How Turkey Defied the U.S. and Became a Killer Drone Power

“A military drone took off from a runway, and moments later it began transmitting its view to a giant screen on stage. The video from the drone was clear enough to pick out your own face among the crowd. It was exactly what the drone’s pilot, seated in a trailer not far from the stage, was seeing. The crowd was in the crosshairs, and you could see the data about the aircraft’s pitch, roll, and altitude. In the bottom right corner of the screen, the words “Bore Invalid” indicated the drone was currently unarmed.”

“The event had all the trappings of a typical air show. Hundreds of thousands of people — from government officials to school children bussed in by the thousands — paraded around the tarmac. They posed for selfies alongside fighter jets and attack helicopters. A team of F-16s flew in close formation, leaving intricate patterns of red and white smoke in their wake. A nearly constant series of sonic booms made it difficult to talk. Massive speakers blared pulsing music.”

“Their country had entered the second drone age — in which the use of drones to kill people has proliferated far beyond the United States, the first country to kill people with missiles launched from drones after 9/11. Turkey now rivals the U.S. and the U.K. as the world’s most prolific user of killer drones, according to a review by The Intercept of reported lethal drone strikes worldwide. (Other countries that have reportedly killed people with drone-launched weapons include Israel, Iraq, and Iran.)”

“Efforts by Washington to control proliferation through restrictions on drone exports have failed to slow down a global race to acquire the technology. Meanwhile, the U.S. has set a precedent of impunity by carrying out hundreds of strikes that have killed civilians over the last decade.”

“We are well past the time when the proliferation of armed drones can in any way be controlled,” said Chris Woods, a journalist who has tracked drone use for more than a decade and director of the conflict monitor Airwars. “So many states and even nonstate actors have access to armed drone capabilities — and they are being used across borders and within borders — that we are now clearly within the second drone age, that is, the age of proliferation.””

“U.S. exports of armed Predator and Reaper drones are subject to congressional and military oversight, so the process of acquiring them remains long and complicated. Some buyers have opted instead to purchase armed drones from China, which has sold to nearly a dozen countries its CH-4, a drone that has capabilities on par with the Predator (though is less sophisticated than the Reaper). Yet even if major developers like the U.S. or China decide to restrict the sale of armed drones, the genie is out of the bottle — the technology itself can now be replicated. That’s what Turkey has done.

Turkey stands out as not only the most advanced new developer of drones but also as the only country to regularly use them on its own soil, against its own citizens.”

““Boeing, Lockheed, these are big companies right?” Bayraktar continued. “We are making those same systems. If Turkey supports this project, these drones, in five years Turkey can be at the forefront of the world, easily.”

It was an audacious pitch, but it didn’t immediately win over the officials. Before that day, Bayraktar was largely unknown among the power brokers in Ankara.

In his graduate studies in the U.S., Bayraktar’s academic colleagues came from around the world. His master’s thesis at MIT demonstrated an algorithm that could land an unmanned helicopter in very rough terrain, even vertically on a wall. The paper’s acknowledgments begin by thanking God, then his adviser, and finally a handful of close friends and the university’s Muslim Students’ Association.”
Shouldn’t b the case

“By 2007, Bayraktar had quit his PhD studies at MIT and returned to work on drones full-time in Turkey. It would take a few more years, and a few unexpected twists in international relations, for Bayraktar to find his way to the forefront of Turkey’s killer drone program.

At the time Bayraktar showed off his homemade drone, Turkey already had a drone program, developed by Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI), the country’s defense manufacturing powerhouse. But bureaucrats in Ankara, especially in the then-powerful military, thought it was wiser to purchase the technology from the U.S. and Israel rather than continue to develop it themselves, despite several decades of disappointments from those allies.

Since 1975, when the U.S. imposed weapons export sanctions after Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus, Turkey had an uneasy relationship with Washington and had sought to develop its own defense industry.”

“In 2010, Turkey and Israel cut off diplomatic relations altogether after an Israeli raid killed nine Turkish nationals attempting to sail a boat to the Gaza Strip. Later that year, Turkey unveiled what it claimed would be an indigenous drone to replace the Heron. The Anka, or Phoenix , developed by TAI, had a 56-foot wingspan and could stay aloft for 24 hours at nearly 10,000 meters, but like the Heron, it was not armed. That meant a critical link was still missing in the “kill chain,” said Ozcelik.

