Ankara, Turkey – Turkish drones in Azerbaijan, Libya and Syrian wars have already revealed a decisive impact in their air assaults to specific targets with high precision in conflict zones. Now, Turkish drones, as flying artificial intelligence based computer systems powered with magic smart missiles, are acquiring popularity and becoming a sought-after commodity on the global arms market.

Indeed, wars and armed conflicts change effectively the course of history, shape human geography and drive technological progress. The shape of a state is determined by the political boundaries and geography that determine its territory, and that shape impacts the politics and economies of the state. The six categories of state shapes are: compact; elongated or attenuated; fragmented; prorupted or protruded; perforated; and compound or complex.

This is particularly true when it comes to the development of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and their combat use. Following 9/11 and US’ declaration of war on international terrorism, reliance on UAVs for intelligence gathering and reconnaissance reached a qualitatively new technology level.

The gamechanger occurred in February 2002, when an American remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) Predator performed its first killing mission. From this point on, possession over unmanned aerial combat vehicles (UCAVs) became a top priority and a matter of prestige for all technologically-advanced countries and their armies. Now, Turkey has already joined this elite precise high technology club.

Turkey’s ascension in advanced military technology

As a result of the arms embargo imposed on Turkey in 1975 over Cyprus, Turkey initiated an ambitious program of import substitution, which led to the emergence of Aselsan, a defense company. Subsequently, new large players emerged, including Havelsan (1982), Roketsan (1988), and TAI (2005). Facing multiple security-related threats posed by non-state actors engaging in non-linear war, Turkish armed forces required rapid modernization, including new means of intelligence gathering, recognizance and military operations – UCAVs. Turkey’s first step in this direction was pinned on reliance on import.

However, the decade of disappointments – purchases of American drones in 1996 and Israeli machines in 2006 turned out to be a disaster – prompted Turkey to pursue an import-substitution strategy. In many ways, adequacy of this move was preordained by the US decision to introduce an export ban on killer drones, which invigorated Turkey and pushed Turkey even harder toward an import substitution strategy. Ultimately, Turkey succeeded.

Thanks to US government for any of the projects that was not approved by US because it forced Turkey to develop its own systems.

By 2018, Turkey had achieved visible progress in the realm of UCAVs used by the Turkish armed forces in military operations. Toward the end of 2019, the country reportedly became “the world’s second-largest user of lethal drones” and the first nation to use drones able to find, track, and kill targets without human intervention. At this point, the Bayraktar TB2 performed its first killing mission in 2016, becoming Turkey’s first indigenous armed UAV system.

Between 2016 and 2019, the UCAV was successfully used in scopes of Operation Euphrates Shield, Operation Olive Branch, Operation Peace Spring as well as in various counterinsurgency operations against the Kurdish rebels in eastern Turkey and northeastern Iraq. However, it was in early 2020 when Turkey reached a new milestone in its use of UCAVs.

Testing Turkish drones in Azerbaijan, Libya and Syria polygons

On February 27, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) launched an airstrike on a Turkish military convoy and observatory post near the villages of Balioun and Al‑Barah in southern Idlib, killing 34 Turkish soldiers. The following day, Turkey retaliated by launching Operation Spring Shield, which, led to devastating losses suffered by the SAA: two jets, two drones, eight helicopters, 135 tanks, and five air-defense systems. The Turkish army reported to have neutralized 2,557 Syrian “regime elements.”

Turkey went on to state that 10 Russian Pantsir medium-range surface-to-air missile and anti-aircraft artillery systems were destroyed. The Russian air defense systems were technologically deciphered and their dead points were exploited in the conflict zones. The fact that the rapid advance of the SAA was halted and the frontline was stabilized are not debatable points. This brief operation demonstrated three important points.

First, Turkey has the intent to test capabilities of its UCAVs forces in a massive and coordinated manner. Second, Ankara is ready to use killer drones against Syria’s armed forces. Third, the Anka-S UCAV had its military debut.

Undoubtedly, heavy losses suffered by the SAA, should be attributed to the use of UCAVs – the Bayraktar TB2 and the Anka-S. Yet different observers and military experts make diverging assessments of this success.

Turkey’s use of killer drones became a tactical game-changer. For the first time in the world, drones were used as the primary element in air strikes. The use of drones in this manner has put forward a new military doctrine not only in Turkey but also in the world’s literature on warfare.

Turkey’s use of drones in this operation is unprecedented in modern military history .This provides high precision long-range strikes, enabling Turkey to bypass the Idlib airspace yet managing to inflict heavy casualties to Syrian Arab Army targets.

