The Syrian-Russian military offensive in Idlib has been a thorn in the side of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Now he threatens to intervene in the Syrian region if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s troops do not withdraw from Turkish observation posts by Sunday. In such a scenario, his son-in-law’s armed drones would become an important weapon.

Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles, were already deployed during the three Turkish military operations in Syria. In the fight against the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), they can be spotted over southern Turkey, Syria and northern Iraq. Turkish drones are also deployed in Libya and above the Mediterranean.

In Turkey, drones have “neutralized” at least 400 “terrorists” in recent years, the term consistently used by Turkish authorities. During Turkey’s 2018 “Olive Branch” operation against the US-backed Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia in Syria’s northern Afrin region, Ankara said its drones killed 449 people.

Family business

Many people think of drones as a zooming helicopter that hobbyists sometimes use. But military drones are of a different order. They vary in size and military options. One focuses on border security and information gathering, the other on precision attacks.

According to Dan Gettinger, director at Center for the Study of the Drone in New York, Turkey has a stock of at least 1,100 drones. “Although the real number is probably even higher.” Until recently, the market was dominated by Israel, the United States and China. But today new players are entering the market: Russia, Thailand, Indonesia and Turkey. Experts at Turkish think tank Sigma in Ankara agreed. “Turkey is ambitious and goes for both unarmed and armed unmanned aircraft,” says Ahmet Dogan of Sigma. “Turkey has a preference for drones that can be deployed in ‘swarms’ in a war situation.”

However, the Turkish drone sector is relatively new. It was late in 2015 when a Turkish drone was able to successfully launch a rocket. Baykar is today the largest producer of armed drones. The main drone, the Bayraktar TB2, was deployed in three consecutive Turkish operations in Syria. They also fly above Libya. Baykar is a family business headed by Selçuk Bayraktar, Erdogan’s son-in-law. When asked for an interview or a tour of the business, the response was that the company was “too busy”.

Self-sufficient 

It is not only drones that have grown impressively in Turkey. The entire military industry is running at full speed as Turks produce armoured vehicles, attack helicopters, warships and ammunition.

The development of self-produced military material is a trend that can also be seen in the region. The arms industry is flourishing in Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan and Pakistan. By 2023, Turkey wants to be fully self-sufficient, Erdogan says.

Where does this booming market come from? What is certain is that the military campaigns against the PKK fueled the defence industry in Turkey. Although the 2016 refugee deal between the European Union and Turkey also helped. Borders must be monitored with cameras, sensors and patrols to stop refugees.

Multiply by ten

Exports of Turkish defence equipment are also on the rise. In 2019 it was around two billion euros. Erdogan wants to increase that amount by more than tenfold by 2023. Friends and foes describe that as very ambitious. The United States, Germany, Oman and Qatar are the most important customers. “Although Turkey also looks at Pakistan, Malaysia and various African countries,” says Dogan.

Military equipment was exported to the US for almost 700 million euros. Turkish weapons are also bought in Flanders, although in 2019 it was a modest sum of just under 250,000 euros. According to the monthly reports of the Flemish foreign affairs department, it is mainly rifles for hunting or sports purposes.

When it comes to drones, Turkey is clear: the country wants to compete with major drone exporters such as the US, Israel and China. Today, Qatar and Ukraine are already importing Turkish drones. Turkey is not a signatory to the UN Arms Trade Treaty, and the country does not have to adhere to international agreements on the export and use of unmanned aerial vehicles.

Proxy wars

It is no coincidence that armed drones are often used in proxy wars. “For many countries, unmanned aircraft are an easy way to keep their distance and not endanger their own people,” Gettinger says. “More than 20 countries deploy drones in Afghanistan, eight in Syria and Iraq. There is a good chance that Libya will become the new playing field.”

According to Gettinger, Turkey is exemplary of the future of drones. “Turkey produces different types of military drones, they are immediately used and exported. Be sure that other countries will follow in the coming decade.”

In the meantime, Baykar is working on the newest generation of killer drones. “According to the first images, those drones could invisibly wear a cruise missile,” says Gettinger. “That would be unique. But we are not there yet.”