Turkey’s Armed Drones Alter Ankara’s Strategic Calculations

Burcu Ozcelik

AFP Photo: Birol Bebek

Turkey long has been preoccupied with blending coercive force with soft power in its foreign-policy design. The idea was that this would furnish a range of options in conflict engagement, de-escalation or conflict management in a volatile neighborhood. Following the US embargo after Ankara’s 1975 invasion of Cyprus that led to the island splitting into two governments, Turkey set its sights on growing its indigenous defense industry. Over the last two decades, investment in military hardware and drone technology received a boost. Today, the defense sector has grown to a point where it has become an important factor in Turkey’s geopolitical calculations.

The Bayraktar TB2 drones played a decisive role in ending the recent face-off between Azerbaijan and Armenia over Nagorno-Karabakh in Baku’s favor. In late February 2020, Turkey launched TB2 and TAI Anka-S drones on Syrian state targets after an airstrike in the northwestern province of Idlib killed 33 Turkish soldiers. The effectiveness of the drone operation resulted in the Syrian army halting its advance on Idlib, leading Russia into brokering a ceasefire. And since 2016, the TB2 drone has been deployed in Turkey’s 35-year fight against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, hitting targets in Iraq and on its offshoot, the YPG, in northern Syria.

In a short time, armed-drone technology has become a mainstay of Turkey’s security-focused foreign policy – a marked departure from the “zero problems with neighbors” principle that was once the main instrument in Turkey’s doctrinal toolbox.

The homemade drones demonstrate tactical efficiency and are low-cost, relative to Western-sourced technology. Military expert Metin Gurcan has dubbed this new turn in Turkey’s military evolution “the ‘dronization’ of Turkey’s power projection.” The success of drones in foreign combat theaters is magnified through Turkish nationalist hype, as statecraft becomes less concerned with the art of diplomacy and more with bold PR campaigns showcasing Turkey’s new age of military prowess.

Other countries are taking notice. Recently, it was reported that the UK was pursuing a new armed-drone program inspired by Azerbaijan’s major reversal of fortune. Earlier, Ben Wallace, the UK defense secretary, said Turkey’s innovation in drone advancement presented “real challenges to the enemy.”

The second prototype of Turkey’s new unmanned combat air vehicle, the Bayraktar Akinci (Raider) drone took to the skies for a 62-minute flight test in August and is touted as Turkey’s most sophisticated weaponry to date. But it has shortcomings, such as relative slowness, limited maneuver capacity and reliance on foreign-made engines. According to Paul Iddon, an aerospace and defense analyst, the Akinci cannot be a substitute for the American F-35 new-generation jets, which Ankara forfeited over its controversial purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system last year. Be that as it may, others see Turkish-made weaponry as more competitive than China’s, and likely to catch up with more sophisticated systems owing to rapid technological innovation.

Turkish technology, similar to technology that has been around in the US for decades, may not be a game-changer on its own. Rather, two corollary byproducts of the technology risk altering the regional balance of military power. According to Ed Erickson, a retired US army officer and Turkey specialist, the real game-changer is that powers like “Azerbaijan are able to afford and acquire large numbers of drones (and the missiles they carry) and are able to employ them so effectively. Anyone going to war with a drone-equipped enemy will now have to think about things differently.”

Erickson told me via email that another potential game-changer in the Middle East is that “Turkey might offer drone systems for sale to a wider market which previously could not afford drones or was blocked from purchasing them. Turkey’s provision of middle bandwidth military technology and fairly inexpensive drones would upset the military balance as it exists in the Middle East right now.” The Bayraktar TB2 drone has already been exported to Qatar, Ukraine, Tunisia and Libya and Ankara sees this as just the beginning. Combined, these factors foreshadow far-reaching implications for Turkey’s role as a developer and supplier of armed drones.

Effective drone weaponry has raised Turkey’s profile in the region at a time when it is facing an economic crisis at home. Some degree of hard-won autonomy from third-party weapons providers may reinforce Turkey’s assertive foreign policy, as the real and reputational cost of armed adventurism drops. According to defense expert Hilal Khashan of the American University of Beirut, Turkey is preparing to leverage its role in Azerbaijan’s victory over Armenia to expand its influence over other Turkic states in the upper Caucasus. It is not difficult to predict a similar intention in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East.

But Turkey already faces a stampede of policy differences with its traditional allies, not to mention its newer ones, and stark decisions loom in the near future. One possibility is that drone weaponry will trigger a “lock and load” mentality in Ankara, strengthening hawkish elements in the government and military.

Another is that having made progress on its long-term ambition of strategic independence, policymakers now may be more prepared to consider compromise and negotiation with Turkey’s allies on issues of mutual interest from a position of relative strength. Indeed, not being as dependent as it once was on the Nato alliance and its relationship with the US hardly means that the Turkish government is ready (or able) to forego one either.

 

Burcu Ozcelik is a research fellow and affiliated lecturer at Cambridge University.