Can Turkey and the United States Come Together on Drones?


The Turkish-American relationship is tense, with little agreement over the proper response to Syria’s civil conflict or the best strategy for the U.S.-led war against the Islamic State. The relationship is far more transactional than t was during the Cold War, when the shared threat of the Soviet Union anchored the alliance.

Looking beyond the current war against the Islamic State, the United States will continue to have an interest in monitoring the Turkish border, as well as the tools to conduct a future counter-terrorist campaign in northern Syria and, potentially, as a mechanism to deter future Russian aggression and to monitor any cease fire arrangement. This presents an opportunity to work with Turkey and NATO on joint surveillance missions, built around Turkey’s interest in unmanned aerial systems, better known as drones.

This policy would build upon NATO’s Joint Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (JISR) initiative, which is intended to harmonize the alliance’s collection and sharing of intelligence. This Turkey-specific approach could also include “lessons learned” from NATO’s operations in Afghanistan, where restrictions on the sharing of intelligence hindered operations, before the creation of dedicated fusion cells, where allied personnel worked together, sharing and analyzing data primarily from U.S. operated intelligence, satellite, and reconnaissance (ISR) systems.

This NATO mission would have to be separate from Turkey’s own development of drones and its growing use of the platform – and therefore be distinct from the Turkish government’s use of drones to carry out armed strikes from manned aircraft. However, if implemented in a Syria-focused manner, it could reinforce the principle of alliance-wide burden sharing, integrate Turkish assets with a forward deployed NATO presence, and introduce aircraft and an intelligence architecture to maintain a presence along the alliance’s southern flank. The mission could also be repurposed or expanded to include monitoring of the Black Sea. Such a posture could help to deter a longer term Russia presence in the region, while also reassuring Turkey that NATO remains committed to its defense.

Turkish Drone Operations: Limited ISR

The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) are currently using tactical and medium altitude long endurance (MALE) unmanned drones to support ongoing military operations against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its urban youth militia, the YPS. The tactical range unarmed Bayraktar drone has, on at least one occasion, cued a Turkish Cobra attack helicopter missile strike during operations in the Munzur Valley, located in Turkey’s Kurdish-majority Tunceli province. It is unclear if this specific missile strike resulted in PKK or civilian causalities, but the integration of drone technology with Cobra attack helicopters is indicative of how Turkey’s military tactics are using new technology to combat asymmetric threats.

Turkey is using drones to support military operations in mountainous areas and sparsely populated suburban environments, where long range strike assets can be utilized to help decrease military causalities. In the most recent Tunceli operation (between August and October), for example, just seven Turkish military personnel were killed. Similarly, in 2012, the Turkish military used drones to cue artillery and airstrikes on PKK positions in Şemdinli, after the PKK took control of the city. During Operation Dawn (Şafak Operasyonu), the TSK suffered few losses before the PKK left its positions in the city.

In both operations, drones were used to cue manned airstrikes against a varied target set, relying on thermal imagery to identify suspected PKK members and machine gun and mortar sites – a similar approach to the one taken in Uludere in 2012, when a Turkish operated drone cued a F-16 strike on a group of Kurdish smugglers transiting the Turkish-Syrian border. The Uludere strike remains controversial and a source of considerable controversy amongst Turkey’s Kurdish minority, owing to the fact that no official has been punished for the errant strike. Little is known about the how Turkey makes decision for drone cued strikes.

Taken together, data suggests that Turkey uses a mixture of tactical Bayraktar drones, along with its small fleet of Heron MALE drones, for surveillance and to cue strikes. The United States also provides Turkey with real-time intelligence from a number of MQ-1B Predator drones based at Incirlik Air Force base. First deployed in 2011, these drones operate under joint rules of engagement set by Turkey to provide targeting data and imagery of PKK camps in Iraqi Kurdistan. At the start of this mission, Turkey did not allow the drones to use their sensors while flying in Turkish airspace. Washington and Ankara updated these rules sometime after the start of the Syrian civil conflict, permitting the United States to use these drones for surveillance in Syria. This change in tactics coincided with the start of a PKK-Turkish government ceasefire and peace negotiations, which freed the drones up for alternative missions in Syria, rather than only monitoring PKK positions in Iraq and along the border.

After the resumption of PKK-Turkish government conflict, anecdotal evidence suggests Turkey is using its drones for surveillance in domestic military operations and to direct airstrikes in Iraqi Kurdistan, including for strikes on leadership, albeit without limited success. This underscores the difficulty in finding high value targets, as well as mapping the PKK’s network for disruptive strikes on key individuals. Together, this suggests that Turkey has a shortage of ISR capabilities, despite its growing use of drones.

The Turkish military eventually intends to integrate the locally-produced Anka, a MALE drone. Similar to the MQ-1B, the Anka has a greater payload capacity than the Bayraktar, which allows the system to maintain its endurance while carrying munitions. To date, however, only 10 prototypes have been manufactured, with serial production not expected before 2017. To offset this shortage, the Turkish government seeks to purchase the American made MQ-9 Reaper, both to improve ISR and to close the “kill chain” (i.e., decrease the time from target acquisition to the release of munitions).

