Say Hello to Turkey’s Little Friend: How Drones Help Level the Playing Field
Turkey’s recent sale of armed drones to Poland and Ukraine, and interest from other Eastern European countries, has led a cadre of analysts to suggest that Ankara is using arms sales to contain Russia. This is not the case. Moscow has studied the flagship of Turkey’s drone fleet, the Bayraktar TB2, and concluded that it is not a threat to a high-end adversary operating a layered air defense with electronic jamming. Despite this rather obvious conclusion, the TB2 has won many admirers, given the innovative way that the Turkish government has used the drone’s onboard cameras to rapidly disseminate easily shareable video clips of the system destroying Soviet-vintage air defense systems and ground combat vehicles.
Turkey has pioneered drone use for the social media age, splicing together videos of the TB2’s kills and rapidly spreading these videos and imagery through semi-official social media accounts. The videos shape narratives about the efficacy of Turkish drones and their battlefield prowess, reinforcing ideas about the future of combat. This innovative use of war propaganda is the most potent lesson from Turkey’s most recent conflicts and is likely to be copied by future drone users. The use of a drone’s sensor for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance and war propaganda is not entirely new, but Turkey has taken it to new levels, demonstrating how countries can achieve strategic effects and help drive international interest in arms sales.
A narrative surrounding the success of Turkish drones has taken hold in Turkey, which may actually shape perceptions amongst national security elites about the future of the Turkish armed forces and how Ankara should cooperate with its traditional Western allies. The successful propaganda campaign that has accompanied the TB2’s use in battle may continue to fuel an internal belief that the country can go it alone and prop up the narrative within the country that a decoupling from the United States and much of Europe is beneficial for Turkish foreign policy.
The international interest in sales of the TB2 abroad represents a win for Turkish domestic industry, but these wins are independent of a coherent political-military strategy in the wars in which Ankara is now involved. The TB2 is well-suited for small, irregular wars where Turkish intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platforms can help tilt the balance in favor of allied ground forces. This was the case in Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh. In Syria, Turkish drones were not able to overcome the Russian aerospace forces, despite the TB2 destroying significant amounts of Syrian regime equipment. In both Syria and Libya, the TB2 suffered a fairly high rate of attrition from older air defense systems, but because of the drone’s low cost, Turkey was able to sustain a high operational tempo. Still, because these drones have proved susceptible to ground fire, Russian planners have concluded that these types can be countered by a modern air defense, so there is little concern among Russian security elites about the proliferation of Turkish drones in Eastern Europe.
In this sense, the lesson from Turkey’s drone wars is one that American and Russians analysts have long understood: A cheap, simple-to-use platform has benefits in providing support to ground forces in conflicts where an adversary has little in the way of capable air defenses. However, in a peer-level conflict, drones like the TB2 are not survivable. The more salient lesson for the United States is how propaganda can shape narratives about conflict and how high-definition, drone-captured videos can shape the way in which the social-media generation understands combat.
The Nationalist Narrative: Turkish Defense Independence
The TB2’s use in regional conflicts has coincided with a sharp downturn in defense ties with Washington, following Ankara’s purchase of the Russian-made S-400 air and missile defense system. The purchase has led to Turkey’s removal from the F-35 program, in which Ankara had invested billions of dollars, and which was to form the backbone of the future Turkish air force and naval aviation. The purchase also led to the imposition of U.S. sanctions for violating the Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act, and a de facto congressional arms embargo in response to Turkey’s October 2019 invasion of U.S.-held territory in northeast Syria. Ankara has signaled no willingness to compromise with Washington over these issues, so a resolution seems remote.
