by Paul Iddon.
So said İsmail Demir, the under-secretary for the Turkish defence industry, on May 2016. Demir was speaking at a time when the US Congress delayed the sale of drones and armaments to Turkey, over concerns about Ankara’s conduct in the fight against the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Demir argued that this wasn’t a problem. After all, Turkey can now make its own drone systems and use them as they please without fear of having to rely on a supplier who might withhold deliveries or spare parts.
Less than a month before Demir made these remarks, Turkey tested the domestically-produced Bayraktar TB2 UCAV and successfully hit a target on a test range from 8 km away. “The Bayraktar uses the MAM-L and MAM-C, two mini smart ammunitions developed and produced by the state-controlled missile maker Roketsan,” noted Defense News in May 2016. “Roketsan’s mini systems weight 22.5 kilograms including a 10 kilogram warhead.” Already in October 2015, we spotted the Bayraktar TB2 UCAV parked in front of an aircraft shelter at Batman air force base.
Turkey deems itself one of the world’s lead drone producers. The country’s Science, Industry and Technology Minister Faruk Özlü declared that Turkey is aiming to produce drones as heavy as four tons and “equip them with high quality weapons and cameras”. Current drones in the Turkish inventory, Özlü said, “weigh around 560-600 kg with a small weapon system on them”.
Turkey also produced the TAI Anka, a Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) drone. Operational models are for reconnaissance. The Turkish Defense Ministry says the military will take delivery of the first six, out of a total of ten ordered, this year.
Additionally, the country’s STM Defense Technologies and Engineering Co. announced in May that they are going to introduce a series of new so-called kamikaze and monitoring drones — the Alpagu, the Kargu and the Doğan — designed to operate together and “equipped with artificial intelligence algorithms for monitoring”. The Alpagu is a fixed-wing tactical attack UAV launched from a pneumatic portable launcher expendable for single use and can be made ready in just 45 seconds. The Kargu is a similar multi-rotor variant. The Doğan’s reported ability to effectively monitor battlefields and gather intelligence, with their “fairly high optical zooming capabilities and high flight performance”, could make them an effective tool for pinpointing targets for Turkish artillery strikes.
The Turks aim to become completely self-sufficient in the production of all their drones and all the systems on them (see also “Turkey’s growing domestic arms industry“, offiziere.ch, 21.05.2016). It has relied on a signals intelligence (SIGINT) system made in the US for its drones, which it aims to replace with its own BSI-101 SIGINT system.
Demand for Turkish drones have increased primarily due to two factors: Ankara’s dual campaigns against Islamic State (ISIS) and the PKK, and the failed July 2017 coup and subsequent crackdown which significantly reduced the strength and manpower of the Turkish military.
The Turkish Air Force has an estimated 240-270 F-16 Fighting Falcons, and is one of the few country’s which can domestically produce the iconic fighter-bomber. After the coup however, according to one statistic, they now have only one pilot not in jail for every two of these jets in their current inventory. Turkey discharged up to 350 pilots responsible for flying various aircraft in the air force since the coup attempt.
Turkey publicly appealed for former pilots to refill these depleting ranks, only to have the plea go unanswered. Another telling statistic found that out of a sampling of six pilots who left the air force and could return if they chose, only one said he would “re-register to help replace dismissed colleagues whom the government blames for being part of a network that planned the failed July 15 coup”.
“Turkey fielded seven F-16 squadrons with strike or attack as their primary mission before the coup attempt,” noted analysts Mike Benitez and Aaron Stein in a September 2016 analysis. “However, of those original seven, four are now being shuttered, leaving three squadrons designated for strike and attack”.
In other words, it may take Turkey years to fully operate its entire F-16 fleet again: a fleet which it uses to routinely violate Greek airspace over disputed territories in the Aegean, bomb the PKK in southeast Turkey, and Qandil Mountain in Iraqi Kurdistan, as well as launch cross-border airstrikes into Syria against other Kurdish fighters and ISIS.
If Ankara’s new upcoming drones are as accurate and effective as Turkey boasts they may prove less risky to use, say, above Syria than their F-16s. In November 2016, during their operation “Euphrates Shield” in northwestern Syria, Turkey had to halt air support to their troops and allied Syrian militiamen for one week when Damascus threatened to shoot their jets out of the sky. The loss of drones over the battlefield would, for obvious reasons, be less costly, both financially and politically, to Ankara than the loss of manned aircraft.
Ankara’s enthusiasm for indigenous unmanned aircraft is unlikely to fill the void left by the loss of pilots to operate their manned aircraft, nor elevate the Turkish Air Force from a state of half-strength any time soon. Nevertheless, it bolsters another part of Ankara’s domestic arms industry and may provide the military with new capabilities as it continues to fall short in meeting the requirements to run its highly formidable military at pre-coup strength.