Small Wars Journal

Turkish Drone Doctrine and Theaters of War in the Greater Middle East

Thu, 11/04/2021 - 2:51am

Turkish Drone Doctrine and Theaters of War in the Greater Middle East


by Ridvan Bari Urcosta




Turkey has an advantage in drones in the military-technological revolution.  It is a short period when one country is gaining an advantage in the technology and new type of warfare hence any nation has limited time for smart use of this advantage and superiority for geopolitical gains. Neighbors  and adversaries eventually catch up,  setting a military and technological equilibrium that would constrain geopolitical adventures of any power.

Drones since the Persian Gulf War in 1991 are attributes of prestige and a symbol of the advanced level of military technologies. During the Cold War, only a few could allow themselves such technology: thetwo superpowers and Israel. After the collapse of the Soviet Union,  for two decades the United States and Israel enjoyed full superiority over the UAVs' cutting-edge technologies. In the recent decade, the advanced UAV technologies proliferated far beyond Israel, the U.S., and the West, at large. Nevertheless, recently to this club joined two powers China and Turkey. Turkish and Chinese drones are competing now in Libya for the Third World markets. If in the case of China nobody was surprised but the Turkish leap into the league of the drone powers was a stunning event for many experts and politicians. Some even labeled Turkey as “drone great power”, “drone superpower” or that Turkey introduced the new military drone doctrine.  Turkey now has 110 Bayraktar TB2, 24 ANKA drones and 10 include Israeli Heron UAVs.

For a long timeTurkey was an ordinary importer of drone technologies. In 1996 Ankara bought UAVs from the US. In2006 Turkey ordered ten unarmed Heron drones from Israel to use against the PKK in South-East Turkey. Ankara has since accused Israel that it has access to the data from these drones. A 2010 incident known as a Gaza flotilla raid dramatically undermined the drone cooperation between two states. Until 2016 Turkey relied on the United States, but in this year became crystal clear that the U.S. was not going to share UAS technologies with Turkey. In the same year, Turkey’s President of Defense Industries, İsmail Demir stated during his stay in the U.S. “I don’t want to be sarcastic, but I would like to thank [the U.S. government] for any of the projects that were not approved by the U.S. because it forced us to develop our systems,” adding that Turkey no longer wanted U.S.-made armed drones. The grand desire of Turkey at that moment was the construction of indigenous combat drones (UCAVs). Thanks to restrictive measures on drone technology of the West towards Turkey, this strategic goal was achieved by two Turkish companies that allowed to become Turkey the leading state with UCAVs that proved their effectiveness in many combats. The first company is the Turkish Aerospace Industries S.A which is developing mostly Anka drones for tactical surveillance and reconnaissance missions, but in recent years company is developing combat drones. For example, since 2018 Anka-S is equipped with the Smart Micro Munition (MAM L and C) systems. The second company,  Baykar Makina, is developing and producing the Bayraktar drones. It is a totally indigenous Turkish project.Interestingly, that the inventor of the drones is Selcuk Bayraktar. He has graduated from MIT and married Recep Erdogan’s daughter. Bayraktar gained wide recognition in May 2016 by taking part in the joint military training in Izmir, where Baykar Makina presented its new drone, the Bayraktar TB2 reconnaissance unmanned aerial vehicle. This UAV was adopted by the Turkish army in 206, making Turkey the sixthcountry in the world which is manufacturing indigenous UCAVs along the U.S., Israel, Iran, Pakistan, and China.


However, none none of other countries  have not been using the drones on such an the scale that Turkey foresees.  For countries like the U.S., countries, drones were only pieces of the bigger military puzzle. Ankara has developed a strategy that uses drones as a key tool for its military and geopolitical ambitions. Drones will allow Turkey to establish full control over the battlefield with the deployment of ground troops.

In order to understand the geopolitical scale of Turkish use of the UAVs it is important to examine the following components of Turkish strategy regarding the drone factor and drone’s warfare and the theaters of drone wars:

  1. For internal use against Kurds and the PKK. Thus, the drones are the perfect instrument against the guerrilla and insurgency groups inside the country;
  2. Military operations of Turkey in the recent years: “Olive Branch” 2018 and Operation “Spring Shield” in 2020, which is known as Turkish-Syrian Confrontation in the Idlib Province February-March 2020;
  3. Turkish drones in Libya as a crucial element of GNA’s military capabilities against the regime of Khalifa Haftar;
  4. The Aegean Theater;    
  5. Azerbaijan and the Nagorno-Karabakh: Turkish drones’ factor;
  6. Military drone cooperation with Ukraine, Qatar, Azerbaijan, Tunisia, and the GNA in Libya;
  7. Future of Turkish drones as a geopolitical tool;   


