The Trouble with Turkey’s Drones


After years of widespread use, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have become synonymous with the platform’s capability to conduct “hunter killer missions.” That the UAV has both the sensor and the weapon to conduct strikes has shortened the time needed to launch precision strikes, while also removing the risks to human pilots. However, the United States’ recent high-tempo use of relatively simple systems like the Predator and Reaper has taken place during conflicts where coalition forces achieved total air dominance.

Absent the risk from air defenses, American pilots are able to operate drones with near impunity, which thereby allows for the drone to loiter on sight for hours on end. Moreover, the United States, which retains the sole capability to deploy and use drones on a global scale, has the flexibility to use drones far from its own border. Emerging drone states — at least for the foreseeable future — will not be able to replicate U.S. tactics. Thus, while much attention has been paid to the proliferation of drones and drone technology, little analytical work has been done on the secondary challenges these pose for American security interests.

Consider Turkey, which has placed great emphasis on developing its own UAV programs and integrating purchased Israeli Heron drones into its force structure. Turkey began work on airframe design, software, and communication sub-systems for its future drone in the early 1990s. The initial design work culminated in a 2004 government tender to design and develop a medium altitude long endurance drone.

The drone has since been named the Anka and is reportedly able to fly at an altitude of up to 30,000-feet for up to 24 hours. Like other emerging drone states, Turkey will initially rely on radio data links for the operation of the Anka. This means Turkey’s data-transfer burden is less demanding than that of some U.S. operated drones, but it also limits the aircraft’s range to line-of-sight (LOS) and greatly constrains the data-transfer rate. Satellite capabilities are growing over time — Turkey has an ambitious plan to launch 17 satellites in the next eight years alone — but so too are the demands for bandwidth from other branches of the armed services. This is likely to be a bottleneck for modernizing Turkish armed forces, just as it has been for the United States.

Turkey has also faced more prosaic procurement problems. After Germany’s Thielert went out of business, and the Chinese purchasing company, AVIC International, halted the export of military specific engines, Turkey was forced to seek out alternative engines for its drone. While Turkish officials had already launched a program to design an engine indigenously, the trouble with Thielert made it necessary for that process to be completed before the indigenous drone can be deployed in large numbers. The designing of an indigenous engine is scheduled to be completed by 2016.

Turkey’s procurement problem is emblematic of the hurdles that emerging drone states face as they seek to ramp up their own use of indigenously built drones. Beyond the difficulties associated with integrating drones into intelligence force structures — i.e., the bandwidth bottleneck, challenges of fusing the intelligence collected from the drone with other systems, and being able to network them with other military systems to enhance their value — states like Turkey face problems as banal as procuring engines. While Turkey will eventually overcome the developmental hurdles and deploy the Anka, it will take many years and the mastery of many different technologies before most air forces will be able to use drones as smoothly and reliably as experienced operators.

Moreover, once these systems are developed, they are certain to face many of the challenges that U.S. operators currently face. In Turkey, for example, it is unclear if Ankara will be able to use its future drones outside of a select few areas. As a recent RAND study notes, “armed UAVs alone would offer the United States few benefits in the early phases of a conflict with Syria as basic air defenses would prove lethal.” Thus, in addition to the LOS limitation (which may eventually be overcome with satcom), emerging drones states will also be limited by the inability of drones to operate in heavily contested air environments. Absent a capability to build stealthy drones, emerging drones states will only be able to fly drones in areas with permissive ISR.

In the Turkish case, it is hard to imagine Ankara operating its drones inside Syria or Iran, its two most troublesome neighbors. The Anka — and perhaps two other drones that are also in development, the Bayraktar and an unnamed high altitude drone — is likely to be relegated to flying on the Turkish side of the border for Syria and Iran-specific operations. In fact, the only area where Turkey does enjoy permissive ISR is over Iraqi Kurdistan (And this could change.).

While Ankara does not have armed drones, it is intent on developing a larger version of the Anka, which will then be capable of carrying a locally produced anti-tank missile. The development of the Anka comes amid delicate peace negotiations with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The group’s base of operation is in the Kandil Mountains, on the Kurdish side of the border. The drone, therefore, appears to have been conceived as a tool to combat the PKK in mountainous terrain, where precision strike, combined with long loiter time, is an asset for decapitating strikes on leadership.

However, in a departure from the past, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is pursuing a multi-pronged strategy to solve what many Turks have dubbed “the Kurdish question.” The AKP has, like other Turkish political parties in the past, prioritized economic investment in its Kurdish majority areas. The PKK-specific part of this policy is to bolster the region’s economy, which many Turkish analysts believe will lessen the appeal of the PKK. The AKP has paired this with a political track aimed at reaching a peace accord with the PKK.

