Drone envy: How Turkey’s sought-after combat weapon wins wars but also risks starting them

The central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan finally managed to gain an edge over Tajikistan in an ongoing border dispute. In late 2021, it obtained three coveted Turkish Bayraktar TB2 unmanned aerial combat drones armed with precision missiles that could take out any encroaching armour. That, officials assured the public, would help fend off any incursions by its neighbour.

But not so fast.

Just months later, Turkey agreed to sell the very same drones to Tajikistan, potentially providing Dushanbe with parity in any further military encounters. Outraged officials in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, rang up Ankara.

​​“They answered that it was just business,” Kyrgyz deputy foreign minister Jeenbek Kulubaev explained to lawmakers in April.

Turkey has eclipsed China as the world’s largest exporter of armed drones – advanced weapons that have tilted the balance of power in several wars, including the continuing conflict in Ukraine. The Bayraktar TB2, made by Istanbul-based Baykar Aviation, has become so famous in Ukraine that it could very well have become the world’s first and only weapon of war with a catchy music video devoted to it.

“Their arguments are all kinds of weapons – powerful rockets, machines of iron,” go the lyrics. “We have a response to all the arguments: Bayraktar.”

On Thursday, Lithuania’s defence minister announced a campaign by a television channel to crowdfund a TB2 for Ukrainians.

“I can’t remember such fanfare around specific weaponry,” says Joe Dyke, of Airwars, an organisation devoted to tracking civilian casualties in armed conflicts. “No one sang songs about the Predator or Reaper drones. It’s a moment where everyone is talking about Bayraktar.”

The company, founded by the late Ozdemir Bayraktar, is a powerful player in Turkey. Its CEO, Haluk Bayraktar, chairs the board of Turkey’s main defence lobby, while his brother and company CTO, Selcuk, who was featured this month in a glowing New Yorker article, is married to a daughter of Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

By law, Turkey imposes controls on the export of the $6m (£4.76m) Bayraktar TB2, and sales must be approved by the Ministry of Defence and the office of Mr Erdogan. But the exact rules and criteria for countries wishing to purchase the weapon are not public. As one official at the Ministry of Trade put it to The Independent: “It is not spoken about.”

The Bayraktar has been used with devastating effect against Russian armour to halt the advance of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, earning Turkey the friendship of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, occasional grumbling from Moscow, and rare praise from western partners at a time when relations between Ankara and its Nato allies are strained.

According to videos promoted by the Ukrainian armed forces, the TB2 has destroyed dozens of pieces of Russian armour and artillery, as well as several ships in the Black Sea. It apparently played a role in distracting the Moskva’s defences before the flagship of the Russian fleet was sunk by Neptune missiles in April.

Western officials say any alarm about the spread of the weapons has been tempered by glee at the humiliating black eye they have delivered to Russia.

“If it pisses off Russia then so be it,” said a senior western official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Russians always deny that they are responsible for weapons that end up in the hands of other forces. Turkey is turning the tables on the Russians, and gives a similar argument. ‘Yes, we sold it. But if you have a problem, you should talk to them.’”

Arms control experts have also suggested that Ukraine’s effective use of the drones against pro-Russian forces in the Donbas region, beginning in October 2021, may have prompted, influenced or hastened Mr Putin’s decision to launch an all-out invasion in February.

I can’t remember such fanfare around specific weaponry

Joe Dyke, Airwars

Baykar itself employs numerous instructors and pilots, in addition to interfacing with Turkish armed forces.

“I do wonder if the company is operating some of these systems,” says Mr Cole. “I wonder if that comes as part of the package, as it’s surprising that [their customers] could put these into operation so quickly.”

Baykar has forged manufacturing deals in both Kazakhstan and Ukraine to produce the Bayraktar and other drones.

“These are complicated and sophisticated weapons,” says Mr Mevlutoglu. “By providing expertise and knowhow, you establish a long-term relationship with that country. That acts as foreign policy leverage, and might increase foreign policy influence in those regions.”

Drones alone cannot win wars, and experts say that some of the purchases of the Bayraktar TB2 appear to be prestige buys to bolster morale and win political points for rulers.

“There are other factors which make drones successful on the battlefield, such as deployment tactics and coordination with other electronic warfare systems, which differ from state to state,” says Syed Ali Abbas Bukhari, a co-founder of Global Defense Insights, a Pakistani military publication.

But the success of the Bayraktar TB2 has proved a boon for Turkey, as well as for Baykar, which is investing heavily in future generations of drones, including the TB2-S, which can be controlled with satellite connections instead of a terrestrial antenna signal.

striking targets allegedly held by the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Iraq. Ankara-based Turkish Aerospace Industries also manufactures a line of drones that can be used for both surveillance and combat.

Baykar’s website lists several job openings for specialists in artificial intelligence, as it looks to refine its drones’ autopilot capabilities as well as “to identify the objects” in images captured by their cameras, hinting at the possibility that the drones could eventually be equipped with autonomous attack capability. Another forthcoming version of the Bayraktar can be launched from ships.

Led by Turkey’s arms industry, drones are changing warfare worldwide. But many doubt whether handing governments subject to few democratic constraints, and offering little transparency, the ability to inflict heavy damage on their adversaries without fear of personnel loss will make the world safer.

“They just seem to be supplying armed drones to whomever wants them, and have no criteria for refusal on regional security or human rights grounds,” says Mr Cole. “They seem to be just chasing the money, and that is very worrying.”

Naomi Cohen contributed to this report

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Borzou Daragahi