Turkey uses armed drone 'tech nationalism' to build influence abroad

Ankara's UCAV manufacturing has overtaken its European neighbours

ISTANBUL, TURKEY - FEBRUARY 22: (----EDITORIAL USE ONLY  MANDATORY CREDIT - "BAYKAR / HANDOUT" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS----) The 'Bayraktar TB2' (Armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) is seen in Istanbul, Turkey on February 22, 2021. Turkeys first domestic and national armed drone, Bayraktar TB2 successfully completed 300 thousand flight hours. (Photo by BAYKAR/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
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Turkey is building its influence abroad through mass production of military drones, defence analysts say.

The country's arms industry has steadily equipped its forces with more than 140 unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), more than Israel and more than the UK's 10 Reaper drones.

The large-scale production means Turkey is now selling unmanned aircraft to countries such as Poland and Ukraine and is looking for sales to countries including Tunisia and Qatar.

Its main attack drone, the Bayraktar TB2, has been used in Azerbaijan, Libya, Syria, Iraq, and against the Kurdish PKK.

ISTANBUL, TURKEY - JUNE 13: The new heavy armed unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), called combat drone 'Akinci' developed by Turkish unmanned aircraft producer Baykar Makina is seen on June 13, 2018 in Istanbul, Turkey. It is expected that Akinci will start to fly in the beginning of 2019. 
 (Photo by Salih Zeki Fazlioglu/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Turkey is now developing the highly sophisticated Akinci drone. Getty Images

Turkey's leading defence manufacturer is now developing the sophisticated Akinci drone that can fly at 12,200 metres (40,000 feet), loiter over targets for 24 hours carrying air-to-surface weapons and cruise missiles.

The Akinci's avionics and weaponry systems involve artificial intelligence, including facial recognition software.

Defence experts told a Royal United Services Institute (Rusi) online seminar that Turkey is now using armed drone “tech nationalism” to win influence abroad.

“Turkey has definitely shown that, if a mid-size power puts its mind and its money into drones, it can develop something very sophisticated,” said Ulrike Franke, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank.

“This is to some extent slightly embarrassing to the other Europeans.”

Ms Franke said Turkey has more of its TB2 class of drones than European powers have UCAVs, but it was far behind the US Air Force, which alone has more than 300 Reapers.

Ankara has been willing to use the aircraft in foreign conflicts, where TB2s destroyed dozens of Syrian tanks, assassinated a PKK leader in Iraq, and helped to stop an advance on Tripoli in Libya.

Most strikingly, the drones were used in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict last year to target Armenian forces and help Turkey's ally Azerbaijan win the conflict.

The Turkish military also used the drones to provide streamed imagery for information campaigns.

On one occasion, the Azerbaijani Ministry of Defence’s Twitter account broadcast live drone footage from the battlefield.

“I think there is some surprise at Turkey’s rapid elevation to becoming a drone power, but [there is also] a lack of context about how long it actually took to get there,” said Dr Ash Rossiter, a Rusi associate fellow.

The prestige that Turkey has derived from its drone programme gives it hard power status, he said.

Turkey's drone technology 'a game changer'

He said Turkey demonstrated a “capable indigenous system” that was “proven on the battlefield and clearly other states want to purchase these”.

The majority of manufacturing is done by the Baykar company, whose chief executive and leading engineer Haluk Bayraktar called the TB2 a key weapon in its arsenal.

“It has been heavily used in the recent conflicts and it really is a game-changer and force multiplier platform,” he said.

His company has developed a series of UCAV models, including the Akinci - which was a "such a sophisticated system" that it incorporated artificial intelligence.

“It's a strategic class platform with two turbine engines, which can carry about a 1.5 tonne payload,” he said. “There is a huge variety of smart munitions and a huge variety of electronic warfare payloads. It’s a flagship product.”

This handout photo courtesy of the US Air Force obtained on November 7, 2020 shows an MQ-9 Reaper unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV or drone) flying over the Nevada Test and Training Range on January 14, 2020. - The US State Department has reportedly notified Congress of its plans to sell 18 MQ-9B aerial drones to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). (Photo by William ROSADO / US AIR FORCE / AFP) / XGTY / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY CREDIT "AFP PHOTO /US AIR FORCE" - NO MARKETING - NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
A US Air Force MQ-9 Reaper drone flying over the Nevada test and training range. AFP

There are now growing concerns about Turkey's ambition after the successes of its military drones.

Analysts think that industrial proliferation of Turkish unmanned aircraft will lead to an increase in drone warfare.

Countries could be more willing to intervene with combat drones as they offer less risk or political consequences, while being able to project power and influence ground wars.

“Armed drones clearly fit the kind of operations that Turkey is doing and wants to do,” Ms Franke said.

With its economy in a poor state, Turkey is willing to export its UCAVs.

“I think when it comes to tech sharing, Turkey would go for mutually beneficial relationships,” said Dr Can Kasapoglu of Turkey’s Edam think tank.

“But Turkey is still going to be a generous arms exporter when it comes to off-the-shelf sales.”

He said Qatar and Tunisia were two countries where Turkey would wish to extend its drone diplomacy.

The size and success of Turkey’s drone programme leaves neighbouring powers  - and their arms industries - with questions, especially as its UCAVs are more affordable than comparable western products.

“I think there's a fear that Turkey will be able to build up relationships with states at a disadvantage of other states in this region,” Dr Rossiter said.