For many years, only the USA, Israel and Great Britain used armed drones. Now Turkey is ahead in the everyday use and sale of the weapons.
Last week, the government in Ankara transferred an armed drone to Northern Cyprus. This makes Turkey one of those countries whose military is stationing drones outside its territory. The „Bayraktar TB2“ had landed at the Geçitkale military airport near Famagusta after a five-hour flight from a Turkish air base in Dalaman. This was preceded by a permit from the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. According to the Turkish government, unarmed drones were also flown to Famagusta for reconnaissance, and according to Turkish newspapers, more will follow.
The „Bayraktar TB2“ is intended to secure Turkish gas drillings off the island, which has been divided since 1974, and to exert pressure on Cyprus and Greece, which are claiming gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean. The move is also likely to be directed against Israel after the Turkish navy intercepted an Israeli research vessel recently. Turkish Transportation Minister Tolga Atakan described the deployment as a reaction to the purchase of Israeli drones by Cyprus. To monitor its exclusive economic zone, the government in Nicosia had purchased four „Aerostar“ drones from the company Aeronautics for 13 million euros in October. With a take-off weight of 230 kilograms, they are significantly lighter than the „Bayraktar TB2“, but with a payload of 50 kilograms they carry a similar payload. Both drones have a range of around 200 kilometres.
„Bayraktar TB2“ and „Anka“
Manufacturer of the „Bayraktar TB2“ is the company Baykar. It belongs to the MIT graduate Selçuk Bayraktar, who married into the family of the president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan three years ago. Bayraktar is revered as the godfather of the Turkish drone industry. Meanwhile, his unarmed „TB2“ is flown by local police and border authorities, secret services and the military.
Since 2017, the military stock of „Bayraktar TB2“ is said to have doubled to almost one hundred units, about half of which are armed. Also the „Anka“, the smaller competitor „Bayraktar TB2“, which is also weaponizable, is presumably flown by the military in a number of about 30 pieces. A new version of the drone manufactured by Turkish Aerospace Industries can be controlled via satellites, thus achieving a greater range. The „Anka“ can transport up to 200 kilograms, four times the payload of the „Bayraktar TB2“. In newer versions, both drones can now remain in the air for more than 24 hours.
Nine drone bases in Turkey
According to Dan Gettinger, the author of the study „The Drone Databook“, the Turkish government has now established an extensive infrastructure for the operation of the drones. Bases are located at airports in the southeast of the country, along the Syrian border and on the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts. Since 2018, Gettinger has counted seven new airports with facilities for drones, and the total number of drone bases is said to have risen to at least nine.
At least since 2014 the army has been flying „Bayraktar TB2“ attacks in the Turkish part of Kurdistan. The drone, armed with anti-tank missiles, has also been deployed in Iraq and Syria since 2016. In the meantime, it has also been flying in the context of Turkey’s military invasion of Rojava. The US magazine The Intercept writes that almost every day a Turkish drone either fires at a target or marks them for fighter jets and helicopters. Several thousand people are said to have been killed by drones in recent years, and many of these attacks have been reported to have killed civilians.
Drone war in Libya
Since this spring, the Libyan Tripoli government had bought dozens of „Bayraktar TB2“ to compensate the lack of fighter planes in the air force. They are used against General Haftar, who in turn attacks with „Wing Loong“ drones from China. The civil war in Libya thus becomes a proxy war between Turkey and Russia, whose government supports Haftar troops. Both Turkey and Russia, but also other governments circumvent a UN arms embargo on Libya, which is actually supposed to be controlled by the EU military mission EUNAVFOR MED in the Mediterranean.
Haftar’s „Wing Loong“ drones are said to be piloted by the United Arab Emirates. Because the Tripoli government also has no drone pilots, the Turkish unmanned aircraft must be piloted by soldiers from abroad. However, the drone fleet in Tripoli has reportedly been severely decimated. Since May, several „Baraktar TB2“ and ground stations have been destroyed in air attacks, and the Tripoli troops are reported to have suffered further losses in August, September and October. The Tripoli government also seems to operate smaller Israeli „Orbiter“ drones for reconnaissance, which were probably also delivered from Turkey. At least three of them have been shot down.
