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Turkish drones and diplomacy

Updated: Nov 3, 2022

With its economy on the upswing, Turkey should prioritise fostering the prudent policy culture at home and establishing a benevolent rectitude for its weapons transfer policies abroad.

Prabal Padam Singh Rana

Defence & Security Reporter at Gravity 4.0

Image Credits: Forbes

So, when you hear the word "Turkey," what pops into your head first? The bird or the country? If we had asked Americans this question about twenty or thirty years ago, the most common response would have been "Roasted turkey." This is because the Thanksgiving tradition has become profoundly entrenched in American culture. However, in 2022, you might refer to a drone as a "bird" or perhaps "an unmanned flying robot”. The indisputable fact is that the rise of Turkish companies in the drone market is indicative of the country's burgeoning national defence sector.

In the late 2000s, Turkey first showed interest in buying armed drones when Ankara sent two letters of request to the United States to buy the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper drones but was instead offered the unarmed Reapers.

Turkey rejected the United States' offer and instead bought unarmed Heron TPs from Israel in 2010. Since then, the country has pursued an ambitious target to produce armed UAVs at home. Turkey is now a well-known exporter of drone systems, and a lot of its success can be given credit to the private defence company Baykar.

Keeping the focus on Turkey, the unmanned aerial vehicle known as the Bayraktar TB2 or more often referred to as a drone, which is manufactured by Baykar Technologies is now the crown jewel of Turkey's military development programme and currently the top-selling drone in the arms market. The Baykar Bayraktar TB2 drone is equally favoured and used in Ukraine due to its prowess in the destruction of several Russian artillery systems and armoured vehicles. Ukraine's main military drone is the Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2, more than 20 of which were purchased by Ukraine from Baykar recently. After Russia's incursion on 24 February 2022, Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov said in late June that Ukraine had acquired 50 UAVs from Baykar. Further establishing an alliance with the company, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in a meeting with the CEO of the Turkish defence company Baykar in September 2022 announced that the company will establish a facility in Ukraine to produce unmanned aerial vehicles.

Before deploying them to Syria and Libya in 2020 (Operation Spring Shield), Turkish troops had first deployed them during their relentless suppression of the Kurdish insurgency in Southeast Anatolia and Northern Iraq.

The drones were able to demonstrate their capabilities despite a few obstacles in the beginning and thence garner global attention as a result. Back in April 2016, TB2 scored its first confirmed kill. Since then, it has been sold to at least thirteen countries, bringing the tactic of the precision air strike to the developing world and reversing the course of several wars. The tactical aspect of Baykar’s drones is nearly astounding. For instance, they can be flown in ways that may confuse fighters, and quite dextrously the drone operators could fly it below 1000 feet to obscure in the ground clutter and hide from the patrolling fighters.

These drones have been so successful that Ukrainians composed folk songs around them, which they saw as a sign of resistance.

According to a report published by Wall Street Journal, Turkish drones "point to future warfare being shaped as much by cheap but effective fighting vehicles as expensive ones with the most advanced technology." Currently, one can get anywhere from twelve to twenty drones built in Turkey for the same price as one drone manufactured in the United States. It is thus not surprising that defence ministries all over the world have been rushing to include them in the arsenals of their own armies.

Understandably, Turkey's exports of drones have skyrocketed in recent years, and one could observe that the marketing for Turkish drones has been done right against the backdrop of the Ukraine War, eventually captivating the interest of African clients.

It has been brought to the attention of President Erdogan's government that Africa might be a viable market for Turkish drone exports. To that end, the Istanbul meeting on forming cooperation between Turkey and Africa precipitated Erdogan into strengthening Turkish military relations with African states. To increase commerce with Africa from its current $25 billion per year to an estimated $75 billion per year, Ankara is said to have set up a network of 37 military offices around the continent. Drones have progressed from being solely military tools to being an indispensable part of Ankara's foreign policy.

The African leaders are looking to Turkey as a prospective supplier of military weapons because of Turkey's cheaper price and fewer constraints for doing business. Consequently, Bayraktar TB2 drones, a low-cost weaponised piece of Turkish military equipment, are in demand for potential future conflicts in Africa.

Besides, Ankara does not have any influence over how the drones it sells are used by the nations who acquire them, due to which, Turkey's "No Questions Asked" policy may also potentially be counterintuitive to the country's reputation. In contrast to the United States and the European Union, Turkey does not have a lengthy export clearance procedure for defence equipment. If Turkey is perceived as distributing weaponry that can readily be used in war crimes, the country could, at the very least, be smirched by the demon of its own making. Drones are used by states not simply to demonstrate support for allies and establish new partners, but also to exert pressure on rivals and restrict the alternatives they have at their disposal.

Indeed, Turkey is utilizing its weapons sales not only for harvests and yields but also to forge allies and a patronage network, especially in Africa. Turkey's use of drones in recent years is a good illustration of how this state-of-the-art technology might be exploited in geopolitics. However, China's military might pose the greatest threat to Turkey's military trade in Africa. In the matter of drone technology, China exists as Turkey's biggest competitor. The Chinese government offers cheaper and more lucrative prices in return for various concessions from African nations, giving it a competitive edge. Turkey can only stay ahead of China in drone diplomacy if it can succeed at providing NATO with advanced technology services and standards. The drones made in Turkey, as opposed to other inexpensive models like China's Wing Loong, provide most of the features of those made in the West for a fraction of the cost. Additionally, Ankara would have to pivot its attention toward the direction of infrastructure development too.

The recent success of Turkish drones bodes well for the country's future exports and military-industrial development.

With its economy on the upswing, Turkey should prioritise fostering the prudent policy culture at home and establishing a benevolent rectitude for its weapons transfer policies abroad. Turkish drones may soon become more active in protracted war zones, serving both as a guarantee and guardian of Turkey's geopolitical interests. The Turkish government is thus working to catapult the development of its drone programme swiftly. In light of this, it has recently commenced using swarm technologies and expanding its drone capabilities. For instance, the Kargu-2 is a system of suicide drones that can operate in swarms of twenty and are both unmanned and autonomous. Turkey is also working on smaller drones like the Alpagu, which might provide closer assistance to ground soldiers. Therefore, advanced and battle-tested Turkish drones would become highly sought after.

Being heavily reliant on Russian gas and wheat, Turkey has stayed staunchly neutral in the Ukraine – Russia war and has established itself as a mediator. The United Kingdom has recently said that it also sees the Turkish Bayraktar TB2 as an alternative to expensive U.S. drones. But the TB2's performance against Russian air defence systems is varied, and this has sparked heated discussion among military experts as to whether the TB2 really represents the future of warfare or is just an overhyped weapon that has benefitted from a shrewd effort. Turkish President Erdogan's statement at this year’s Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit hints that Turkey is capable of and willing to pursue non-aligned foreign policy objectives that fit its own geopolitical ambitions rather than those that promote or advance NATO. The success of this initiative, however, has yet to be determined.

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