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HomeGeopolitical CompassWest & Centeral AsiaThe Turkish Drone That Changed the Nature of Warfare

The Turkish Drone That Changed the Nature of Warfare

Author: Stephen Witt

Affiliation: Los Angeles-based writer, television producer, and investigative journalist

Organization/Publisher:  The New Yorker

Date/Place: May 9, 2022 / New York, USA

Type of Literature: Long Form Reportage

Word Count: 4400

Link: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2022/05/16/the-turkish-drone-that-changed-the-nature-of-warfare

 

Keywords: Türkiye, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Russia, Libya, Syria, Defense Industry, Bayraktar, Bayraktar TB2

 

Brief:

 

The Bayraktar drone, a weapon of influence, has attained the status of “final nail in the coffin” in recent armed conflicts since it turned the tables in at least two wars – intra-Libya and Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict. This explainer brings to fore the faces, energy, resources, efforts, sweat and legacy behind the state-of-the-art tech-laced drone which dodges the counter anti-air defense systems to hit targets in their nest. With its popularity touching new heights after succeeding in Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh, the grey-colored and flat Bayraktar TB2 has turned into lyrics of victory songs and people in Lithuania have turned to public donations to buy the eagle-eyed unmanned minor aircraft to ensure security and territorial integrity of one’s homeland. The radio-controlled drone flies stealthily, executing air strikes on its targets and returning home traveling 25,000 feet above sea-level. From its first kill in 2016 until May of this year, the Bayraktar TB2 drone has carried out over eight hundred strikes from North Africa to the Caucasus.  The author calls the drone an influential weapon, as it has given Türkiye an edge in both its diplomacy and military influence in the region and beyond. From being a country overly dependent on defense imports in the early years of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rule in the first half of 2000, to producing close to 80% of arms and weapons domestically, Türkiye has attained close to an autonomous position to maneuver in its foreign policy, especially in its immediate neighborhood. At a time when the US refuses to sell critical weaponry including F35 fighter jets to Ankara, TB2 drones make precision strikes against PKK terrorists, who are armed by the Pentagon.

 

The creator of the drone is Selçuk Bayraktar, born in 1979 and son of Özdemir, a Turkish auto-parts entrepreneur. Özdemir, who died last year, was also an amateur pilot who took Selçuk in his small aircraft, nourishing his children’s creativity in his Istanbul-based factory which he started after graduating from Istanbul Technical University. Bayraktar, an MIT (US) graduate, “is more of a builder,” describes his graduate supervisor Eric Feron. He remembers Bayraktar as a “dedicated craftsman and an observant Muslim.” But it was  Necmettin Erbakan, Türkiye’s fomer Prime Minister and professor of mechanical engineering, who gave wings to Bayraktar’s dreams. Despite having to step down under visible military pressure, Erbakan put his weight behind the idea and allowed Bayraktar to be embedded in the Turkish military and witness combat “on the frontlines” – something which his admirers applaud. Finally, the first prototype was ready by 2014 and the first test was conducted a year later. “By April, 2016, the TB2 was delivering live munitions. The earliest targets were the PKK — drone strikes have killed at least twenty of the organization’s leaders, along with whoever was standing near them,” the author claims. There has been no looking back.

 

Baykar Technologies, the promoter firm, now has at least two potential customers from NATO allies of Türkiye – a first in its history since being member of the world’s largest military alliance – that Ankara was capable of domestically producing high-tech armament and selling it to NATO. While Poland has placed orders, Latvia is mulling to be another buyer. The drone maker is married to Turkish businesswoman Sümeyye Erdoğan, who wears the hijab and is the daughter of President Erdoğan. This also reflects the transformation of Turkish society in the past two decades, as previously no Hijab-clad woman would even think of entering a university for higher education under strict secular laws that prohibited wearing the Hijab in the academic domain. Sümeyye is US-educated from the Indiana University Bloomington. Bayraktar is seen regularly engaging with youth and university-going students, giving lectures and aiding many projects to push forward Türkiye’s attempts in the high-tech industry. “In this day and age, the biggest change in our lives is driven by technology — and who drives the changes? The ones who create technology,” says Bayraktar.

 

Teknofest, an annual summit to feature Türkiye’s progress in high tech, aerospace and warfare, and a platform for young talent, has already expanded to Azerbaijan this year with a sister summit planned every year. Bayraktar and his innovations are a special attraction at the event. Accomplishments by three brothers, including Bayraktar, is not the culmination of a days nor year’s job. “We were working, all throughout our childhood, in the factory,” Bayraktar said of his childhood when the three brothers would help their father. A critic of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Bayraktar is working on the TB3 drone which can be launched from a boat. Another model, the Akinci can fly to 40,000 feet and can be equipped with jamming countermeasures. While the US threw Türkiye out of its F35 program, Baykar is coming with the country’s first jet, the Kizilelma, which does not have a cockpit. Additionally, the Turkish drone maker is known for Cezeri, a human-size quadcopter, termed a “flying car” by its creator. Days before Moscow mounted an armed assault on Kiev, Türkiye and Ukraine had signed a deal to assemble TB2 drones in the eastern European country which has since been bombarded by the Russians. Elated Ukrainians produced songs after repelling Russians via TB2 attacks, hitting many anti-air defense systems, a replica of what Türkiye did to Russian equipment in Syria and Armenian-occupied Azerbaijani lands in Nagorno-Karabakh. However, as the author notes, it is not merely a one-time business sale relationship between Baykar and recipient nations. “You don’t just buy it,” says Mark Cancian, a military-procurement specialist. “You have married the supplier, because you need a constant stream of spare parts and repair expertise.” Thus, drone sales give leverage to Türkiye in its bilateral relations.

 

In exchange for a defense deal with Nigeria, Ankara got access to minerals and liquefied natural gas of the African nation. Ethiopia was handed the TB2 drones after the government took action against Gülenist schools – whose founder Fethullah Gülen was behind the failed 2016 military coup in Türkiye. And the customers get updates on their Bayraktar systems many times a month to avoid being hacked. To operate the system, the recipient countries fly their personnel to western Türkiye for training. It is a continuous process. It has also allowed smaller nations to unlock their dependence on the US and other big powers for protection and look for other options to fulfill their security needs without much to lose or return. While Bayraktar is mulling to produce an “autonomous drone”, the author, however, warns that Türkiye has been facing a “brain drain” problem as top talent pursues opportunities outside of Türkiye. The autonomous drone, when ready, would “find its way home if its communication links were severed.” Cautious about harming any “poor” person, Bayraktar says he would be “responsible on the day of judgment.”  “Sometimes oppression is worse than death,” Bayraktar noted.

 

By: Riyaz ul Khaliq, CIGA Non-resident Research Associate

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