The United States has refused to export Reapers to Turkey, citing export control restrictions and human rights concerns — a position the United States takes for many of the world’s prospective drone importers. Turkey has pressed ahead with its own indigenous drone development, making plans to arm the Bayraktar (which would limit its endurance) and continue with development of a larger, armed variant of the Anka. In the interim, Turkey is replicating elements of the “hunter-killer” mission with a mixture of manned and unmanned systems.

The pace of operations against the PKK in the southeast — and the tactics employed — underscore the limited utility of drones in urban conflict. The Turkish military has suffered high causalities since the start of anti-PKK military operations in December (police action began in July) and areas supposedly cleared of the PKK remain violent. Moreover, the use of artillery in urban areas has led to high civilian casualties, despite the use of drones to assist with these urban operations. To be clear, drones are an important tool for Turkey. When coupled with intelligence teams and special operations forces, they can effectively disrupt urban insurgent networks, as evidenced by past American efforts against Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). However, ISR remains a precious commodity even for the U.S. military (which enjoys the world’s pre-eminent capabilities in this regard). During uptick in anti-AQI operations in Iraq, for example, other operations against different insurgent groups in Iraq (e.g., Sadrist-linked militias) did not receive as much real-time ISR coverage, limiting their effectiveness when compared with anti-AQI operations. Thus, Turkey’s situation is not unique, but rather reflective of the challenges in allocating ISR resources, especially for a military with limited means to start with.

Nevertheless, Turkey has created facts on the ground, wherein it is using indigenous capabilities to replicate elements of the “hunter-killer” mission, independent of the United States or the import of the American made Reaper. At the same time, U.S. assets, deployed in Turkey, continue to provide ISR for the anti-ISIL mission and, presumably, for Turkish military operations in Syria and Iraq.

Policy Options: Pooling ISR for Deterrence and Border Monitoring

In Syria, this creates an opportunity for the United States to engage with the Turkish Armed Forces through the continued sharing of real time data, perhaps as a complement to the current NATO AWACS mission, based at Incirlik Air Base. The further integration of Turkish and NATO/U.S. ISR capabilities could provide opportunities for collaboration, beyond the current anti-Islamic State campaign. Greater NATO-Turkish ISR synergies could continue to serve as a deterrent to what most Turkish policymakers expect to be a permanent Russian presence in Syria moving forward.

Such a deployment could provide intelligence and monitor the border and, during times of crisis, be augmented by the forward deployment of fighter aircraft. This deployment would create a longer-term, ISR focused NATO presence on the border. Such a deployment would be non-threatening, but could nevertheless serve as a potential “trip-wire” with Russia, thereby increasing deterrence without being outwardly provocative. Turkey is eager for a more pronounced NATO presence to deter Russian aggression, and could therefore be amenable to an ISR focused mission built around monitoring the border. Such a presence would increase Turkish ISR capabilities, while its own indigenous efforts continue to come online. These local assets, in turn, could also share data with NATO, increasing alliance ISR capabilities writ large. Moreover, increased real-time video could also be used to counter Russian propaganda, and could therefore be part of a more pronounced NATO policy of countering Russian disinformation.

Further still, increased ISR sharing could help monitor the post-ISIL Turkish-Syrian border, which will have a sizeable Kurdish contingent, linked to the PKK. Looking beyond the current campaign against ISIL, the United States will have to begin to grapple with the longer-term geopolitical ramifications of an empowered Syrian Kurdish movement, committed to a decentralized Syrian state – a policy Turkey rejects. At the very least, the United States has an interest in preventing the outbreak of a Turkish-Kurdish conflict along the border, which could very easily spill over into Turkey. Such a mechanism could allow for the sharing of real time intelligence, designed to enforce border an agreed upon peace in Syria.

These two policies would be independent of Turkey’s own use of drones for domestic military operations and cross-border strikes against the PKK leadership in Iraqi Kurdistan. However, it would require Turkish acceptance of the dominant Syrian Kurdish faction, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), as a legitimate actor in the current negotiations to end the Syrian civil conflict. Increased real time ISR data could also be used to reassure parties on both sides of proper adjudication during times of tensions – and deter cross border operations from both sides, owing to the likelihood of being caught (both for possible cross border PYD attacks, or Turkish strikes on PYD positions without provocation).

Turkey’s domestic use of drones, including for strikes on its own citizens, is a matter for Turkish political parties to debate, as well as for the European Union to determine how it intends to legislate this issue, while also maintaining its current stance on the death penalty. Moreover, considerable questions remain about potential military responses to the downing of unmanned systems, particularly drones flying NATO missions to monitor military activities of a near peer adversary, like Russia.

Turkey’s current drone operations underscore the system’s benefits and limitations. If leveraged properly, the United States could take advantage of the current situation to deepen cooperation with the Turkish military, while also taking a step — albeit a limited one — to contribute positively to a post-ISIL Syria. Such a move could help monitor and deter Russia’s military presence, while also deepening NATO’s presence along its new southern flank.


Aaron Stein is a Resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.