Can Turkey break the US drone monopoly in NATO?
Poland becomes the first NATO country to purchase Turkish UAVs, which have proved their mettle in various high-intensity conflicts, TRT World reports. As Poland is set to become the first NATO member to buy Turkish armed drones, regional experts see the deal as a major step challenging the American monopoly over the sale of combat Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) at a global level.
"The agreement with Poland paves the way for more NATO countries purchasing Turkish drones in the future," Merve Seren, an Ankara-based defence analyst, told TRT World. According to Seren, the demand for Turkish drones is increasing in the global defence industry because they have successfully altered battleground equations and neutralised the enemy targets in high intensity conflicts like Syria, Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh. “The main reason for Turkey's arrival in the UAV market is the use of Turkish drones in a real war environment,” said Seren, who is an Assistant Professor at Ankara Yildirim Beyazit University.
While US drones have proved their mettle in places like Yemen and Afghanistan, Seren said China and Israel are yet to convince the world of the efficacy of their drone technology on difficult battle fronts. “This is the main reason for Turkey entering the UAV market. It is the use [of Turkish drones] in a real war environment,” she said. “While the helicopter provides limited air superiority, the UAVs provide extended air superiority for 24 hours for the soldiers on the ground.” Seren said that the conflict in Idlib in 2020 was the turning point for Turkish drones “because a full drone attack was used there.” The Turkish government carried out coordinated attacks against Bashar al Assad's army and militias loyal to him. The aerial attacks were dubbed “horde attacks.”
Good news for Poland
The contract between Ankara and Warsaw signed on Monday during a visit by Polish President Andrzej Duda to Turkey. When Polish defence minister Mariusz Blaszczak informed the public about the deal on Sunday, he described it as "good news". “I want to share some good news with my audience. #WojskoPolskie(Polish army) will be equipped with modern equipment, with unmanned aerial vehicles #Bayraktar TB2 which have a striking force and have proven themselves in the wars in the east of our continent. They were also used in Africa,” the Polish defence ministry tweeted on Saturday, quoting Blaszczak.
Poland will buy 24 Bayraktar TB2 type UAVs from Turkey and the first batch of drones will be delivered in 2022. The country has also bought a logistics and training package. The drones will be armed with anti-tank projectiles.
Turkey has become the world's fourth biggest drone producer after the US, Israel and China. The Turkish government invested energy and resources in drone innovation after feeling neglected by the US, which not only refused to sell attack drones to Ankara in 2010 and 2012, but also delayed the delivery of Patriot, a surface-to-air missile system, forcing its NATO ally to purchase S-400 missile defence system from Russia.
Bayraktar TB-2 entered the inventory of the Turkish army in 2014 and is currently used by several countries including Ukraine, Qatar and Azerbaijan. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in March that Saudi Arabia was also interested in buying the drones. No further development has been reported, however.
The military grade drones produced by the Turkish defence technology company Baykar have given Turkish security forces an advantage, especially in cross-border, anti-terror operations. In the last five years, Ankara deployed its drones in several crossborder military operations: Euphrates Shield, Olive Branch, and Spring Shield. The main aim of the Turkish army was to liberate its Syrian border from terrorist entities with a minimum number of its forces on the ground.
Turkish drones have also changed the course of the Libyan civil war by helping the UN- recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) and defeating warlord Khalifa Haftar on various battlefields across the country’s crucial western and central territories.
“The Turks saved us just in time,” the GNA Interior Minister, Fathi Bushagha, said last year in reference to the Turkish drones that were sent to Tripoli's aid. According to Merve Seren, the main factor behind the rapid rise of Turkish drones in the global market is the price and process of the sale.
Turkish drones are far cheaper and their transfer much smoother than US drones. Washington's Foreign Military Sales(FMS) program has made the transfer of drones subject to the cumbersome process of reviews and re-transfer assurances and congressional reviews. “It is obvious that drones are becoming much more beneficial in the modern world where hybrid warfare methods are used instead of the usual conventional warfare, like in Syria,” Seren said.
During last year’s Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Turkish drones managed to pin down Armenian forces, who lost at least 200 tanks, 90 armoured vehicles and 182 artillery pieces. The quick and decisive defeat of Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict prompted the UK to upgrade its combat drones and launch a new UAV programme.
According to Italian defence expert, Federico Borsari, Turkey has developed a wide variety of drones and some of them belong to the "strategic class with high payload capacity". These particular drones, according to Borsari, also possess "air-to-air and air-to-ground attack capabilities, mission interoperability with fighter jets and fully autonomous flight and take-off control systems".
Those qualities provide the Turkish armed forces with "a whole new level of ISTAR and strike capabilities that only Israel (and the US) currently possess," Borsari added.