to other countries. Last January, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced his country would purchase 12 TB2s from Turkey, in a deal estimated at $69 million[6]. Several other countries, including Pakistan and Qatar, are eager to place orders to purchase the Turkish UAV's. Tunisia has awarded a contract to Turkish Aerospace Industries for the supply of 6 Anka-S drones three ground control stations and an unspecified level of technology transfer for an estimated contract of $240 million [7].

All this indicates to one thing that Turkey is very well progressing to become the MiddleEast's newest drone superpower. Ankara’s drone proliferation efforts are likely to introduce true capability leaps. Briefly, Turkey’s unmanned systems vision is investing in smarter technologies, heavier platforms, and more innovative CONOPS (the concept of operations).

With companies like Turkish Aerospace Industries and Baykar Defence investing in developing heavier platforms of armed UAV's, it would be interesting to see how much further will Turkey increase its clout in the drone and air defense market. Turkish President Erdogan has a pitch that could make various world powers to hover around the recently developed expertise of Turkey in drone technology that could potentially bring him new friends and allies. Turkey is on its way to forming its bloc and the defense technology and its UAV program will only embolden its resolve in establishing a regional influence that could resonate across the Middle-east and Eastern Europe.

About the Author:

Abhilash Halappanavar, (ORCID: 0000-0003-3490-8095)

References: 

1) Turkey's drones provide a crucial edge in Syria,  


3) Turkey neutralizes most-wanted PKK terrorist in N.Iraq, 

4) Turkish drones – a 'game-changer' in Idlib, 

5) A secretive proxy drone war just exploded in Libya,  

6) Turkey, Ukraine seek to jointly produce ‘sensitive’ defense technology,  

7) Tunisia to purchase six Anka-S drones from Turkey’s TAI 

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