To facilitate this approach, the AKP has incrementally agreed to increase Kurdish language and cultural rights, while also signaling a willingness to grant local municipalities greater autonomy. On the military side, the government has embraced some aspects of counterinsurgency; most notably refraining from kinetic strikes that are more likely to kill civilians, while also building what appear to be forward operating bases in Kurdish majority areas. However, prior to the peace talks kicking off, Turkish military planners appear to have used drones for signature strikes.*

In 2011, Turkish officers stationed at a joint data center, where intelligence is collected from four American-operated Predators permanently at Incirlik Air Base, directed the American drone to survey a known smuggling route near the Kurdish majority town of Uludere (Roboski in Kurdish). After a group of men were spotted crossing the border illegally, the Turks reportedly ordered the Predator to fly away. A Turkish Heron drone then picked up the surveillance and the Turkish air force bombed the smugglers.

It was later revealed that the men were not members of the PKK, but 34 Kurdish citizens attempting to eke out a living by smuggling subsidized Iraqi gasoline to Turkey for resale. The subsequent uproar prompted the Turkish government to task parliament with investigating the incident. The commission’s report, however, failed to assign blame for the incident and attributed it to operational mistakes. Turkish citizens, therefore, still do not know who authorized the use of force and under what conditions similar action could take place in the future.

Thus, despite the subsequent progress of the PKK peace process, Kurdish citizens remain angry about the strike and many believe that Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan is ultimately responsible for the killing of 34 civilians. In turn, the Kurdish claims of a government cover-up have been problematic, as both the PKK and the AKP seek to come to some agreement to end the conflict.

Moreover, the bombing suggests that Turkish state conducts so-called signature strikes, where individuals are targeted for showing signs of involvement in PKK activities, rather than only launching strikes when individuals are known to be actual members of the insurgent group. While the actual bombing of the convoy was conducted with manned aircraft, it appears as if a drone was used to cue the strike. And in the future, it stands to reasons that Ankara will seek to use its future-armed drone to conduct similar strikes.

To be sure, the United States engages in similar operations, but it is in this regard that the growing use of drones may have the biggest security implications for U.S. policymakers. As more states use drones for surveillance, to cue manned airstrikes, or to carry out strikes themselves, the United States will be indirectly affected by the ways in which they are used.

While the same issue applies to the use of manned aircraft for strikes, the use of drones to survey territory within an ally’s national border, combined with the potential use of precision-guided munitions for strikes could threaten internal stability, which would then have reverberations for U.S. security interests. More specifically, drones provide decision makers with the capability to deploy intelligence-gathering systems with little fear of human casualties. In turn, leaders face fewer constraints when deploying drones, given the fact that risk to human life is far lower. In addition, a drone’s unique capability to both loiter and then launch a PGM also raises the possibility of increased airstrikes against targets of convenience gleaned from the increased ISR coverage of rebel/insurgent strongholds.

Thus, in the cases where an allied state is fighting a domestic nationalist insurgency, the lack of risk associated with using drones — combined with its hunter killer capabilities — could prompt more “U.S. style” decapitating strikes in local conflicts. These increased strikes could then lead to greater domestic unrest in areas where the U.S. has a direct interest in the maintenance of internal stability. Moreover, the likelihood that these drones would be used to kill citizens of the allied country where the drone is operating could further add a layer of legal complexity, akin to the killing of American citizens with armed drones in Yemen. (In Turkey, for example, it is unclear how the European Union would view the use of drones for targeted assassinations in a country seeking to join the EU. The death penalty is not allowed in the EU. And the U.S. has an interest in Turkey’s EU bid moving forward.)

To be sure, the U.S. cannot stop the proliferation of drones. However, as more and more countries begin to use these systems, the United States must begin to prepare for their use in combat. While future new drone operators are likely to use their drones locally, the issues associated with how and when leaders choose to use lethal force could have implications for U.S. security interests. The United States has yet to grapple with these issues, but as one of the few countries with global security commitments, the ancillary issues that could arise from increased strikes may have secondary effects that impact U.S. interests in regions it deems vital to national security.


*ProPublica has defined signature strikes as: “A strike against someone believed to be a militant whose identity isn’t necessarily known. Such strikes are reportedly based on a ‘pattern of life’ analysis – intelligence on their behavior suggesting that an individual is a militant.”


Aaron Stein is an Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a doctoral candidate at King’s College, London and a researcher specializing in proliferation in the Middle East at the Istanbul-based Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies. He blogs at Turkey Wonk and Arms Control Wonk. Follow him on Twitter @aaronstein1.


Photo credit: AK Rockefeller