The sanctions saga is certain to harden Turkish efforts to continue to invest in its own domestic arms industry to lessen its dependence on the United States. This is because the United States retains end-user rights over myriad controlled items, which means that for certain products made abroad, Washington gets a say over whether a nominally “locally made” Turkish product can be exported. Turkey’s drone program has its origins in similar constraints. The Turkish armed forces were an early adopter of drones. The country purchased the Gnat-750 even before the Central Intelligence Agency. Ankara’s desire to build upon this history of drone use, however, eventually ran afoul of U.S. export controls and a general “presumption of denial” on the sale of the armed drones. Turkey’s efforts to build an indigenous drone began almost immediately after the purchase of the Gnat-750, but it was not until Ankara was stymied from procuring armed American systems that its indigenous efforts became a focal point for the country’s arms development.
The Turkish military has been involved in a protracted, counter-insurgent campaign against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) since 1984. The PKK’s strongholds are in the tri-border mountainous area where Iraq, Iran, and Turkey converge. The terrain is hostile and difficult to hold and Ankara’s ability to find and fix targets, and then deliver munitions, was hobbled by a slow time between detecting targets and tasking aircraft to strike them. The Gnat-750 was the first effort to improve reconnaissance, but it was the American example in Iraq and Afghanistan — and then all around the world — that demonstrated the value of armed drones for low-intensity missions.
Drones Don’t Scare Moscow: The Danger of Extrapolation
The Turkish government intended to use the TB2 to support its operations against the PKK, but Ankara has used the drone as a tool to intervene in conflicts outside its borders, too. Ankara has created an off-the-shelf model for intervention that uses the TB2 to strike armor and air defense sites, or to provide intelligence in support of other weapons, such as the Israeli-made loitering munitions that were used to great effect in support of Azerbaijani forces in the Nagorno-Karabakh war. The model enabled a Turkish-backed counter-offensive in Libya that staved off the collapse of Tripoli to rival non-Turkish backed militias, and helped enable the Azerbaijani military to wrest control of much of Armenian-controlled Nagorno-Karabakh (although the role played by drones in that conflict, while critical, was secondary to that of loitering munitions). In Syria, the Turkish military used the TB2 to strike Syrian regime targets ringing the M4 highway, plinking armored vehicles and short-range, mobile Pantsir S-1 missile sites. The Turkish government quickly declassified these images, releasing them through cut-out accounts on social media to shape how its operation was perceived. This effective use of propaganda has led some to suggest that the TB2 was a decisive tool to end conflicts on Turkey’s terms and symbolized Ankara’s ascension to great-power status.
In reality, Turkey’s engagements in Libya and Syria have led to mixed outcomes, independent of Turkey’s use of force. In Libya, for example, Turkey has emerged as an important external actor in the conflict, but once Russian forces intervened with aircraft and Wagner Group mercenaries in 2020, the Turkish-backed offensive stopped and negotiations began. The Russian Federation officially denies that it sent aircraft to Libya, but the obvious deployment was a slimmed-down version of its own template for expeditionary operations: a contractor-staffed operation with links to the Russian military. The Russian template — and Turkey’s — is to use a slimmed-down, mixed aviation regiment to project force abroad and to decrease the logistics burden associated with an open-ended air campaign far from the country’s borders.
In Turkey’s case, it has been able to use airports on the border with Syria to maintain nearly constant armed overflight. Ankara safely assumes that its territory is off-limits to either Russian or Syrian attack, and therefore can fly its drones unmolested from inside its territory. A 2017 agreement in Idlib appears to have shielded the Russian and Turkish militaries from one another. This status quo broke down in late 2019, as the Syrian regime mounted a successful campaign to take back control of the M4 and M5 highways. The offensive overran Turkish outposts, leading Ankara to supply the opposition with shoulder-fired missiles. The use of these missiles against Russian and regime aircraft prompted retaliatory airstrikes, including one by a Russian fighter bomber that killed 34 Turkish soldiers. The incident prompted Ankara to use the TB2 to strike regime targets and to try and defend Seraqib, a town that sits at the junction of the two highways. Turkish pressure failed, with Seraqib falling to the regime and Moscow agreeing to a new ceasefire line that met none of Ankara’s initial demands, but which halted the regime’s offensive.
