Turkey bought its first unarmed UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) from the US in 1996. The Turkish Armed Forces used these drones to find Kurdish rebels. Once the insurgents were found, Turkey sent its F-16s to bomb their positions. However, in most cases, the Kurds had the time to flee or to hide, so Turkish operations proved to be quite ineffective. Therefore, Turkey decided to potentiate its surveillance capability by buying 10 other unarmed UAVs from Israel. However, Israeli drones didn’t work very well, operated by Israeli technicians and delivered only after five years. Furthermore, in the 2010 Gaza Flotilla Raid, where 10 Turkish sailors who were trying to break the siege Israel had imposed around Gaza were killed by Israeli special forces, the relationship between the two countries soured. That same year, Turkey tried to buy its first armed UAVs from the Americans. However, Congress blocked the deal, fearing that Turkey could use the drones against Israel. This made Turkey decide it had to develop its own UAVs
The two companies that made Turkey become the producer of some of the cheapest and most advanced drones in the world are the Turkey Aerospace Industries Corporation and the BDC (Baykar Defense Company). The Turkish Aerospace Industries Corporation was established in 1973 by the Minister of Industry and Technology to reduce Turkey’s dependence on imports for its security needs. It obtained the license to produce F-16 fighter jets for the Turkish Air Force from the General Dynamics Corporation. This allowed the Turkey Aerospace Industries Corporation to develop the new technologies needed to design the first Turkish UAVs. The BDC instead was founded in 1984 by Özdemir Bayraktar, a mechanical engineer. It first produced car engines. However, thanks to state subsidies and its cooperation with the Turkish defense industry, it soon acquired the technological know-how to become a world leader in UAVs production, putting it in a strategically valuable position. The fact that one of the owners of the BDC is Erdoğan’s son in law highlights the relevance of this company for Turkey and its ambitions.
The first unarmed UAV made in Turkey was the Anka+A, which was designed and produced by the Turkey Aerospace Industries Corporation. In 2010, when it was tested for the first time, it crashed after 15 minutes. Despite this initial failure, the Turkish Air Force tested an improved version of this drone in 2013, which proved to be able to fly for 18 consecutive hours, reaching an altitude of eight kilometers and landing with adverse weather conditions. This success encouraged the company to step up its efforts and in 2015, the Turkey Aerospace Industries Corporation presented the Anka-B to the world, whose performance greatly surpassed that of the Anka+A. The Anka-B paved the way for the weaponization of these UAVs. The Anka-S, which is the most advanced drone produced by the Turkey Aerospace Industries Corporation so far, is able to carry ammunition and successfully executed its first strikes in 2018. It can fly for more than 24 consecutive hours, with an operational range of 100 kilometers. However, the most successful UAV produced in Turkey is the Bayraktar TB2. It was designed by Selcuk Bayraktar, an electrical engineer who had studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, before coming back to Turkey to lead the BDC, which his family owns. The Bayraktar TB2, which cost less than two million dollars, was successfully tested in 2015. It is lighter and it can carry less ammunition than the Anka-S. However, the Bayraktar TB2 is very cheap, making it easily replaceable if lost.
The operational history of the Turkish UAVs is brilliant. On the 15th of August 2018, the Turkish army, in a joint operation with the Turkish secret services, successfully used the Bayraktar TB2 in a cross-border raid to kill İsmail Özden, a senior member of the PKK.
One year later, the Bayraktar TB2 and the ANKA-S were used in Libya to support the militias loyal to the UN-recognized government of Tripoli, which were fighting against the troops of the Libyan National Army, led by General Khalifa Haftar. Libya proved to be a challenging battleground for the Turkish UAVs. The Libyan National Army, before Turkish intervention, had complete control of the sky largely because its air force operated some Chinese-made Wing Loong drones. Therefore, Haftar’s forces were able to push back the militias loyal to the government of Tripoli in a small pocket.
However, when Turkey decided to intervene in Libya, the Bayraktar TB2 and the Anka-S immediately changed the rules of the game. Turkish UAVs were able to locate, engage and destroy ground targets, harassing the supply lines of Haftar’s forces and attacking air bases, which were once considered to be safe, providing air cover to friendly troops. Thanks to Turkish drones, the militias loyal to the government of Tripoli were able to destroy the enemy’s air defenses and to push Haftar’s forces back.
In 2020, the Bayraktar TB2 and the Anka-S proved their value again in Syria. Thirty-three Turkish soldiers, which were in the country since Turkey’s first operations against the Kurdish militias in Northern Syria in 2019, lost their life in airstrikes by the Syrian Arab Air Force. This happened because the Syrian regime, which was attacking Idlib, wanted to punish Turkey for the support it gave to rebel militias in that province. Turkey immediately decided to retaliate. The Turkish Air Force used its UAVs to lead the fire of the ground artillery and to locate Syrian air defenses, which were blind because of the electronic warfare devices the Turkish drones can carry. Once Syrian air defenses had been located, the Turkish Air Force bombed them, obtaining complete supremacy over the sky and allowing Turkey to conduct more strikes against the Syrian army. The Turkish Minister of Defense claims that in a few days, Turkish forces killed more than 2,600 Syrian soldiers, destroying 135 tanks, dozens of artillery systems, and anti-aircraft defenses. This data was never confirmed by the Syrian government, but it is clear that the Syrian regime had losses which were so heavy that it had to stop its offensive on Idlib.
Turkish drones proved to be fundamental also in the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. The Azerbaijani Army, supported by Turkish military advisors, used the same tactics that had been successful in Libya and in Syria. Once again, after the enemy’s air defenses were destroyed, Turkish UAVs bombed the Armenian positions, allowing the Azerbaijani Army to advance. After 44 days of fighting, Armenia had to agree to a humiliating ceasefire that returned the Agdam District, the Kalbajar District and the strategic Lachin District to Azerbaijan, in addition to all the territory the Azerbaijani Army was able to occupy during the clashes.
Largely due to their good operational history, high capability, and their very low costs, many countries now want to buy Turkish drones. Azerbaijan and the Libyan government of Tripoli already bought them. In 2018, Qatar also purchased six Bayraktar TB2 and three ground control stations. Furthermore, the Ukrainian Navy and Tunisia have also shown interest in Turkish UAVs. Exporting abroad will help the Turkish drone industries to grow and new models are already being tested. The Turkey Aerospace Industries Corporation is working on the Aksungu while the BDC is developing the Akinci, which is particularly relevant because it is a strategic-class drone with high payload capacity, air-to-air and air-to-ground attack capabilities, mission interoperability with fighter jets and fully autonomous flight and take-off control systems. When the Akinci becomes operative, it will provide the Turkish Armed Forces with a whole new level of ISTAR (intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance) and strike capabilities that only Israel and the United States now possess.
To conclude, the Turkish drone industry is now able to match and serve Erdoğan’s new regional ambitions. Turkey’s recent victories in Libya, Syria, and the Caucasus are a warning that Turkey’s rivals should not ignore. The United Arab Emirates, which supported Haftar in Libya against Turkey, already showed its intention to fill the gap which divides them from Ankara, buying American F-35s and drones. Greece, despite its economic problems, is also rearming because of the perceived Turkish threat. This new arm race is something that should worry us all.