by Paul Iddon
In recent years, Turkey has demonstrated a hitherto unprecedented capability in both the production and the combat use of its increasingly formidable domestically-built armed drones.
Turkey first used its drones in the conflicts against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in southeast Turkey and the Syrian Kurds in 2016. Since then, Ankara has used these drones in operations in Iraq, Syria, and even Libya, in each case proving their effectiveness and lethality in different ways.
Turkey, through statements from its officials and its largely state-run press, frequently extols its increased ability to build new weapons systems domestically, invariably asserting it has made huge progress in weaning itself off its reliance on foreign countries for its military hardware and increasing its self-sufficiently capacity. While the extent of its ability to produce most of its military hardware independently is still debatable, the country has undoubtedly made progress in developing an independent drone capability from the ground up.
In recent years, Turkey has unveiled an increasing number of armed drones, perhaps most prominent among them being the Bayraktar TB2 and the Anka-S models. Carrying small but precision laser-guided Roketsan MAM-L smart micro munitions, these unmanned aircraft have made Turkey a combat-tested drone power to be reckoned with.
Aerial assassins over Iraq
An early example of just how effective these drones are was demonstrated when Turkey assassinated İsmail Özden — a senior PKK figure with code-named “Uncle” Zaki Shingali — in Kocho in the Iraqi Sinjar district in August 2018 with a targeted airstrike. He was killed when missiles struck his convoy after leaving a memorial event for victims of the Yazidi genocide perpetrated by the Islamic State.
Footage from the Shingali assassination showed a drone tracking two pickup trucks. Two guided missiles then destroyed both vehicles (see video below). It is unclear if the missiles were fired from the drone or if the drone used a laser designator to guide a Turkish F-16 Fighting Falcon to destroy the convoy. Either way, the attack was unprecedented. Before this operation, no other country in the region except Israel had the means to carry out targeted killings beyond its borders.
Since Shingali’s assassination, Turkey has repeatedly demonstrated its game-changing capability of assassinating PKK leaders deep in their Iraqi Kurdish mountain sanctuaries from the air. Turkey’s drones can loiter much lower and for longer periods than Turkish Air Force fighter jets or helicopters can, which is particularly advantageous not only for a lethal attack but also for intelligence-gathering and reconnaissance operations. It is unclear, however, the exact extent to which drones are presently being used in anti-PKK operations in Iraqi Kurdistan, either in surveillance or direct attack roles – they may well be used mostly as spotters for manned airstrikes – since the Turkish military seldom specifies the types of aircraft used in these strikes.
Tank killers over Syria
Aside from targeting guerrilla fighters high in the mountains, Turkey’s drones have also decimated conventional ground forces in Syria’s Idlib during clashes there in February-March 2020. Bayraktar TB2 and Anka-S drones played a major role in these strikes, which commenced following the killing of several Turkish soldiers in clashes in that province with the Syrian regime forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. One airstrike killed at least 34 Turkish troops in a single day on February 27, the largest loss of Turkish soldiers in a single incident in years.
In return, Turkish drones destroyed hundreds of regime vehicles, artillery, and tanks and killed untold numbers of Syrian troops and militiamen in the Turkish military Operation Spring Shield. The drones also acted as spotters for cross-border Turkish artillery bombardments.
Thanks to these unmanned drones, Turkey did not have to risk flying either its piloted F-16 or even F-4 Phantom II jet fighter-bombers into Syrian airspace for airstrikes. Turkish F-16s were even able to shoot down three Syrian warplanes over Idlib with their long-range AIM-120 AMRAAMs without having to venture out of Turkish airspace (see infographic above right).
While Turkey did lose some of its drones to Syrian ground fire, these were relatively inexpensive losses compared to the overall damage they caused. More importantly, Turkey did not have to replace any pilots or drone operators for any of those unmanned aircraft it lost over Idlib. With Turkey planning to build as many as 92 Bayraktar TB2s per year, these drones will likely become much easier to replace than the loss of far more expensive fighter jets.
Bayraktars over Tripoli
In the ongoing civil war in Libya, Turkish drones have played a very significant role in militarily supporting Ankara’s ally in that conflict, the Government of National Accord (GNA), in the capital Tripoli against the Libyan National Army (LNA) commanded by General Khalifa Haftar. While the LNA has proven capable of shooting down several of these drones, they are relatively easy to replace for the reasons mentioned above. Also, Turkey has shown a willingness to replenish drone losses in the conflict, given its unwillingness to let Haftar prevail in that increasingly bitter conflict. Turkish drones have also helped win the GNA some notable battlefield victories.
The present GNA-LNA conflict exploded in April 2019, when Haftar sought to oust his rivals from Tripoli through a ferocious siege. In June 2019, Turkish Bayraktars gave the GNA decisive air support, helping the group rout the LNA from the city of Gharyan south of the capital, a major supply line for the LNA’s siege in one of its first significant strategic setbacks in the LNA campaign.
In May 2020, Turkish Bayraktar TB2s played another significant role in weakening the LNA’s presence in western Libya. They bombarded the LNA-held al-Wastiya airbase with reportedly no fewer than 57 strikes, allowing the GNA to capture it. Embarrassingly for the LNA, the GNA fighters also captured an intact Pantsir-S1 (NATO reporting name SA-22 Greyhound) air defence missile system that the United Arab Emirates supplied Haftar. TB2s also took out other LNA Pantsir missile systems in May, reportedly with the help of the sophisticated Turkish KORAL Electronic Warfare system that jammed the radars of the Pantsir systems, leaving them vulnerable to air attacks, and the datalink frequencies of the Wing Loong drones used by the LNA.
While drones have played a significant role in beating back Haftar’s forces in eastern Tripoli, they may not prove as effective in supporting any GNA offensive into eastern Libya, given their limited range. “The Bayraktar drone has a general range of only 150 miles and requires a direct line of sight signal, so any operations east of Sirte would require Ankara and the GNA to either forward-deploy control stations or build relay towers — both of which would be vulnerable to LNA counterattack,” noted an analysis by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
These battlefield victories strongly indicate that Turkey’s drones are becoming increasingly lethal weapons that Ankara’s various adversaries, both within its frontiers and increasingly further beyond them, will have to contend with.
- Umar Farooq, “The Second Drone Age: How Turkey Defied the U.S. and Became a Killer Drone Power“, The Intercept, 14 May 2019.