In a world of drones playing an increasingly important role in 21st century warfare, thanks to spectacular and well-communicated battlefield successes, a kind of myth is beginning to emerge around Turkish battle drones. What is true of the legend?
In recent months, the world press has been loud from the Turkish Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV) and, in common parlance, from drones. During the Karabakh war between September 27 and November 10, 2020, a number of videos circulated on the Internet showing that Armenian forces had no chance of defending themselves against the drones: in many cases, they were spotted only in those seconds. flew a drone when it had already launched a laser-guided dropper called MAM-L or MAM-C in their direction. The active PR activities of Ankara and Baku proved to be extremely effective. Looking at the events in Karabakh, Serbia announced on October 6 that it was considering buying Turkish drones. However, lessons have been learned from the experience of the war by experts from other countries of the world, as he returns from several forums. The issue of drones should be addressed not only in the evaluation of recent events, but also in the future, for the battle drones will certainly be decisive tools in the coming wars as well.
Below we briefly present the Turkish drone capability, and we try to nuance the image of the Turkish drones a bit. Anka-S and Bayraktar TB-2 are currently the best known drones in the Turkish military industry. Medium-altitude, long-flight time (MALE) drones can stay in the air for up to 24 hours. Of the two constructions, the Anka is the larger and heavier, but the smaller Bayraktar also has a wingspan of 12 meters, a length of 6.5 meters, a maximum take-off weight of 650 kilograms and 5-8 thousand meters. So we don’t have to imagine drones that aren’t commercially available, typically used to make videos. Both types completed their first mission in southeastern Turkey in 2016 against Kurdistan Workers ’Party (PKK) targets. Unmanned aerial vehicles were initially used primarily as part of Turkey’s “fight against terrorism,” alongside southeastern Turkey in northern Iraq and Syria. However, Turkish drones soon appeared on the international market as well: in 2018, Qatar and then Ukraine signed an agreement to procure Turkish drones. With this, Turkey has caught up with the United States, Israel, China and Iran as an exporter of combat drones.
Then, during the year 2020, Turkish drones appeared on more and more battlefields. In the Turkish Shield operation called Spring Shield in Idlib, Syria, in early March 2020, drones played a primary role and caused significant losses in the ranks of Assad regime forces. Regarding Libya, Turkish Bayraktars sent in support of the Government of National Consensus (GNA) made headlines by destroying a Russian-made Pancir-Sz1 air defense system in May. (Several Pancirs were destroyed within a few days, but most of them were inactive, standing in a hangar or being transported on a trailer at the time of the attack.) In the eastern Mediterranean and the Aegeansome of the patrol and reconnaissance tasks were taken over by Turkish drones, further shivering in the maritime border dispute off the coasts of Greece, Cyprus and Turkey. Finally, although we do not have precise information on the details of the transaction, a significant number of Turkish combat drones have also arrived in Azerbaijan in the last few months, which have contributed greatly to Baku’s military success in Karabakh.
The development of the Turkish military industry has gained momentum during the rule of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), which has been in power since 2002. While according to Turkish official data, in the early 2000s, 20% of the military equipment used by Turkey came from domestic production by 658. A declared, albeit more than ambitious, Turkish goal is to create a fully self-sufficient military industry. Domestic production of drones is part of this trend. In the case of Bayraktar drones, for example, only 7% of the parts come from imports, the rest from domestic production. However, recent events have once again underlined to the Turks that even this relatively small percentage can be many. During the Karabakh war, it became more widely known that Canada supplied parts to Bayraktarok. However, as a result of international criticisms of Turkey’s involvement in the armed conflict, the Canadian government has decided to suspend their exports.
In the past, Turkey has faced a Western arms embargo on a number of occasions. Most of the time, U.S. law has suspended certain agreements, typically citing human rights concerns. The decision, on the part of another NATO ally, this time Canada, is expected to only reassure the Turks that they must strive for fuller independence if they want to advance their interests, as they cannot necessarily count on their Western allies. According to Turkish official data, the Turkish Armed Forces had 107 Bayraktar TB-2s in May this year.
There are several benefits to using drones on the battlefield. Perhaps the most important of these is cost-effectiveness, and here we need to think about both the market price of drones and political costs. Although the Anka and Bayraktar drones are far from cheap constructions (the price of a Bayraktar TB-2 is estimated at around $ 5 million), they are still much cheaper than fighter jets; especially if we add the cost of training the fighter pilot. Thanks to the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, there is no need to risk the lives of soldiers on the battlefield, so decision-makers do not have to account for the casualties in front of their constituents.
The use of drones also provides a kind of perceived or real denial. For example, it is not always possible to clearly identify the nationality of the operator (in this case, Turkish, Azerbaijani or Libyan) who controls the drones, thus making it easier to avoid possible prosecution, either domestically or internationally. The use of drones is, in some perceptions, an effective means of avoiding escalation, since, for example, shooting a drone is likely to elicit a milder response from the attacked party than if it had lost a fighter jet and the lives of its people. However, the UN Institute for Disarmament Research warns that increased use of drones will increase the chances of accidental and unintended escalation.
Thanks to the spectacular and well-communicated battlefield successes a kind of myth begins to form around Turkish combat drones. The Turkish drones were indeed remarkably effective, destroying many targets on the said battlefields. However, several other aspects are worth considering. First, that aircraft are not valuable in themselves; in many cases, they are more of an executive role in an integrated system. Effective reconnaissance, communication system and electronic jamming (here we can highlight the Turkish Koral system) are all essential elements of a successful drone operation, as are suitably well-trained personnel. You also need to know how to use drones.
As Turkish security expert Can Kasapoğlu points out in an October article on The Jamestown Foundation’s website, the Azerbaijani military planning and operational art seen in the Karabakh war bears significant resemblances to Turkey’s Syrian Spring Shield in many respects. Notable, for example, were the close coordination of artillery with drones for reconnaissance and targeting in both operations, the systematic hunting of enemy mobile air defenses, and the use of intelligence operations through spectacular and successful strike surveys published daily by the Department of Defense on social media.
Last but not least, we must also see that Turkish drones are far from invulnerable. According to the Drone Wars database, Turkey lost at least 20 drones in Syria and Libya in the first half of 2020 alone. Bayraktar TB-2 and Anka-S do not have any active or passive protection against attack from either the ground or the air. In addition, the effective electronic warfare of the enemy can force them to the ground. Experience to date has shown that Turkish combat drones have been extremely effective against those opponents and have wreaked havoc in their ranks, surprised by the large-scale use of drones, and which did not have effective air protection and strong electronic interference.