Turkey’s drone program explained in 10 questions
Last used against Russian-backed rebels in Ukraine, Turkey’s drone program has been drawing widespread international attention. What are these aircraft, and what are they used for?
Duvar English - Turkey's armed drones have been drawing widespread international attention, most recently after it was reported that they were used in the conflict in eastern Ukraine. They are also reported to have played a decisive role in Libya and Azerbaijan.
So, what exactly are these aircraft? Why is the military using them, and who have they been sold to?
1 - What are armed drones and when were they first used?
The first use of an armed drone in history is widely accepted to be in the nineteenth century when the Austrian Empire launched approximately 200 “non-piloted” balloons loaded with 10-13 kg bombs during the siege of Vienna in 1849. This was the first “unmanned” attack in history. At least one of these bombs fell on Venice, while the rest of them returned to Austrian positions as a result of the wind.
The development of modern, motorized unmanned aircraft began in the first half of the 20th century. The first were remote-controlled aircraft guided via radio frequency for espionage purposes, which then developed into assassination weapons. Particularly since the early 2000s, unmanned aircraft have been used to carry increasingly powerful bombs and weaponry.
2 - Why are armed drones preferred?
Despite the ethical questions they raise, armed drones are increasingly used by armies for pragmatic purposes. They can ensure maximum damage to enemy forces while minimizing their own human and technical cost; operators can control drones from a command center without risking their lives. Bombardments are carried out with a click.
Another advantage, according to advocates of unmanned armed aircraft, is that they are more accurate in hitting targets than conventional air weaponry. However, as the use of drones increases, two distinct disadvantages have emerged: the number of civilian deaths by drone is increasing, and remote drone operators are beginning to experience post-traumatic stress disorder, even from a distance.
These unmanned aircraft can also stay in the air much longer than typical planes and some can automatically return to base if they lose contact with flight control. However, their heavy reliance on Artificial Intelligence (AI) also raises questions about the drones acting of their own “volition.”
3 - What is distinct about drones manufactured in Turkey and how much do they cost?
Turkey’s drone program dates to the late 1990s. The most popular armed unmanned aircraft in Turkey is the Bayraktar TB2 of Baykar Defense. Baykar's Chief Technology Officer is Selçuk Bayraktar, who is President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's son-in-law. The Bayraktar TB2 is competitive because it is one of the smallest unmanned aircraft that can carry missiles.
It’s also affordable. According to The Guardian, the drone costs around $1-2 million, less than a tenth of the price of the U.S. Predator drone.
The TB2 can also be used for surveillance, reconnaissance, and intelligence. The drone can stay in the air for 27 hours, rise to an altitude of 27,000 feet, and has four laser-guided smart missiles. It has a 12-meter wingspan and is 6.5 meters long.
Baykar also produces another drone called Akıncı, an “attack” unmanned aerial vehicle, intended to withstand high altitudes.