Specifically, Russia has claimed that Turkish temporary success was a tactical victory premised on the element of surprise. Having recognized the perfection of Turkish drones, it was argued that for the Syrians confronting UAVs turned out to be an exceptionally hard task.

Furthermore, it was contended that this task would have been far more difficult if Syrian (de-facto Russian) anti-aircraft artillery systems such as Pantsir and/or Buk had faced a swarm attack. Indeed, the Turkish side did not carry out a swam attack, whereas Russia is yet to deal with sophisticated drone attacks in Syria.

The undisputed success of Turkish UCAVs was acknowledged, yet some of the drawbacks were underscored. The main limitations included: armament-related aspects; relatively high albeit tolerable level of losses in a short period of time; relatively low cruising speed, rendering Turkish UCAVs (primarily, the Bayraktar TB2) vulnerable to surface-to-air missiles (SAM); limited operational reach; and virtual absence (concerning both the Anka-S and the Bayraktar TB2) of means of active/passive defense from air-to-air attack or SAMs.

Turkish drone industry and the vision for the Turkish Republic’s 100th anniversary (1923-2023)

In 2018, Turkey set a strategic goal to be achieved by the Turkish defense industry. By 2023 – the Turkish Republic’s 100th anniversary – Turkey must enter the top ten global defense industry exporters. Undoubtedly, Turkish UAVs/UCAVs should become one of the factors securing this goal, and operations in Syria, Libya and Azerbaijan are to become the main marketing tool.

In effect, Turkish drones are already acquiring popularity and becoming a sought-after commodity on the global arms market. In 2017, Turkey sold six Bayraktar TB2s to Qatar, and Indonesia has also expressed interest in acquiring these machines. Subsequently, Ukraine signed a $69-million contract for another six Bayraktar TB2s. On top of that, Tunisia purchased six Anka-S drones, three ground control stations and an unspecified level of technology transfer – a contract reportedly worth $240 million.

At this juncture, however, one element must be clarified. The effectiveness of Turkish drones may differ depending on the operational environment. For instance, in Tunisia, where drones are to be used against poorly-trained and non-tech savvy local radicals in conditions of open terrain, the Anka-S is expected to be successful.

Meanwhile, in Ukraine the situation could be totally different. Between 2014 and 2019, Russia used advanced means of electronic warfare, such as the R-330Zh Zhitel, the Tirada-2, the RB-341В “Leer-3,” the RB-301B “Borisoglebsk-2,” the R-934UM, among others, via Russia’s proxies. Given combat-proven effectiveness of these pieces, as well as some of the limitations of Turkish drones exposed during operations, Turkish UCAVs might be less effective in Ukraine. However, Russian advanced electronic warfare systems (Pole 21 and other variants) operated by Armenia in Karabakh conflict were outsmarted by Azerbaijan using Turkish drones and KORAL, which is a land-based transportable electronic warfare system developed to jam and deceive hostile radars of enemy nations.

Beyond any doubt, the period between 2018 and early 2020 demonstrated how Turkey is a drone superpower. Further steps will lead toward (partial) elimination of some deficiencies observed in conflict zones, which will elevate Turkish UCAVs to a qualitatively new operational level. In military terms, Turkey has demonstrated its ability to successfully conduct high-tech military operations with the use of most up to date means of military confrontation.

On the other hand, successful use of drones has become a symbol of national pride and Turkey’s moral and psychological victory. That said, the results of the recent operations in Azerbaijan, Libya and Syria should be critically reviewed by the interested parties. Seemingly impressive as they are, the victory was primarily secured due to a combination of visible technological superiority, the element of surprise and very limited engagement of the Russian side with its advanced means of electronic warfare. However Russia, for all its bluster, is a declining power globally as well as regionally. Consequently, Turkish smart missiles and drones apparently outsmarted Russia in Azerbaijan, Libya and Syria conflicts.

Greece, the EU’s spoiled partner, not only occupied the Turkish islands in the Aegean and Mediterranean, but also armed them against Turkey in violation of the 1923 Lausanne peace treaty. Greece also violates Turkish airspace and regularly harassing Turkish aircraft in Aegean. Greece displays aggressive and expansionist attitudes by making fake agreements with Egypt on the Turkish continental shelf in “Mavi Vatan” (Blue Homeland) waters in Eastern Mediterranean. Suggestingly, Greece must analyze in depth its brazen and aggressive policy against Turkey taking into account the critical lesson drawn from the recent conflicts in Azerbaijan, Libya and Syria. The last regret does not help, the man who takes the horse has passed Üsküdar.