Summary: the battlefield success of Turkish drones in Libya, Iraq and Syria are changing the way that Middle East wars are being fought and regional geo-political ambitions are being realised.
The Middle East has proven an ideal theatre to test the capabilities of armed drones. That is particularly true in Libya and Syria. And no country has benefitted more from the successes of drones in war zones than Turkey. As the UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace acknowledged last summer, Turkish drones proved to be “game-changing.” He cited the success of the Bayraktar TB-2 UAVs in turning the tide of battle against the Emirati-backed warlord Khalifa Haftar just as he was about to seize the Libyan capital Tripoli and topple the Government of National Accord (GNA).
Wallace told an Air and Space Power conference: “Those UAVs have conducted intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and targeting operations against frontlines, supply lines and logistics bases,” adding “in July last year (2019) they struck the Libyan National Army-controlled Jufrah Airfield destroying several command and control nodes as well as two transport aircraft.”
The minister also heaped praise on the accomplishments of Turkish UAVs in northern Syria where, in combination with electronic warfare and ground shelling with smart ammunition, they inflicted massive damage on Syrian regime forces. “According to reports,” Wallace told the virtual conference “the Assad regime suffered heavy losses: ‘3,000 soldiers, 151 tanks, eight helicopters, three drones, three fighter jets, vehicles and trucks, eight aerial defence systems and one headquarters among other military equipment and facilities’. Even if only half of these claims are true, the implications are game-changing.”
Music to the ears of Haluk Bayraktar, the CEO of Baykar, the business founded by his father in 1984 as an auto parts manufacturer. In the decades since, it has evolved into artificial intelligence, command and control military systems and the drones that carry the family name. His brother Selçuk, an electrical engineer and the company’s Chief Technology Officer, was the driving force behind TB-2. In 2005 he convinced the then prime mInister and now president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to commit funding to the development of an indigenous drone manufacturing industry, arguing to good effect that it would go a long way toward ending the country’s dependence on foreign weapons purchases.
The spark that got things going was the refusal of the United States and Israel to sell drones to the Turks. At a RUSI webinar on 28 May Haluk Bayraktar commented “Turkey was denied these systems so Turkey decided to take a new approach and today we see the results.”
Syria and Libya provided the company with a real time war zone platform showcasing the capabilities of a UAV that combines lethality with an attractive purchase price. The TB-2 has a range of up to 300 kilometres and carries a payload of four laser guided munitions. Its cost, at US$ 5 million is less than half of the price tag on the American MQ1-Predator drone. It has seen action against the Kurdish PKK in Northern Iraq, against Syrian regime forces as noted above by Ben Wallace, in Libya and most recently and with devastating effectiveness in the brief war between Azerbaijan and Armenia over the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh enclave.
The Azerbaijanis, equipped with the TB-2, followed precisely the same tactics that the Turks had used in their 5 day offensive in February 2020 against Assad’s forces. The combination of precision drone strikes and ground artillery fire decimated the Armenian forces who quickly sued for peace.
As a result of the battlefield successes of their drone, Baykar, freed of the regulatory restraints placed on American firms and the security anxieties of the Israelis, has an open door and off the shelf policy, selling to pretty much any country with the cash. The company has supplied Ukraine, Oman, Qatar, Tunisia, Pakistan and Azerbaijan. Poland, the first NATO country to buy the TB-2, is next. As Haluk Bayraktar put it “exports create strategic bonds and complimentary relationships and we ally and cooperate with friendly nations for mutual benefit.”
Baykar’s successes have not been lost on the UAE. It has relied on American and Chinese drones, the latter, the Wing Loong, supplied to Haftar’s force in Libya. At IDEX 2021, the Abu Dhabi defence company EDGE announced it was launching its own brand of UAVs, a family of so-called loitering drones that hover in an area until a precise target is located then launch munitions to destroy the target.
Faisal Al Bannai, CEO & Managing Director of EDGE declared “drone technology is revolutionising our world with the full potential of unmanned and autonomous capabilities still to be further explored – not just in the military sector, but the commercial sector too.”
And he added: “Through launching the first UAE-made family of smart loitering drones, EDGE marks a significant milestone as a key technology enabler and in boosting the country’s autonomous capabilities and AI integration.”
With its own local drone industry, the UAE, like Turkey will not need to worry about purchases being blocked by ethical or security concerns. That was a point confimed at the RUSI webinar by Dr Ash Rossiter Assistant Professor of International Security at Abu Dhabi’s Khalifa University. He noted that for countries like the UAE drones have a “growing attraction.” He went on to offer “a reflection from the neighbourhood that AI and autonomy is very much seen less ethically problematic and very much from a positive standpoint in terms of security gains that can be made…technology is a panacea to shortfalls, especially for countries with small populations.” The UAE has that small population while its de facto leader, the Abu Dhabi crown prince Mohammed bin Zayed, has large regional aspirations. And as Turkey has already shown, drones are a very effective way to assist in realizing those aspirations.