Turkish drone industry advances

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When compared to major players, Turkey’s defense sector might not look that impressive, and yet it has been delivering of late. According to the 2019 report on arms transfer published by Stockholm based SIPRI, Ankara’s defense exports increased by 170% in the last four years, making it the fastest growing industry worldwide far beyond South Korea (94%) and Israel (60%).

Although most of these exports relate to ‘traditional’ weapons such as armoured vehicles (Kirpi, Cobra etc.), the country has also managed to develop indigenous capacities in a newer segment: drone warfare. It all began in 2006 when Turkey contracted Israel for the procurement of 10 unarmed Heron drones. Things went awry very soon as it took five years for Israel to deliver the aircraft. Ankara then sent them back for repairs while blaming “sabotage”, thus requiring another couple years to fix them.

Such dependencies eventually convinced Turkey to develop its own set of solutions, and the most representative here is likely the ”Anka” (Phoenix) program developed by Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI). Initiated in 2004, ‘Anka’ started with a Turkish Armed Forces’ contract for the procurement of a Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) drone for reconnaissance. Maiden flight was performed in December 2010 followed almost a year after by TAI ’ s declaration of test completion, adding that the Anka would soon enter the Army’s inventory. A later the Anka-‘S’ variant designed for serial production earned itself a procurement deal with the Air Force in 2013, while sitcom capabilities were meanwhile fitted on the drone. The debut flight of the S-variant was conducted in Feb. 2016 and although minor delays were experienced, it has entered operational service last April.

In its current form, the Anka-S is developed for day and night reconnaissance, surveillance, fixed/mobile target detection, identification, tracking and real-time image intelligence even under unfavorable weather conditions. The Anka-S has a payload of 200 kg and an altitude of 30,000 feet while its flight endurance is reportedly of 24 hours.

Another flagship program for Turkey’s indigenous drone capabilities is the Bayraktar Tactical UAS. Its name derives from Selcuk Bayraktar, a former MIT post-graduate student which showcased his first drone to Turkish officials before his 27th birthday back in 2005. Leaving the MIT in 2007 he fully dedicated himself to the program, even convincing low-rank soldiers to accompany them on operations for observation. His work eventually paid off in 2015 when Bayraktar displayed his project’s most advanced variant, the TB2. It can fly at an altitude of 24,000ft for up to 24 hours and relies on ground control for communication. With a range of up to 150 kilometers, it can carry a payload of 120 pounds and benefits from ‘semi auto-modes’ for prolonged missions. According to The Intercept there are more than 75 TB2s employed by Turkish forces today. With a total of roughly 6,000 hours they have become a useful tool to counter insurgent operations in the country’s south-eastern region. The TB-2 has since been exported to Qatar which bought six of them (March 2018) while a firm order for 12 vehicles has also recently been made by Ukraine.

Then comes the Karayel which is designed by Vestel for reconnaissance and surveillance missions. It can fly 20-hour missions at a maximum altitude of 22,500ft and a maximum speed of 80 knots while its operational range stands at 150km. The payload bay has different configurations related to either military or civilian applications. Karayel can mount two Rocketsan MAM-L munitions. Other packages include the L3 WESCAM MX15D EO/IR camera for target detection and different laser designator (laser range finder, laser target guidance and laser target marker…). Karayel’s exports have been limited to a Saudi Arabian company (SAEC) so far with a MoU later signed in 2017 for maintenance.

It was also reported by Defense News that TAI was currently working on the Goksungur, a fast (380km/h) variant of the Aksungur drone which benefits from an electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) sensor. But its Endurance is limited: at its maximum payload capacity, including weapon systems on its underwing hardpoints, the UAV can fly for 12h.

STM, another indigenous company, offers itself a tactical ‘drone suite’. Related devices are namely the Togan, the Alpagu and the Kargu. The Togan acts here as a ‘spotter’ and benefits from a range of 5km, 50mn of flight endurance and a maximum speed of 72km/h. Then come drones like the rocket-shaped Alpagu which can be operated by a single personnel in day and night operations. Its range is also of 5km for a 10mn endurance and its maximum speed reaches 120km/h. The last entry in the series is the Kargu, which acts as a “kamikaze drone” although its structure is more complex. Fitted with rotary wings, it can carry various types of ammunitions and guarantees “minimal” collateral damage. Once again its range is of 5km, and its mission endurance is of roughly 25mn, for a maximum speed of 72 km/h.

Starting from nothing in the early 2000s, Turkey is now able to provide a number of drones barely 15 years later, a number of which are already probing for contracts on the international defense market. Interestingly several Turkish drones (including TB2s) have been recently spotted over the skies of Libya in support of Tripoli’s Government of National Union (GNU), hinting that Ankara is now able to offer relatively cheap devices with few restrictions to export, thus opening a promising niche for domestic drone-manufacturers. One can bet that Ankara will likely continue to promote such devices, especially since its industry is under pressure to reach an ambitious $25bn mark in exports by 2023, although Turkey’s entire aerospace and defense sector only reached slightly more $2bn in 2018, according to IISS figures.



Written by ADIT – The Bulletin and republished with permission.