Turkish Drones Against the Kurdish PKK


The first victim or target of the Turkish drones were the military formations of the Turkish, Syrian and Iraqi Kurds. Ankara bought its first drones in 1996 in the U.S. known as GNAT-750. These drones were used in the southeast of Turkey and the Kurdish populated areas in Iraq and Syria. It has not been stopgap measures for Turkey against the PKK and its followers, it became a constant tool of surveillance, intelligence, and neutralization in the above-mentioned areas. Turkey engaged the Israelis Heron drones in October 2011, when over 100 PKK fighters killed 26 Turkish soldiers in Hakkari Province.  However, before the appearing combat drones, Turkey was not able to conduct successful operations against the Kurds with drone use merely due to the fact that drones had a big delay in delivering real-time pictures and that in the fight against small and mobile insurgents groups time minutes play a crucial role that allows relocating the troops for save places. The situation is changed when Ankara introduced the PKK combat drones Bayraktar and Anka. It permitted to Turkish Army to exercise immediate strikes against the Kurds as immediately as they were detected. It considerably undermined Kurdish rebels’ partisan war positions in the mountainous areas of South-East Turkey. The drones took active participation since May 2019 and till September 2020 in two Turkish military operations against the PKK in Iraq: Claw-Eagle and Claw-Tiger Drones prevent face-to-face encounters between Turkish law enforcement forces and militaries with the Kurdish insurgents, something that has historically aggravated the Kurdish resistance movement and has created a political backlash.


Military operations of Turkey in Syria and Iraq


The geographical coverage of the use by Turkey of the Israeli drones against the PKK since 2006 extended to Northern Iraq and Syria. Drones continued to play a critical role in helping Turkey advance its holdings and operations into Syria and some areas of the Northern Iraq. During the conflict of February-March 2020 (Operation Spring Shield), Turkish drones were operating almost everywhere in the Greater Idlib zones and reached the deep rear of the Syrian Army. The penetration into the Syrian rear had serious psychological and military consequences.  The Syrians spotted them in Hama and Aleppo the territories under Syrian Government control.  Turkey used the drones in the operation “Olive Branch” in 2018, but it was the first time at such a scale and against a foreign country that has such a powerful backer as Russia, which has become Syria's guarantor and controller of its airspace. In Afrin in 2018 and 2020 in Idlib Turkish drones haven’t been invoked by the Russian and Syrian announcement of the closure of Syrian airspace. Thus, the drones had a free hand in Northern Syria.  

In Idlib, the Turkish Army involved new drones for the first time and has used its Turkish-made ANKA-S and Bayraktar-TB2 (UCAVs) with such intensity. The drones for Turkey were not only a strategic or tactical component during the Idlib hostilities. Furthermore, Turkey actively promoted itself as a country which for the first time in the real battle used sophisticated small drones in the so-called “swarm” tactic against the Assad regime forces.  The Turkish officials described a new type of drone attack by the state armed forces as a military innovation that demonstrated Ankara’s technological prowess on the battlefield. It was the first time the country had commanded air space over such a large area using drone swarms. These swarms of remotely-controlled drones by the series destroyed Syrian bases and chemical warfare depots, as well as missile-defense systems. Russia had to intervene in the conflict both military and diplomatically in order to stop the Turkish impressive advance.

The strategic success of Turkey in Idlib and now in the Southern Caucasus is undeniable; they managed to stop the operation of the Syrian Army against the rebels and even pushed them back and in Nagorno-Karabakh, the drones are the main backbone of the cutting-edge military success of Azerbaijan against Armenia. Some bold specialists provided quite interesting characteristics that Turkey is now “a robust drone power with new technologies, concepts, and a burgeoning military-strategic cultural character prioritizing unmanned system in fighting wars.”

It is important to note that the use of drones by Turkey ignited very specific competition in all theaters of war (Libya, Syria, and now Karabakh). It is a duel between the Turkish drones against the Russian anti-aircraft missile-cannon systems Pantsir-S. The development of drone warfare immediately triggering the process of evolution of electronic warfare and the development of air-defense systems. The old systems are weak against loitering drones or missiles. 


