- Cagil Kasapoglu
- BBC World
The importance of drones for conflicts in many parts of the world is increasing day by day, including the current crisis between Russia and Ukraine.
In this regard, a country lying across the Black Sea, south of Russia and Ukraine, has been attracting a lot of attention lately.
Turkish-made unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) play an important role for the Ukrainian forces that can be deployed against Russia, just as they do at conflict points in other parts of the world.
Here’s what you need to know about Turkey’s growing UAV power:
How big of a player is Turkey in this regard?
As part of NATO, Turkey has the second largest army in the alliance after the United States and shares its military technology with its allies.
“The Ankara government has built up a significant drone force in the last 20 years,” says Arda Mevlütoğlu, an independent defense analyst from Turkey.
“They have been using unmanned aerial vehicles effectively in security operations on the border (against the PKK) since the mid-1990s.
“In the country’s defense industry, priority was given to the development of unmanned aerial vehicle technology. In terms of operational and production capacity, Turkey has a unique position in the region apart from Israel.”
What do we know about Turkey’s drone manufacturers?
There are two main unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) manufacturers in Turkey.
Baykar Defense, the manufacturer of the most sought after Bayraktar TB2 and Bayraktar Akıncı unmanned aerial vehicles.
The company’s technical manager, Selçuk Bayraktar, has close family ties, being the son-in-law of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Turkish Aerospace Industries, the manufacturer of TAI Anka and TAI Aksungur vehicles, is another major manufacturer.
According to Mevlütoğlu, the Turkish Armed Forces and security agencies use more than 150 of these drones, “in addition to the many smaller surveillance or kamikaze vehicles.”
What military and commercial ties does Turkey have with Ukraine?
Turkey has sold dozens of Bayraktar TB2 armed unmanned aerial vehicles (SİHA) to Ukraine since 2019.
Ukraine, which is fighting against Russian-backed rebels in the east of the country, also wants to join the NATO coalition with Turkey one day.
Kiev is also preparing for a possible land invasion of the Russian forces stationed on its borders.
On February 3, President Erdogan visited Ukraine to sign an agreement to expand the drone trade between the two countries.
Speaking to Reuters, the Ukrainian Defense Minister said that the agreement “creates favorable conditions for Turkish manufacturers to establish a drone factory in Ukraine” so that they can manufacture the entire range of vehicles themselves.
What does Russia say about this?
Last October, the Ukrainian military shared a video that it said showed a Turkish-made drone destroying a D-30 cannon belonging to Russian-backed separatists.
This claim was criticized by Russia, and the Kremlin warned Turkey that drones risk “destabilizing the region”.
Ankara also offered to mediate between Russia and Ukraine. But that proposition gets tricky with drone sales.
Turkey’s relations with Russia have been complicated since the war in Syria broke out.
Ankara and Moscow have a conflict of interest in Syria. But the two countries took steps to improve cooperation.
Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 air defense system from Russia, despite harsh criticism from NATO and the United States, was seen as an example of Erdogan’s rapprochement with Russia.
Can Turkey’s tools change the course of the Ukraine crisis?
It is not known exactly how many Bayraktar TB2s are in Ukraine.
However, Mevlütoğlu said, “TB2 has significant potential to be effective against separatist militias in Ukraine’s Donbas region.” says.
The drone is equipped with an advanced electro-optical camera, a data link system, and two or four precision-guided war materials.
These features help him “Set targets and hit them with his own guided bombs”.
Mevlütoğlu says that this capability of UAVs is very important against moving targets such as militias fighting in Donbas.
But they have doubts about how effective these tools will be if a full-scale armed conflict against Russia happens:
“The Russian Armed Forces has an overwhelming advantage over Ukraine, both in terms of quantity and technology.”
Which countries have Turkey-made UAVs?
Turkey’s UAV sales are increasing day by day.
Although the export data does not contain specific information on the number of UAVs sold under trade agreements, it is estimated that more than 15 countries have ordered Turkish-made Bayraktar and TAI vehicles.
The Bayraktar TB2, which has proven effective in the conflicts in Syria, Libya and more recently Nagorno-Karabakh, is in particular demand.
In the conflict that started in September 2020 and continued for 44 days between Armenia and Azerbaijan, Azerbaijani forces targeted Armenia’s soldiers, military vehicles, artillery and air defense systems with Turkish-made unmanned aerial vehicles. The tools helped Azeris regain control of some disputed areas.
In May last year, the Polish Defense Minister said that they will receive 24 SİHAs from Turkey; thus becoming the first NATO member to do so.
Africa is also a big market.
“Turkey seems to be the main competitor for Chinese manufacturers, especially in the African market,” says Mevlütoğlu.
It is known that Morocco, Algeria, Rwanda, Nigeria and Ethiopia show interest in Turkish-made UAVs.
Although the military agreements have not been made public, Turkey signed a defense cooperation agreement with Ethiopia last year. Export data also show a sharp increase in aviation. In December last year, US officials also expressed their concerns about Turkey’s drone sales to Ethiopia.
However, Turkey may seek new markets for its military hardware.
“The sale of the UAV will enable the establishment of permanent military-industrial relations, which will be beneficial for Turkey to expand its military, diplomatic and economic influence,” says Mevlütoğlu.
President Erdoğan witnessed firsthand the demand in Africa, and when he was visiting Angola, Nigeria and Togo in October last year, he said, “Wherever I go in Africa, everybody asks about drones.”