Turkey is arguably the first country to extensively use armed drones in conventional operations. In other words, Turkey is setting an example of how to use armed UAVs against opposing military forces both today, and in the future.
Turkey had entered the second drone age — in which the use of drones to kill people has proliferated far beyond the United States, the first country to kill people with missiles launched from drones after 9/11.
Turkey now rivals the U.S. and the U.K. as the world’s most prolific user of killer drones, according to a review by The Intercept of reported lethal drone strikes worldwide. (Other countries that have reportedly killed people with drone-launched weapons include Israel, Iraq, and Iran.)
The technology has been used by Turkey against ISIS in Syria and along Turkey’s border with Iraq and Iran, where ever-present Turkish drones have turned the tide in a decades-old counter-insurgency against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK.
Turkey’s drones are a near constant presence in the skies in the country’s southeast. Nearly every day, a Turkish drone, usually a TB2, either fires on a target or provides the location of a target that is subsequently bombed by an F-16 or attack helicopter. Over the last two years, as Turkish forces have pursued the PKK into northern Syria and Iraq, the drones have allowed Ankara to eliminate members of the outlawed group from the air, earning the adoration of a nation riding a wave of patriotism.
According to official sources, Turkish TB2s carrying Turkish-made guided bombs killed 449 people in northwestern Syria between January and April 2018. Scores of others have been killed in northern Iraq, including PKK leaders Ankara has been pursuing for decades. And inside Turkey, in the Kurdish-majority southeast, at least 400 people have been killed in airstrikes involving drones since 2016.
While the U.S. was the foremost operator of armed, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the world for more than a decade, launching the first drone attack in 2001, today more than a dozen countries possess this technology. The U.K., Israel, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Nigeria, and Turkey have all used armed UAVs to kill targets since 2015
Efforts by Washington to control proliferation through restrictions on drone exports have failed to slow down a global race to acquire the technology. Meanwhile, the U.S. has set a precedent of impunity by carrying out hundreds of strikes that have killed civilians over the last decade.
“We are well past the time when the proliferation of armed drones can in any way be controlled,” said Chris Woods, a journalist who has tracked drone use for more than a decade and director of the conflict monitor Airwars. “So many states and even nonstate actors have access to armed drone capabilities — and they are being used across borders and within borders — that we are now clearly within the second drone age, that is, the age of proliferation.”
U.S. exports of armed Predator and Reaper drones are subject to congressional and military oversight, so the process of acquiring them remains long and complicated. Some buyers have opted instead to purchase armed drones from China, which has sold to nearly a dozen countries its CH-4, a drone that has capabilities on par with the Predator (though is less sophisticated than the Reaper). Yet even if major developers like the U.S. or China decide to restrict the sale of armed drones, the genie is out of the bottle — the technology itself can now be replicated. That’s what Turkey has done.
Turkey stands out as not only the most advanced new developer of drones but also as the only country to regularly use them on its own soil, against its own citizens.
The drone technology that seeped from the U.S. to Turkey is now spreading to other countries. In January, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced his country would purchase 12 TB2s, in a deal estimated at $69 million. Several other countries, including Pakistan and Qatar, have lined up to purchase Turkish drones.
The U.S. pioneered the technology and showed the world how it could be used. Others have watched and learned.
Turkey won’t be the last country to manufacture its own drones, and its public will not be the last to see them as a source of pride.
Presently, Turkey is relying on two locally developed – and mass-produced – designs to spearhead its operations in Syria and Libya: the Bayraktar TB2 and the Anka-S. Both UAVs are medium-altitude and long-endurance (MALE) designs, but from two different Turkish original equipment manufacturers (OEM).