In 2011, for instance, hundreds of PKK fighters launched simultaneous attacks on Turkish bases in the southeastern province of Hakkari. Heron drones provided live footage from above, a front-row seat to the deadliest attack by the PKK in decades. “During those attacks the Herons just gave Turkey footage, and there were no response or rapid reaction abilities that were combined with the Heron systems,” Ozcelik said. Turkey went on to scramble thousands of troops in response, launching operations across the border in Iraq.”

“At the time, Turkey was also being provided footage and signals intelligence from the U.S., including from a handful of Predator drones piloted by the U.S. But Washington, citing concerns its NATO ally could pose a security problem for Israel, refused to sell Turkey armed drones. By 2016, Turkey had shifted away from reliance on its longtime yet unreliable ally and thought of itself in an arms race with Washington and other NATO countries. Developing its own killer drone became a top priority — and this provided an opportunity for Bayraktar.”

“Turkey’s military brass — promoted often not on merit but on demonstrations of their disdain for Islamic practices — were notoriously distrustful when it came to families like the Bayraktars who were devout Muslims.

But the young engineer, whose outspoken criticism of Turkey’s reliance on Israel was making him a celebrity, was gaining traction with the right people. In 2006, Bayraktar’s entry won a competition by the Turkish military for an unmanned mini drone, and Ankara ordered 19 of them to be deployed in the country’s southeast.”

“Bayraktars worked the lower ranks of the military, convincing soldiers to let them embed with them in the field, where they could take detailed notes on what kind of technology was needed there”

“From an altitude of 4 kilometers, the drone hit a target 8 kilometers away using a Turkish-made guided rocket. That same year, Bayraktar made inroads in a different way — he married the youngest daughter of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Since then, his company has become the preferred drone manufacturer for Turkey.”

“Turkey’s drones are a near constant presence in the skies in the country’s southeast. Nearly every day, a Turkish drone, usually a TB2, either fires on a target or provides the location of a target that is subsequently bombed by an F-16 or attack helicopter. Over the last two years, as Turkish forces have pursued the PKK into northern Syria and Iraq, the drones have allowed Ankara to eliminate members of the outlawed group from the air, earning the adoration of a nation riding a wave of patriotism.”

““You can’t surrender to an armed drone,” noted Chris Woods of Airwars. “You can’t be arrested by an armed drone. There is only one outcome when weapons engage, and that is lethal force. … And that is a great concern, particularly when armed drones are used domestically.””

“The Afrin attacks became so famous that today you can even play a smartphone game made by Turkish university students where you pilot an armed drone in Afrin. “These combat and non-combat unmanned vehicles altered the fate of the Afrin operation and gave Turkey the upper hand,” then-Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said.

Yet when it comes to who the drones are killing, not every operation is as transparent as the one that eliminated Ozden in northern Iraq.”

“Last fall, Tahir Temel and his family had to leave their home in Hakkari province and move to the city of Van. Roads leading to their village of Ogul, nestled amid mountain streams about 12 miles from the Iraqi border, were marked by checkpoints, and Temel says 23 of the 25 families living there decided to leave it for good rather than face daily questioning from soldiers.”

““Our mother lives in the village, so my brother went there for Eid, with three other men. They went there to pick her up and bring her to the town, but it was getting late, so they decided to stay there and have a picnic,” Temel told The Intercept. Tahir’s brother, 35-year-old Mehmet, father of two daughters and one son, earned a living as a construction worker, usually installing heating systems in buildings. The week before, he had been helping construct a hospital in the nearby city of Hakkari.”

“Two of the survivors, Tarhan and Sak, later told a delegation of human rights lawyers that around 10 minutes after the men returned from the village, a grey Mitsubishi pickup arrived on the scene. Four armed people emerged, who the survivors suspected were members of the PKK, and one briefly questioned Mehmet Temel, asking what they were doing there and what tribe he belonged to. Then, just as the strangers began heading for their pickup truck and one turned around to get a jacket he had left near the barbecue area, a drone struck them with a bomb. Sak told the lawyers he remembered dust covering everything, and Temel and two of the strangers lying motionless. Fearing a second explosion, Sak and Tarhan flagged down a car from the village and headed for a hospital in town.

