Gloria Shkurti Özdemir
The Impact of Turkish Drones in Conflicts Some of the latest regional developments including the Nagorno-Karabakh and Ukraine wars have brought Türkiye’s drone industry to the core of many debates, especially in terms of its impact on warfare.
While some have argued that drones have not had any revolutionary impact on warfare,13 many other experts contend that Türkiye’s drone warfare has indeed had a great impact in the way that military operations are conducted as various new operational concepts have been introduced.
As Kasapoğlu has stated, “Türkiye has been developing a robotic warfare capacity with innovative concepts of operations (CONOPS) and smart weaponry… the Turkish way of drone warfare -namely, the CONOPS behind the achievements from Libya to Syria to Nagorno-Karabakh- remains a key driver of military progress.”
That said, Turkish drones have definitely had a huge impact on several conflicts and in most of them have changed the dynamics of that conflict, and especially on the way Türkiye conducts warfare.
The most important example in terms of Turkish drone warfare is the inclusion of indigenous drones in Türkiye’s counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations in its fight against the PKK and against the Syrian regime.
For several decades, Türkiye has been conducting various operations in these areas (especially against the PKK/YPG) however, with the inclusion of the drones in recent years, especially starting from 2018, the effectiveness and success of these operations has increased considerably.
Within this context, Türkiye has used drones in several operations in Northern Iraq (they have taken place in different periods starting from 2019 and going on in the present with the Operation ClawLock)15 and in other operations such as Operation Olive Branch (2018), Operation Peace Spring (2019) and Operation Spring Shield (2020).
The last operation was conducted against the Syrian forces, after their attack on a Turkish military convoy in which approximately 34 Turkish citizens were killed. Among these, Operation Spring Shield is considered to be the operation where the full capacity of Turkish made drones was shown for the first time. For many experts it was an unprecedented conceptual breakthrough in warfare.
First of all, it is important to state that drones were not used alone in the battlefield. What made them even more effective was their coordination with electronic warfare (especially KORAL electronic warfare system) and artillery units. As a result, Türkiye was able to use drones for
(i) intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR), and
(ii) target striking.
The incorporation of these elements differentiated Türkiye’s drone warfare from the way that other states had previously used drones in their operations.
To elaborate, the first TB2 and ANKA-S drones were able to support the land-based weapon systems such as multiple-launch rocket systems (MLRS) with intelligence, increasing their effectiveness in target striking.
Furthermore, drone strikes were regularly used to strike land targets. It is relevant to note that Turkish drones were equipped with indigenous precision-guided munitions such as MAM-L and MAM-C which enhanced their precision.
These operations were strongly supported by the KORAL EWS which allowed them to jam and deceive Syrian air defences, namely the Russian made Pantsir-S1 air defence missile systems.
Several videos were published at that time showing how Turkish drones targeted these defence missile systems while their radars were active.20 After a total of five days of its military operation in Syria, Türkiye was able to neutralize 3,136 regime elements, destroyed 151 tanks, 47 howitzers, 2 vehicles, 3 airplanes, 8 helicopters, 3 drones, and 8 air defence systems.
Furthermore, 52 multiple rocket launchers, 12 anti-tanks, 24 armoured vehicles, 27 armoured combat vehicles, 34 armoured pick-ups and 4 mortars were also destroyed.
Certainly, this success was possible through the effective incorporation of drones in the military operations, although the lack of advanced technology from the Syrian regime facilitated the operation.
Similar operational tactics were used in Libya as well, where Turkish drone warfare proved crucial for the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA). As the GNA achieved aerial supremacy they managed to put an end to the Libyan National Army’s (LNA) Tripoli offensive.
In Libya, Türkiye used drones for the ISTAR mission and could provide accurate information regarding Haftar’s troops, air defence systems, and missiles (after January 2020).22 Alongside artillery, drones were also used to hit designated targets.
Lastly, KORAL EWS was used as well in order to jam the aerial defence systems such as Pantir-S1, S-125, and SA-6. One difference for the case of Libya, was that based on a report from the UN, the GNA has used the Turkish-made Kargu-2 loiter drone.
Kargu-2 — produced by the STM defence company — is an important example given its autonomous capacities. While the UN report raised concerns in terms of autonomy and targeted killing on the KARGU loiter drone, both the President of the Defence Industries, İsmail Demir, and the CEO of STM, Özgür Güleryüz, contended that Kargu-2 is not designed to attack targets using artificial intelligence; indeed it is commanded completely by human initiative.
Nevertheless, it is clear that the deployment of these loitering drones in warfare would boost further the capacity of military operations. Turning to the 44-day war in Nagorno-Karabakh — which brough more attention to Türkiye’s drone warfare — the tactics used for the Suppression of Enemy Air Defense (SEAD) indicated a new strategy.
