Gloria Shkurti Özdemir
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs/drones) have become an indispensable asset in military operations since the beginning of the century.
After the end of the Cold War, the US ‒ with its MQ-1 Predator and Reaper drones 1 ‒ was the dominant state (followed by Israel) in terms of the drone manufacturing and use.
Using these drones in its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, this new technology enabled the US to maintain its superpower status unchallenged. However, in recent years, Türkiye has emerged as a rising drone power.
Türkiye has been able to successfully incorporate indigenous drones ‒ especially TB2 ‒ in its military operations against the PKK/YPG and the Syrian regime in several cases.
However, the success of the Turkish drones was only brought to widespread attention after it changed the dynamics of several conflicts, i.e., Libya, Azerbaijan.
This policy brief will present an overview on the main rationale of the rise and advancement of Turkish drone industry. Furthermore, the study will highlight several case studies of conflicts where Turkish drones have been used to explain the reasons behind their successful application in warfare.
Understanding the Advancement of Türkiye’s Drone Industry
Despite the fact that Türkiye’s drone warfare has come to the fore only in recent years, Türkiye’s history of drone production is decades long. Initially unable to manufacture its own drones, Türkiye once looked for a solution by procuring drones from abroad.
Starting with the British target drone BTT-3 Banshee (produced by Meggit) in 1989, Türkiye has added several UAVs including the Canadair CL89 (jointly produced by Canada, Britain, and West Germany), General Atomics’ GNAT 750 and I-GNAT ER, and Israel’s Heron to its military inventory.
At the same time, in 2008 Türkiye requested to buy US-made drones, including here MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper in order to combat the threat posed by the PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) ‒ a designated terrorist organization. Unfortunately, this request was not accepted by the Congress.
Later, in 2014, Türkiye requested an unarmed version of the drone but no agreement was reached on that either. It is important to highlight the fact that the discussions with the US lasted for approximately 8 years and it directly impacted Türkiye’s fight against PKK, which represents a huge threat to Türkiye’s security.
Furthermore, the drones that Türkiye had purchased from General Atomics and Israel proved of little use in its war against terrorism. Among others, the GNAT drones specifically provided footage of PKK movements with a 20 minute delay (detrimental to success in combat), while Israel’s Heron drones were defective. In these circumstances Türkiye sought to develop its own technology.
From this perspective the main incentives for the rise and advancement of Türkiye’s drone industry were threefold:
(i) persistent threat of the PKK,
(ii) Western failure to understand Turkish security concerns,
(iii) the necessity for Türkiye to follow an autonomous foreign policy.
These reasons are all at some point interconnected. Specifically, as the PKK and its Syrian branch the YPG (People’s Defence Units) remained a consistent threat for Türkiye’s national security, Türkiye ‒ an important Western ally – expected that the West, and especially the US, would support its counter-terror activities.
Leaving aside the fact that for many years now many of the Western states, including US, have been supporting YPG, the US failed to meet Türkiye’s drone requirements. It was clear that if Türkiye had used Predator or Reaper drones in its counter-terrorism operations, its operations against the PKK/YPG would have been more successful.
The lack of its own weapons had left Türkiye highly dependent on US military support. But this lack of support in turn forced Türkiye to search for more independence both militarily and politically.
İsmail Demir, President of Turkish Defence Industries, stated back in 2016 that Türkiye was no longer interested in US drones. He went further stating that “I don’t want to be sarcastic but I would like to thank [the US government] for any of the projects that was [sic] not approved by the US because it forced us to develop our own systems.”
Within this framework, the Turkish government looked towards a more autonomous foreign policy.6 The more the West continued to cooperate with and support several anti-Turkish actors that threaten Türkiye’s national security, i.e. the Fetullah Terrorist Organization (FETÖ) and the PKK/YPG, the more the perception that the West, specifically the US, was indifferent to Türkiye’s security concerns increased both among the Turkish citizens and policy-makers.