Turkish forces successfully used the TB2 to destroy Syrian regime equipment, raising the cost for the regime and pummeling the exhausted and inexperienced regime forces. During this conflict, a bifurcated targeting process emerged. Outside the single incident of a Russian aircraft targeting a Turkish outpost, Russian and Turkish forces did not target one another. Instead, Turkish TB2s would hit Syrian regime forces, while the Russians would use airpower to prevent the regime forces from being overrun in areas where the Turks concentrated fire. This strategy allowed both external actors to back their clients but still negotiate with one another to control escalation and to halt conflict if needed. The Russian goal has been to push the Syrian armed forces to the forefront of the fighting in Syria, with only Russian enablers and airpower to support offensive operations.
Lessons for the Future
The TB2 is clearly not suited for combat against a high-end adversary, but its use by Turkey shows how even middle-tier powers can use low-cost weapons in wars of attrition. This lesson is one that the United States should have already internalized, given its heavy reliance on precision munitions and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance overwatch in the post-9/11 wars.
The use of the TB2 in Libya also showed how medium-power countries can use drones to enhance propaganda to support their operations and how countries can carry out expeditionary-type operations on the cheap, without a large logistical tail that raises the cost of air operations. The Turkish military was able to forward-deploy drones in Libya and keep them flying and armed, despite a relatively high rate of attrition from ground-fired missiles. The Turkish model of intervention is potentially attractive to other middle-sized powers. A cheap drone like the TB2 can help tilt the balance in favor of an allied regional actor, without the drone operator having to deploy large numbers of troops. These troops can be deployed in relatively safe facilities— a staple of recent U.S. combat operations in Iraq and Syria — which lowers the risk of casualties.
Most of the forces dying in these conflicts are local proxies, insulating policymakers from any political blowback. The rapid declassification of strike videos, then, allows policymakers to capitalize on the “rally around the flag” effect and shape domestic and international narratives about the efficacy of combat. These videos paper over the large number of locals killed on the ground, and help shield policymakers from criticism. Take Idlib: The TB2 destroyed large amounts of regime armor and managed to kill some Pantsir S-1 air defense systems. Yet, Turkey had to settle for an outcome that fell well short of its stated political goals: the return of territory the regime had taken and a return to the 2017 ceasefire lines. Instead, Ankara managed to halt an offensive, but not roll back any of the opposition’s losses. This outcome was decidedly mixed for Turkey, but the online propaganda has reinforced the idea of a decisive victory. And this narrative, then, feeds the online chatter about some military advantage gained by Ankara “ring-fencing” Russia with drones.
The TB2 signals that the barriers to “skinny” expeditionary operations have been lowered. The United States would be wise to update its assumptions about how middle-sized powers can now project force abroad and shape narrative in easy and straightforward ways. This lesson is far more critical than thinking a small drone is a revolutionary game-changer, capable of threatening a larger power.
The story of the TB2 remains politically powerful in Turkey. As the story is told, Ankara overcame a U.S. refusal to provide it with weapons with an indigenous solution, and this indigenous solution is now on the cutting edge of warfare. This is a politically useful narrative and is likely to be used to frame Turkey’s pursuit of an indigenous jet fighter, now that Ankara has lost out on the F-35. However, the story of the TB2 is incomplete and for all the hype online, it is critical to note that analysts still have little understanding of how this platform would perform or be used against a modern adversary. The future is certain to feature more unmanned aircraft, but as of today, these systems cannot replace a modern air force. The success of the TB2 is undeniable, but those successes have been amplified through a smart and innovative way to use the drone’s sensors for propaganda. Future operators may mimic this approach, developing their own “skinny” expeditionary templates and matching information operations to lower the political costs of armed intervention and to shape how war is perceived amongst online fans enamored with tracking conflicts on Twitter.
Aaron Stein is the director of research at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.