Turkish drones may not be gamechanger for Ukraine

This month, Turkey sold Ukraine an undisclosed number of its TB2 Bayraktar drones, continuing arms deals between the two countries that started in 2019. Since then, Turkey has sold Ukraine drone control stations, missiles, with Ukraine placing orders to get at least two dozen more drones.  

In October, Ukraine for the first time used a Bayraktar drone to attack Russian-backed separatists in its occupied territory. The drone launched a guided bomb from within Ukrainian-held territory and destroyed a separatist howitzer in enemy territory. The drone did not need to cross the Line of Contact between Ukrainian and separatist forces.

Further, in September Ukraine and Turkey signed an agreement to establish joint training and drone maintenance centers. The following month, Ukraine announced plans to manufacture Turkish drones.

Turkey’s drone warfare capabilities first gained international attention after successful operations in Syria and Libya.

In Syria, Turkey used its Bayraktar and Anka drones to conduct hundreds of strikes on the Syrian Arab Army that threatened the Turkish-backed coalition in Idlib province. In Libya, Turkish drones prevented the Libyan National Army (LNA) from capturing the capital Tripoli from the Government of National Accord (GNA), which Turkey supports.

However, it was in last year’s Nagorno-Karabakh conflict where Turkey’s drone program really hit the spotlight.

Azerbaijan used its Turkish drones to decimate Armenian forces, winning back territory it had lost in 1994. Since then, several countries apart from Ukraine, Libya and Azerbaijan have expressed an interest in acquiring Turkish drones, including Qatar, Morocco, Poland, Tunisia and Kyrgyzstan.

The Turkish drone industry traces its roots back to 1975, when the US imposed an arms embargo on Turkey for its intervention in Cyprus. That ban was considered a strategic trauma by the Turkish leadership.

For a time, Turkey used Israeli drones. However, allegations of Israeli sabotage to keep Turkey dependent on Israel for maintenance, and also the concern that Israeli drones were secretly relaying information back to Israeli intelligence, compelled Turkey to become self-sufficient in drone technology.

Turkey’s drones have been billed as a possible gamechanger in the Ukraine conflict. However, their impact may be overstated for three reasons.

First, the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict was a lopsided victory for Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan’s huge oil revenues, diverse arms suppliers, military professionalization and larger manpower reserves in contrast to Armenia were arguably more important factors than drones.

In the case of Ukraine, Russia’s massive energy revenues, high-tech arms industry, vastly larger armed forces and defense reforms present a serious overmatch. However, Russia is unlikely to directly intervene in Ukraine unless NATO openly deploys its forces there.

Plus, Russia’s economic woes from Western sanctions are arguably the biggest deterrent against direct intervention.

Second, sanctions against Turkey may prove to be the Achilles’ heel of its burgeoning drone industry. Following last year’s Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Canada scrapped permits that had allowed drone-technology exports to Turkey.

Further, a bipartisan group of US lawmakers has called for the suspension of US drone technology exports to Turkey.

Canada’s export ban and the prospects that the US will enact a similar position threaten to leave China as Turkey’s only feasible alternative for sourcing critical drone technology.

Any such dependency on China may not sit well with Ukraine, as China has been accused of entering into one-sided defense deals in its own favor, stealing sensitive Ukrainian military technology and engaging in predatory practices to purchase Ukrainian strategic defense firms.

Third, improvements in Russian anti-drone technology can blunt the advantage given by Turkish drones in Ukraine. Following the dismal performance of Russia’s Pantsir air defense systems in Libya and Syria, Russia has worked quickly on upgrades.

The upgrades to the Pantsir include improvements to its missiles, stealth and jamming resistance, fire control radar and infrared tracking systems. Also, Russia has been improving its electronic warfare (EW) capabilities with a focus on countering drone swarm attacks.

That said, it is possible such improved technology may find its way into the hands of Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine, nullifying any advantage Kyiv’s Turkish drones afford.