As a result, Türkiye was compelled towards an autonomous foreign policy with its national interests at the core. This was reflected in several instances as Türkiye started to diversify its economic, political, and military relations. In line with these changes, Türkiye began to place a great importance on the advancement of its defence industry, especially drone production.
The first drone was produced in 1992 known as İHA-X1, to be followed latter by the first domestically produced target aircraft), Pelikan- Baykuş (2003), Martı (2004), Gözcü (2007), Öncü (2006), Şimşek (2012), ANKA (starting in 2004 – first flight 2010 – entered inventory in 2018), and Mini IHA Bayraktar (launched in 2006 entered inventory in 2007).
Out of these examples, the last two —ANKA-S and Mini IHA Bayraktar — are considered turning points in the advancement of Türkiye’s drone program and defence industry. These successful developments led to more initiatives, some of which have become the highlights in several regional conflicts, i.e. TB2, ANKA, or Akıncı.
As will be discussed in detail below, TB2 itself is considered a revolutionary development among military strategists since it has worked to be quite decisive in several conflicts.
More specifically, Türkiye’s TB2 has paved the wave to what some call as the second drone age, where the US is no longer the dominant developer of drones, nor the main user.
Furthermore, what made TB2 different from the drones developed by US, China, Israel or the UK, was the fact that TB2 was both effective and less expensive than the others. While the exact price is not official, according to some estimates, the price ranges somewhere from $1-5 million.
This is a huge bargain when compared to the estimated $32 million price tag on the US MQ-9 Reaper. A report published by the Wall Street Journal on how the Turkish low-cost drones are changing the battlefield and geopolitics stated that “A set of six Bayraktar TB2 drones, ground units, and other essential operations equipment costs tens of millions of dollars, rather than hundreds of millions for the MQ-9.”
Here it is important to mention that it is not totally correct to compare TB2 with MQ-9 considering that the latter is more sophisticated. However, the fact that with little payload TB2 is able to hit a target with a precision strike associated with endurance bring to the fore the effectiveness of the Turkish made drones.
To support this argument, one can compare TB2 with another similarly-priced drone such as the Chinese-manufactured CH-4B Cai Hong.
The CH-4B despite having a range (2750 km) and payload capacity (appx. 300 kg) larger than that of the TB2, has been associated with several maintenance issues and accidents, raising serious questions regarding their effectiveness.
Similarly, the inclusion of Akıncı drone, which is even more sophisticated than TB2, in the Turkish Armed Forces inventory is considered to be another milestone for Türkiye on its path to becoming a drone power.
Other examples that reflect the advancement of the Turkish defence industry are the loitering drones such as — Kargu-2, Alpagu, Togan. They have drawn a lot of attention, especially in the case of Libya, as they can operate fully autonomously in GPS-free environments.
Lastly, there are several projects – including the TB3 or Kızılelma, under development that are expected to further transform the Turkish defence industry. As Türkiye continued to use its indigenous drones successfully in its military operations against the PKK/YPG, international interest grew.
Currently, Türkiye is one of the leading global drone exporters. By July 2022, Türkiye had signed agreements with at least 23 states regarding drone sales — i.e. TB2, Akıncı, ANKA-S, and Karayel-SU.
Turkish drones have been sold to Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Poland, Qatar, and several African, Balkan and Asian states.
All this demonstrates that Türkiye has emerged as a major player in the drone industry. The next section discusses a few cases on how the usage of Turkish drones has impacted the path of the conflicts including Syria, Libya, Azerbaijan, and most recently in Ukraine.
Gloria Shkurti Özdemir – Researcher in the Foreign Affairs Directorate at SETA Foundation and Assistant Editor of Insight Turkey, a journal published by SETA Foundation. She is a doctoral researcher at Ankara Yıldırım Beyazıt University and her thesis focuses on the application of artificial intelligence in the military by taking the US-China rivalry as a case-study. Her main research interests include drone warfare and artificial intelligence.