Three major deliveries from Turkey
Another „Bayraktar TB2“ was allegedly shot down by Haftar troops a week ago. One day later, the same air force had bombed hangars at the airports in Tripoli and Misrata. The attack is said to have been aimed at a third drone shipment from Turkey, which had arrived in Libya after the controversial agreement on a sea corridor between Ankara and Tripoli. In the process, a double-digit number of „Bayraktar TB2“ could have been destroyed or rendered flightless.
The „Wing Loong“ seems to have gained the upper hand in the Libyan drone war. It is modelled on the American „Predator“ or „Reaper“ and thus belongs to a different weight class than the „Bayraktar TB2“. The US Air Force also flies with unarmed „Reaper“ in Libya, in November a plane was – allegedly accidentally – shot down by the Haftar army. The US Africa Command in Ramstein, on the other hand, blames an air defence system supplied by Russia, which is said to have been operated by Russian mercenaries, for the shooting down. The day before, an Italian „Reaper“ had already crashed in Libya for unknown reasons. According to government sources, the drone is said to have been used against smugglers as part of the Italian military mission „Mare Sicuro“.
Cooperation with Ukraine
With its use in Kurdistan and Libya, the „Bayraktar TB2“ can be marketed as „battle-proven“. Baykar supplies the drone to Qatar, among other places. The government of the Ukraine has also ordered 12 units for 62 million euros. They will initially be tested at the Starokostiantyniv airbase in the west of Ukraine. Their operational readiness will be established after members of the Ukrainian Air Force have been trained in Turkey to operate them.
Ukraine and Turkey also want to cooperate in the development of new armed drones. Baykar has signed a cooperation agreement with the Ukrainian missile manufacturer Ukrspecexport. The company could supply the armament for a new drone which Baykar is currently developing under the name „Akıncı“. With two engines, it is designed as a long-range drone of the MALE class and is intended to remain in the air for up to 24 hours.
Turkish manufacturers develop long-range drones
The „Akıncı“ is controlled via satellites, which considerably increases the range compared to the „Bayraktar TB2“ or the simple version of the „Anka“. Its payload is stated to be almost 1.5 tons, of which 900 kilograms can be transported under the wings as armament. Unarmed, the „Akıncı“ can be equipped with optical sensors, radar systems, interception devices or technology for electronic warfare.
The competitor Turkish Aerospace Industries is also developing a long-range drone with two engines. The „Aksungur“ is said to have similar capabilities to the „Akıncı“ and was flown for the first time in March. The „Akıncı“ also completed its first test flight two weeks ago. According to media reports, the system should be ready for operation next year and will initially be equipped with air-to-ground missiles with a range of 250 kilometres. A first test of the weapon was rated successful by Baykar. According to the company, the „Akıncı“ can also be used in air combat.
More money for the son-in-law
A month ago, the British Guardian reported that the British arms company EDO was involved in arming the „Bayraktar TB2“. According to the article, the rack for the small missiles of the Turkish drone is copied from a British product. Erdogan’s son-in-law and Baykar chief denied the report and wrote that British technology had proved to be useless, which is why his company had developed its own missile rack.
In a decree, President Erdoğan is now enabling another 95 million euros for the further development of „Bayraktar TB2“ and „Akıncı“. The funding is aimed at flight guidance skills and the improvement of ground control stations and is expected to result in the recruitment of over 1,000 new employees. Presumably, the main focus will be on procedures for controlling drones using satellite communications.
Drones for the people
The military in Turkey is probably the first in the world to use armed quadrocopters. The little drones, which weigh around 25 kilograms, come from the Ankara-based company Asisguard and are equipped with a machine gun. The „Songar“ is said to have a range of 10 kilometres and carry up to 200 rounds of ammunition. The targets are calculated and locked with cameras and a laser range finder. It is said that the quadrocopters can also operate in swarms. Their delivery has been announced for this year.
The Turkish population is being prepared for the drone war with computer games. The unmanned air support of the military offensive on the Kurdish city of Afrin two years ago was available for Android mobile phones in the Playstore for a while, but the app is no longer online. Turkish Aerospace Industries still offers a similar game for download under the name „Operation Anka“. The game plays different scenarios of war and terror, the drones are either on their way for reconnaissance or for armed support of ground troops.
Article image: Video game „Operation Anka“ of Turkish armament company TAI (Image: Screenshot YouTube)