Libya: competition with Chinese Drones and against the Russian Pantsir Systems


Turkey in recent years is the major proponent of the GNA regime in the western part of Libya and used drones to reinforce its political stance.  The impressive success of the use of the Turkish drones in Libya determined the beginning of the negotiations between Algeria and Turkey regarding the acquisition of Bayraktar drones.  The first news that Turkish drones in Libya were in 2019 and it was popular to claim that there is happening first in the history of war ongoing the drone war. The Libyan drone theater is interesting due to two factors. First is that there is happening competition between relatively cheap Chinese Wing Loong II drones that provides the UAE. Comparing with the Turkish drones they are possessing several crucial advantages in cruising altitude, range, payload, and speed. The Libyan terrain is enormous hence it requires a different altitude and range. The Bayraktar TB2 is smaller in size, speech (220 km/h), endurance (27 h.) communication range (150 km.), and payload (55 kg.), therefore Turkish drones have a limited mission set and are able to harass only supply lines in the limited areas comparing with Chinese drones. The Wing Long II for a much more robust range of missions, according to speed (370 km/h), endurance (32h.), and purportedly can carry (payload) about 400kg.

The biggest question remains, regarding the operators of these drones from both sides of the frontline in Libya – who is operating by them? It should be noted that if in the case of Libya Turkish drones are less competitive for the terrains of Azerbaijan or Northern Syria, they proved their effectiveness. Second, the same actually as in the case of Idlib is the competition or rivalry between the Turkish drones against the Russian anti-aircraft missile-cannon systems Pantsir-S1 and jamming systems. According to different reports, Turkish drones destroyed about 23 Pantsir-S1 in Syria and Libya. Russia eventually recognized that these systems are weak against drones, due to the simple reason that nobody envisaged in the project that small and middle-size drones will be part of modern warfare.     


Aegean and Cyprus War Theaters


Perspective war theaters for the Turkish drones are the Aegean and Cyprus. Both perfectly fitting into the operational capabilities of Turkish drones. From Northern Cyprus, the drones can control the entire area of Cyprus and reach the highest areas of the Troodos Mountains. The Aegean Sea is a tiny sea and it is a manageable task for the drones to establish control over the sea. Plus, more likely drones can be uses for constant control and monitoring of Greek islands and targeting and destruction of Greek ships. It is unclear how would be successful the rockets MAM ‘L’ and ‘C’ against the gunboats and mid-size vessels. Nevertheless, it is certain that in case of war the drone will be a serious challenge for the Greek ships.

 Turkey extensively and broadly uses drones for patrol and reconnaissance in sensitive areas of the region. But in the Aegean and Northern Cyprus Turkish drones are cooperating with the Turkish Navy.  Turkey uses drones as an integral part of the army or for example in February 2020 was noticed the intensification of the drones near Greece when Turkey sought to create a refugee influx. It is only begging for the Aegean and entire Turkish drone industry that in the near future Ankara will integrate new types of drones. For example, recently Turkey unveiled a new UCAV “ULAQ” or drone ship that is armed with missiles. The operational range is 400 km with a speed of 65 km/h. It is armed with four Cirit and L-UMTAS missiles produced by the Roketsan company. They are laser-guided missiles for attacking ships and helicopters. It can be operated from another ship or an aircraft for intelligence collection missions, patrol and observation, asymmetrical surface warfare, escorting ships, and protection of strategic infrastructure. The development of such technology put important geostrategic and doctrinal implications. If Turkey achieved in the airspace medium now Ankara prepares and makes a concrete move in direction of accomplishing the new generation warfare stage in the sea. In such a situation Greece has a chance to become the next Armenia that slept the alteration of the military balance between the countries. The dronization on the direction of conquering multi-medium spaces, but it should be remembered that drone is the only transitional phase to robotization of warfare. 


Nagorno-Karabakh Drone Theater


Turkey has also used drones to help strengthen its security foothold in the Southern Caucasus, a region where Turkish, Iranian, and Russian interests intersect. The issue over the Turkish drones was serious for Baku and it faced multifaceted diplomatic pressure both from the West and from the neighbors like Iran and Armenia. In June 2016 Baku has been announced that it is going to purchase the drones from Turkey alone with financial support from Turkey. Again this such news appeared a couple of weeks before the confrontation in July, when it became official that Baku is ready to buy Bayraktar drones from Turkey. The July Clashes 2020 opened the room to Turkey to initiate greater military support and on July 17 the Turkish  Defense Industry promised immediately supply Baku with UCAVs, missiles, and electronic warfare (EW) systems. The most interesting part of this drone story in this conflict that Armenia is accuses Israel of sailing to Baku drones, but at the same time, the only combat drone which Baku has from Israel is the kamikaze drones. The drones have proved a great utility here due to the region’s terrain specificities. The mountainous terrain makes it difficult to move equipment and people. Deploying UAVs is one way to observe enemy behavior as well as attack the enemy without putting at risk expensive fighter jets and their trained pilots. The drones put big uncertainty for the future of conventional warfare or for example future of the heavy tanks that were an easy target for the drones. In the areas where the drones facing some difficulties and limitations for example in the zones of Karabakh Baku reportedly use phosphorus bombs in order to burn out these zones and reveal them for the drones and artillery. 