“That’s how I learned about my brother, that he had been badly wounded and was still at the site of the explosion,” Tahir Temel said. “We tried to bring a car to them to rescue them, but by then there were soldiers all over the roads, and we couldn’t reach them.”

Back at the hospital, a crowd gathered, and soldiers and police kept them outside, firing tear gas to disperse them. “They did not even allow us to wash his body, to have a funeral for my brother,” Temel said. “They were just having a picnic, they were so close to their own home. They passed through a checkpoint to get there, it’s not an easy checkpoint, the police there look at your IDs, and that area was not some kind of prohibited area. We still don’t have an explanation for why the drone attacked.””

“In Ankara, Sezgin Tanrikulu, a lawmaker from the opposition People’s Republican Party (CHP in Turkish) held a press conference holding pictures of Mehmet Temel with his children, insisting the four men were civilians, and if they were suspected terrorists, they should have been stopped at the checkpoint they passed through. “This is something only used in a war,” Tanrikulu said. “Such practices do not exist in a state of law, but only in war, and even a war has certain rules.”

President Erdogan fired back, telling reporters “a representative from the main opposition party comes forward and criticizes armed drones. He says, they shoot civilians. Where are these civilians then? The armed drones shoot terrorists. … Our armed forces will continue its fight against terrorist organizations. CHP representatives cannot stop this.””

““Call them whatever you want — Predator, armed drone — under international law, the way they are being used, they need to be banned all over the world,” Ozturk Turkdogan, president of Turkey’s Human Rights Association, told The Intercept. His organization is one of the few groups in Turkey that tracks casualties from the war on the PKK. It began recording the use of armed drones in 2016, but it has a difficult time following up on reports of civilian casualties and relies on victims or their families to approach them with information.”

“Turkey’s current counterterrorism laws, Turkdogan says, clearly only allow the use of lethal force as a last resort. If Ankara wants to use the drones legally to avoid civilian casualties, they could. “They can go and identify the people there and call on a nearby military unit, and they would go and tell them to surrender, and if they don’t, then they can open fire,” he said. “But in practice, what is being done is the drone identifies the people, and they fire on them, or send F-16s or artillery or whatever and they kill them, and this is completely against the provisions of this law.””

“The drone technology that seeped from the U.S. to Turkey is now spreading to other countries. In January, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced his country would purchase 12 TB2s, in a deal estimated at $69 million. Several other countries, including Pakistan and Qatar, have lined up to purchase Turkish drones.

But it’s not just established governments that are availing themselves of the technology to attack their foes with unmanned aircraft.”

“The PKK has been using armed drones for a while now, and it’s becoming more frequent, and it’s actually not surprising,” said Nick Waters, an analyst at the Bellingcat investigative group who tracks the use of drones by nonstate groups in the region. “Drones have increasingly become a prestige weapon. … [T]heir use is similar to that of states. Like when the U.S. was employing armed drone strikes, it was a projection of power, and similarly, having the ability to access this power, for the PKK say, adds to your prestige.””

“The PKK, in fact, is late in adopting drones for combat. Islamic State began carrying out attacks with modified commercial drones in 2016, and according to a tally by Bellingcat, carried out more than 200 drone attacks in 2017 alone. Grenades with improvised fins attached to stabilize their fall were dropped by the commercially available drones, in operations that were sometimes recorded for slick propaganda videos.

It might seem strange that a group who regularly uses suicide bombers would want to publicize its reliance on killing from afar. But it shows how the most basic human instinct, self-preservation, continues to influence warfare. Armed drones appear to eliminate a key deterrent to combat: the chance that your own people could be harmed.

The U.S. pioneered the technology and showed the world how it could be used. Others have watched and learned. Turkey won’t be the last country to manufacture its own drones, and its public will not be the last to see them as a source of pride.”