While KORAL EWS was used in some instances, Azerbaijan also decoys in order to spot the Armenian air defence systems. Once they were spotted, TB2 or Israel’s HAROP drones were used to hit the air defence systems.
Once the air defence systems were destroyed, drones were used mainly to target ground forces. Many experts contend that Azerbaijan’s win came mainly due to the Turkish technology and military tactics.
As a result, Azerbaijan proved to be superior to “Armenia’s outdated Russian military hardware and presented a significant challenge to Armenia’s dependence on trenches and traditional means of defense.”
Most data shows that approximately 40 percent of Armenian military equipment was destroyed (amounting to 3.8 billion dollars) with many attacks carried by drones. The latest case of Turkish made drone use is the Ukrainian war.
The first contact with Baykar Makina was signed in 2019 according to which Ukraine was to buy six Bayraktar TB2 drones. Later in 2021, the Ukrainian government announced that it was seeking to buy 24 more drones from Türkiye.
Before the war started on 24 February 2022, it is believed that Ukraine received approximately 20 TB2 drones. 16 more drones were ordered on January 27, 2022 and those were delivered in March.
It is also important to mention the fact that on 3 February 2022, both states agreed on the joint UkrainianTurkish production of the TB2 drones according to which Baykar will construct a plant in Ukraine to produce drones including TB2 and Akıncı.
Furthermore, according to a statement by the Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov on 28 June, Ukraine received 50 armed drones from Baykar after 24 February, plans to order dozens more.
Meanwhile, there have been several fundraising campaigns in Ukraine and several western countries, including Lithuania, Poland, and Canada, which aimed to
purchase TB2 drones to support the Ukrainian army.31 In response, Baykar donated free of charge 3 TB2 to the campaign that started in Ukraine and 1 to the one in Lithuania, while the money collected in these campaigns was given to the Ukrainian military.
The effectiveness of the drones in the conflict has been widely discussed. Some experts have considered their usage as quite significant, while others have argued that their effectiveness is highly dependent on the way the Ukrainian military incorporates them in their military operations.
However, it can be said that TB2 drones have proved to be a significant asset for the Ukrainian military, especially at the beginning of the invasion, probably as the Russian army was unprepared to respond to the drone attacks or their incorporation in the military operations.
As the Ukraine war is ongoing, it is difficult to give a final answer to whether Turkish drones have been a decisive factor in the conflict. However, Turkish drones have proved an important element in Ukraine’s resistance to Russian invasion.
Specifically, the fact that several Ukrainian officials have praised the role of TB2 accompanied by the continued desire to achieve more drones from Türkiye are direct indications of the effectiveness and importance of the drones to the Ukrainian resilience.
Furthermore, a controversial illustration of this is the allegation that Bayraktar TB2 was used by Ukraine to distract the radar warning systems of Russia’s Black Sea flagship, Moskva. As such Ukraine was able to hit the ship with two of its Neptune anti-ship missiles launched from a costal battery concealed around Odesa.
This analysis focused on Turkish drone warfare by analysing the background of Türkiye’s ascendent defence industry.
In this context, the constant PKK threat, the West failing to understand Türkiye’s security concerns, and the necessity to follow an autonomous foreign policy have pushed Türkiye to advance its indigenous military technological innovations.
Concurrently the paper analysed the main elements that have distinguished Turkish drone warfare and rendered it a conceptual breakthrough. As drones are used both for ISTAR operations and precision strikes, elements of electronic warfare – especially KORAL EWS- were incorporated in the warfare, enabling Türkiye to dominate the air space.
As a result, in many cases it has been possible to jam the air defence systems, such as PANTSIR-S1, and conduct effective strikes.
Several discussions have raised questions about the effectiveness of Turkish-made drones on the basis that their success is based on the lack of technology and capacity of the opposing militaries such as in Libya or Armenia. But this does not change the fact that Turkish drones have had a direct impact in the outcome of these conflicts.
Secondly, and most importantly — the way Türkiye has incorporated drones with other elements of electronic warfare to use drones for both ISTAR operations and precision strikes has not been seen before in other conflicts.
It is exactly this that deserves a special attention when analysing the effectiveness of Turkish drones. It is worth mentioning that allegations have been made that several Turkish drones have been shot down by air defence systems during the aforementioned military operations.
While that may stand true, this does not make Turkish drones unsuccessful. Considering their relatively low cost, this loss is a small price to pay for the damage they inflict on the opponent.
In conclusion, it can be said that Turkish drone warfare and drone exports have given Türkiye important leverage in several regional conflicts.
While Türkiye has been following an autonomous policy with its national interest at its core, this leverage has enabled Türkiye to become a decisive actor in the region.
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.