Moreover, Baku’s drones destroyed: 114 tanks, 43 IFV/APC, 141 artillery/ MRLS, 42 SAM/Radars, 248 military vehicles. It is a full-scale war between two small countries.  The Azerbaijanis military experts even counted on Dollars the total losses it is approximately $1 billion. Only tanks up to $210 million. It is a full-scale war between two small countries. Both sides are blaming each other for bombing the territories and cities that are far beyond the front line. The most impressive losses of the Armenian side in armored vehicles - apparently destroyed half of all Armenian tanks, half of the self-propelled artillery mounts.

The Western powers only now are able to cognize the scale of the technological might of Turkey and they are trying to impose drastic anti-Turkish measures in order to prevent further development of the technologies. Israel is already considering to halt its weapons sale to Azerbaijan and take a more aggressive stance towards Ankara. Canada decided to suspend exports of drone military technology (imaging and targeting systems made by L3Harris Webcam, the Canada-based unit of L3Harris Technologies Inc.) to Turkey, Ankara reacted that it is a “double standard” policy.

The future of the use of drones in this war is depending totally on the success of the Armenian Army in finding a way to counter the combat drones and drone-kamikaze. Otherwise, Armenia would lose the war in Nagorno-Karabakh air space, other side of the situation is that the drones are able to impose on Armenia the conditions of the war of attrition.  Baku simply sends the drones and destroys the critical infrastructure of an unrecognized republic and Armenia. Turkish experts, assessing positively current drone war, and claim it as “dronization of war”.  They believe that the development of the revolutionary warfare concept is continuing its implementation from one military theater to another. This concept is perfectly fitting against the Russian and Soviet types of weaponry. The dronization is inevitable and Turkish General Staff is in this direction, the Turkish expert wrote. 


Export of the Turkish Drones


Finally, Turkey is now looking to advance its influence by exporting drones, but together with Iran (which mostly operates on the level of non-state actors in the Middle East) and China violate the non-official policy of non-proliferation policy of drone military technologies. The Obama administration imposed “a disciplined and rigorous framework” for U.S. drone exports in 2013 and it was a chance for the non-Western countries. However, these actors are benefiting from such

The current situation shows that the Turkish approach regarding drone cooperation is based upon the geopolitical priorities of Turkey. All countries that are importing Turkish drones more or less have close military cooperation and claiming that between them exists the strategic partnership.  Even the case of Egypt is striking, until Mohamed Morsi was in power Egypt promised to buy the Turkish drones, but when he was overthrown these promises have never been fulfilled. Until now only three countries have Turkish drones: Ukraine, Qatar, and Azerbaijan. Ukraine started its cooperation with Turkey in 2018 and bought 6 drones together with 200 MAM-L bombs and UMTAS missiles. Ukraine plans to use its Soviet industrial capabilities to join the building of the drones. However, Ukraine did not use them in the Donbas conflict, but it is a matter of time owing to that in the case of Baku the drones superiority creating a great temptation to for the revision of regional status quo. In October 2020 Ukrainian President visited Ankara where he pledged to buy 48 Bayraktar TB2. In 2019 30 Ukrainian operators three months conducted pieces of training in Turkey. Already in November, the Technical Director of the Turkish company Baykar Suvunma Selçuk Bayraktar announced that are successfully tested the new Ukrainian engine for the Akinci drone. Strikingly that at the same day when Putin and Erdogan were shaking hands in Sochi, in Kiev the head of the Turkish company Bayraktar Suvunma and the Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky singed the document that envisages close cooperation between the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense and Turkish company and the building of the military and drone training center near Kiev.

Particular interest should be paid to the contract which was concluded between Turkey and Poland for purchasing 24 Turkish drones. In Poland, this agreement created a big political scandal because it was considered that Poland is building an alternative system of alliances within NATO as an alternative to Berlin and Washington. However, it is a wrong assessment of Polish national interests because the geopolitical situation in Eurasia is pressuring Warsaw for a more realistic assessment of the situation. Turkey and Poland are traditional geopolitical gatekeepers of Russian influence in Europe and the Middle East. Both Ankara and Warsaw determined that their close cooperation is necessary in such turbulent times.  

