Turkey’s drone industry is one of the world’s most robust. It’s also one of the world’s most controversial. That’s because the Turkish government of President Tayyip Erdogan has made the development and export of armed drones a top national security priority, and a symbol of the nation’s global influence and prestige. Turkish drone exports have assisted Libya and Ethiopia to beat back armed opposition. More recently, Turkish drones in Ukraine have helped the Zelensky government resist the Russian invasion. In fact, some observers believe that without them Zelensky might already have succumbed.
While Turkey’s drone support to Ukraine has been celebrated as heroic elsewhere it has led to widespread criticism. The Ethiopian government, faced with internal resistance, has used its Turkish drones to inflict massive civilian casualties, according to Human Rights Watch, which has condemned the government’s actions. Officially, Erdogan steadfastly denies responsibility for those casualties, saying what drone importers do with Turkish weaponry is not Turkey’s concern.
But many foreign and defense policy experts disagree. “Simply dismissing such criticism is an inadequate approach for the Turkish government on this growing issue,” notes the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in a report published last April. “Turkey needs to take concrete steps to consolidate its image as a responsible drone exporter in a manner that strengthens its prospects in a competitive market.” Carnegie called upon Erdogan not only to become more transparent about Turkey’s drone transactions but also to implement due “diligence measures such as strict adherence to relevant multilateral export control regimes and the formulation of a national code of conduct with principles to guide drone transfer policies.”
That’s unlikely to happen in the short-term – in part because Erdogan’s support to Ukraine at a time when the West, until recently, was reluctant to intervene militarily, has proven so vital. The Turkish government regularly celebrates the damage Turkish drones have inflicted on Russian forces, even posting videos for mass consumption that show drone attacks wiping out Russian tanks and armored personnel carriers. In some of those videos, Ukraine fighters shout victory slogans and even call out the name of the Turkish UAV – the TB2 – responsible for their battlefield gains.
Why is the Turkish TB2 so effective? For one thing, it can hover without being so easily detected by enemy antiaircraft. In addition, Ukraine forces often deploy a highly effective deception technique: sending dummy drones in the air to attract grund fire, which reveals the location of anti aircraft batteries, allowing for precision TB2 attacks. However, TB2 is not without its own vulnerabilities. Russian fighter jets are capable of shooting TB2s out of the sky – and apparently have, in growing numbers, of late. Moreover, Turkey does not produce the engines for its UAVs; in Ukraine, it relies on local manufacturers to power the TB2. Ultimately that dependence might provide the West with leverage to limit Turkish drone exports. For now, though, Erdogan’s free to tout his success against the Russians to deflect such pressures.