Revealed: How Turkey ramped up Libyan drone attacks to escalate conflict

More than 20 attack drones thought to be operating from Tripoli after Britain’s defence secretary confirmed offensive

The Bayraktar TB2 drone, pictured at Gecitkale Airport in Famagusta in the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. AFP
The Bayraktar TB2 drone, pictured at Gecitkale Airport in Famagusta in the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. AFP

Turkish forces are escalating operations in Libya by ramping up the number of attack drones they are launching from a secret base in Tripoli, security officials have disclosed.

More than 20 Bayraktar unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are understood to be operating out of the Libyan capital conducting strikes on behalf of the Government of National Accord against Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army.

The Turkish drone offensive was confirmed in an unusual segment of a speech by Britain’s defence secretary earlier this month.

In a lecture on the “threats and opportunities” in modern warfare, Ben Wallace said Turkish drones had been deployed in the Libyan battlefield since the middle of 2019. “Look how Turkey has been operating in Libya, where it has used Bayraktar TB-2 UAVs … conducting intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and targeting operations against front lines, supply lines and logistics bases,” he revealed.

He then outlined Turkish attacks using drones not just in Libya but in other Middle Eastern countries. The Bayraktar drones, each costing about $5 million (Dh18.4m) have proved effective against tanks and infantry in Syria. They have also been used to attack Kurdish groups in northern Iraq, such as the assassination in 2018 of PKK leader Ismail Ozden, who was viewed by the Yazidi people as a hero in their resistance against ISIS.

Defence analysts believe that Ankara is reinforcing its drones because the loss of Turkish troops in foreign conflicts has become unpopular at home.

“When Turkey decided to escalate in Libya they did not want to lose Turkish soldiers so have resorted to drones,” said Jack Watling, research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. “It’s a way to escalate without exposing their own personnel to risk.

“It’s also an affordable way for Turks to conduct strikes without risking the domestic backlash because you don’t have reports of soldiers being killed if drones get shot down.”

The Bayraktar drone was developed in Turkey and is regarded as a capable and efficient UAV since entering service in 2014. It can fly for 24 hours non-stop, carries reasonable surveillance equipment and more importantly is able to conduct precision-strike missions using a range of heat and pressure-producing thermobaric explosives or anti-tank munitions.

Defence experts believe that Turkey is using various battlegrounds to test and refine the drone for wider use.

“The Turks are looking at what works and what does not and what needs to be fixed on the Bayraktar and looking at how to further develop them,” said Douglas Barrie of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “The Turks are now using Bayraktar a lot and Turkey is certainly flagging its willingness to engage and provide equipment for foreign powers.”

He added that the UAV’s development demonstrated “the level of competence in Turkey’s aerospace sector over the past 30 years” and showed they could provide “a good standard of credible systems and munitions which work”.

However, Turkey is understood to have lost a number of Bayraktar to either ground fire of electronic jamming in both Libya and Syria. In addition, reports from Syria suggest that some of their bombs failed to disable armoured vehicles, suggesting Turkey may attempt to improve the drone’s lethality.

Turkey’s development of attack drones demonstrates that more medium-sized powers are able to build UAVs as well as deliver them to proxies such as Iran has done with the Houthis in Yemen.

Updated: July 21, 2020 10:37 AM

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