From a Turkish angle, the situation is more than enjoyable.  If before, Turkey military corporations operated through the areas where Turkey has deep diplomatic ties, but the contract with the Polish Government considered as genuine recognition of the global quality of Turkish drones and technologies. Furthermore, it was a contract with the NATO member country.  If necessary, it is possible to find the unique fact that with such contract Turkey as a Muslim and eastern country concluded a contract with the traditional Western country on delivery of the high-tech military equipment. 

However, the suspension of Canadian optics exports to Turkey will not affect the completeness of the new Bayraktar TB2 for Ukraine. If Kiev and Ankara find a way for a joint venture, in the Bayraktar drones will be Ukrainian advanced engines that will put the Turkish drones in the new strategic level both in terms of military and commercial aspects. Ukraine’s engines are able to increase Turkish drones' speed capabilities to a more advanced level than they are now and their prices will be still attractive in the international market.  Another country that can be considered as a strategic partner of Turkey is Qatar possession about 16 Turkish drones. In March 2020 Turkey sells to Tunisia six Anka-S drones amid crisis in Idlib. Regarding Baku, it is unclear how many Turkish drones it has but both Azerbaijanian and Turkish sources openly indicating that Turkish drones are there and taking decisive actions against Armenians.   Turkish drones did experience some failure in operations in Libya but even so, they were much more effective and cheaper than an aircraft or pilot. Additionally, it should be noted that Turkey reportedly has extended its geography of drone export to the African continent.  Recently, was reported that Turkey is negotiating with Morocco and Ethiopia. The export of the armed drones created for Turkey geopolitical risks, in Ukraine in relations with Russia, or a case with Ethiopia with Egypt.  Turkey and Egypt are traditional geopolitical regional rivals in the Eastern Mediterranean, Northern Africa, and Near East hence the drones in the army of the potential enemy of Egyptian Armed forces would be considered as a belligerent act by Cairo. For Morocco possession of cutting-edge technologies are able to bring some success against the Polisaro Front in Western Sahara. The Turkish drones are capable to operate in the desert weather (Libya for example) and their possession can seriously harm the insurgence groups in their deep and safe rears. For example, the first time the Moroccan Armed Forces utilized the drone in April 2021 when was killed one of the Polisaro leaders. Nonetheless, it was not mentioned the country of origin of the drone.

Turkey within the last five-six years developed a complicated and sophisticated drone doctrine which was approbated on practice against Kurdish insurgencies, the Russian backed the Syrian Army; in Libya in the desert and enormous areas of Libya, and now finally in the mountainous areas of Nagorno-Karabakh. Until only Turkey developed advanced drone warfare capabilities with an outstanding experience of use of the drone in the different geographical battlefield and against different enemies. The Ukrainians are helping to use the Turkish drones in achieving geopolitical goals in Donbas. On 19 September 2021 Turkish Bayraktar Savunma and the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense signed a memorandum on the construction and arrangement of a common training and testing center for maintenance, modernization of UAVs, as well as training of personnel associated with the operation of unmanned aerial vehicles Bayraktar. The centers will be constructed in different regions of Ukraine.  Russia is concerned with so close military cooperation between Kiev and Ankara, but Erdogan managed to satisfy Moscow with the policy of “non-proportional” balancing. On one side Erdogan delivers drones to the regime in Kiev, on another hand it developing comprehensive military and economic cooperation with Russia.




The conclusion which we can make is that the drone export and Turkish foreign policy merged into a strategy that is searching the paths that would allow increasing Turkish geopolitical and economic influence at the global and regional level first of all in the Greater Middle East and the areas which before were parts of the Ottoman Empire. I would not call it Neo-Ottomanism. It is primitivization of the existence of the states throughout the centuries, the logic of geopolitics is suggesting that the appearance and rise in the Minor Asia strong state immediately create the geopolitical situation that imamates itself in the neighboring regions. The Northern Black Sea region (Ukraine), Northern Africa, the Persian Gulf, or the Caucasus with the Balkans were part of the geopolitics of Byzantium, not only the Ottoman Empire.  For the developing countries, the Turkish drone export is a chance to get access to the cutting-edge military technologies that for centuries were under a total monopoly of the Western countries. Finally, it is possible to conclude that the drone-nonproliferation policy is a dead born initiative due to Turkish or Chinese influence in this sector of the international weapon market. 

Categories: UAV - UAS - Turkey - proliferation

About the Author(s)

Ridvan Bari Urcosta is a Senior Analyst in the Polish think tank the Strategy & Future and works an analyst for the Geopolitical Futures (United States). His professional interests in the Black Sea region, Russia and the Middle East, Ukraine and Crimea as a geopolitical region and Eastern Europe. He is a PhD Candidate at the Centre for Strategic Studies, University of Warsaw.