Turkey has been developing government-owned drones and related technologies for several years, and aims to compete with major drone exporters such as the United States, Israel, and China. It has developed numerous types of drones, including medium altitude, long endurance types such as the Bayraktar TB2, the Tai Anka and the Kayarel, which are armed and used for targeted strikes. These drones have been deployed in Turkish military operations in Syria, southeast Turkey and Iraq.
In February and March 2020 Turkey deployed dozens of its ANKA-S and Bayraktar-TB2 drones in Syria to take back territory held by the Syrian government forces supported by Russia and Iran. The drones hit positions and convoys of the Syrian government forces and were deployed alongside armed fighter jets. Turkisch Defence Minister Hulusi Akar stated the Turkish forces killed more than 2500 pro-regime fighters. These numbers are likely to be exaggerated.
Reportedly, in the Turkish operation in Afrin, the “Olive Branch” and “Euphrates Shield” operations on the Turkish-Syrian border, drones provide intelligence, reconnaissance and fire support to the security forces. A report by the New York Times showed how a drone was used to track Kurdish fighters step-by-step, after which they were targeted by airstrike or artillery. In March 2018, the Turkish newspaper the Daily Sabah stated that both surveillance and combat drones had flown over 42,000 hours in total flight time, of which the Bayraktar TB2 had flown 4,000 hours in the Afrin. The paper also bolstered that the TB2 “changed the course of the operation in Afrin” and played a role in “neutralizing thousands of terrorists to date”. There have been setbacks for the TB2 too, however, as one of the Bayraktar TB2’s was shot down in January 2018.
Turkey also uses the drones within its borders. Since 2016, Turkey has killed at least 400 people in the south eastern Turkey, according to the Intercept.
Apart from armed drones, Turkey is also developing and deploying a range of smaller, ‘kamikaze’ drones such as the Togan, Alpagu and the Kargu, all of which are designed to operate together. The Alpagu is a fixed-wing loitering munition type of drones launched from a portable launcher. The Kargu is a similar multi-rotor variant. The Doğan’s reported ability to effectively monitor battlefields and gather intelligence is used for targeting support of Turkish artillery strikes.
It is estimated that Turkey has between 92 or 94 Bayraktar TB2 and 22 Anka drones. Turkey’s demand for unmanned systems has increased due to the failed coup in 2017 which led to a significant reduction in manpower of the Turkish military. The campaigns against ISIS and the PKK have also stirred up the demand for armed drones. Furthermore, in February 2018, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced his intention to make the country’s army completely self-sufficient by 2023, including through development of unmanned tanks.
There has not been any debate in the Turkish parliament on the wider impacts of the use of drones, in particular regarding targeted killings and how this is related to their national position, nor are there publicly available statements from Turkish officials regarding the legality of drone strikes or the Turkish legal position on the use of armed drones. A clear and detailed policy on how Turkey’s use of armed drones is in full compliance with international law is lacking and must be articulated and published.
Essential for developing adequate policy and preventing complicity is transparency, which is a point of major concern. Policy information is not available, nor has there been any investigation conducted on the use of armed drones. In October 2016, the minister of Defence, Fikri Isik, revealed in a Twitter post that 72 alleged fighters associated with the PKK were killed in Turkey’s fight against the PKK. More recently, these alleged fighters were said to be killed by Turkish armed drones, according to a Turkish news website. In January 2018, the Turkish government released a drone video in which Kurdish forces are neutralized by a precision strike, but according to human rights organizations, these strikes are rarely this precise and without civilian casualties, and some of these strikes may be unlawful. The Turkish government does not officially acknowledge all strikes. For example, there have been reports of Turkish drone strikes by local civilians, e.g. in Turkish Kurdistan in 2015, but the Turkish government only officially acknowledged the use of a weaponized drone in September 2016. This raises issues with regard to transparency and accountability. The Turkish government must therefore take its responsibility and clarify its position on the use of lethal force, including improving transparency around targeted strikes.
Turkey has not signed the Arms Trade Treaty, nor has it signed the Joint Declaration for the Export and Subsequent Use of Armed or Strike-Enabled Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). Turkey is member of the Missile Technology Control Regime, in which armed UAVs are covered, though the MTCR non-binding and has not specific link with international law in relation to export controls. This means Turkey has not agreed to the regulation on the production, export and use of armed and strike capable drones to that end that international law, including human rights law, is upheld. Increased proliferation and the growing deployment of drones remain key challenges that need to be addressed.
Furthermore, U.S restrictions on the sale of some weapon systems have driven Turkey to develop its own technologies. Since it is 100 percent nationally and originally designed in Turkey, the Bayraktar TB2 UAV platform and ground systems have no export limitations. “I don’t want to be sarcastic but I would like to thank [the U.S. government] for any of the projects that was not approved by the U.S. because it forced us to develop our own systems,” said İsmail Demir, who spoke during a panel discussion at the Atlantic Council think tank in May 2016. Saudi-Arabia is said to be planning to acquire six military, Turkish-produced, drones, and Qatar has signed a contract for the acquisition of 6 Bayraktar TB2 drones on the 14th of March 2018. Furthermore, in January 2018, Turkey has announced its steps into the Asian market, by their collaboration with Indonesia Aircraft company PT Dirgantara Indonesia (PTDI) to produce drones that are capable of being equipped with night vision and weapons systems. Turkey’s ambitious aim in combination with the earlier mentioned worries about transparency, complicity, and accountability, seems problematic.