On 1 March, the Turkish military launched an air assault on a number of Syrian government targets in retaliation for an attack that killed 34 Turkish soldiers, the highly successful strikes were not completed by squadrons of F-16 but by squadrons of armed UAVs.
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The traditional black and white footage from the drones during their strike have been making the rounds after dissemination by the Turkish Armed Forces, leading some media outlets to label the strike “unprecedented”, “revolutionary” and “innovative”, but is this a case of good marketing or a sign of future warfare.
The 1 March strikes
In a heavy response to an air raid on a Turkish mechanised unit near Idlib city that killed 34 soldiers, the Turkish forces unleashed dozens of armed drones in a series of attacks on Syrian targets.
It has claimed the attack was successful in destroying dozens of Syrian government tanks, armoured personnel carriers and air defence systems, momentarily halting the Syrian army's advance on Idlib.
The drone strikes occurred under a new operation, titled Operation Spring Shield, and Turkish sources are claiming that so far the operation has neutralised a total of 2,557 regime forces, also destroying 135 tanks, more than 40 armored vehicles, 45 cannons, 44 multiple rocket launchers, 12 anti-tanks, 29 anti-aircraft weapons, one drone, eight helicopters, nine ammunition depots, seven ammunition ramps and two jets as of 2 March.
Operation Spring Shield marks the fourth Turkish military operation in northern Syria.
The attack involved two types of drones, both domestically produced in Turkey; the Barayktar TB2 and the heavier armed, satellite linked ANKA-S, which saw its operational debut over Idlib.
The drones were used in a number of ways, including:
- as spotters for long-range artillery, identifying Syrian convoys and armoured columns and relaying their position to self propelled guns and rocket launchers that could destroy them before they moved away;
- targeting enemy positions themselves with a number of different munitions that have all been domestically developed to ensure compatibility with Turkish drone designs; and
- they were also able to engage Syrian aircraft and anti-aircraft positions when armed with the correct ordnance for the first time over a conventional battlefield in which the opposition has an active air force and air defence system.
Sitki Egeli, an assistant professor at Izmir University of Economics and the former director of International Affairs for Turkey’s Undersecretariat for Defense Industries, in an interview with Syria Direct highlighted new tactics being introduced by the Turkish forces.
"This is the first time weaponised drones are used to such an extent by a regular army against another state actor. Here you see a large scale use of drones as if they were manned aircraft," Egeli said, referring to the way drones were performing co-ordinated attacks in squadrons rather than acting individually. This also led some media sites to label them drone swarms.
Defence analyst Arda Mevlutoglu also pressed on the ability for turkey to use drone very effectively: "Turkey’s use of drones in this operation is unprecedented in modern military history. Their effective use seems to have changed the dynamics of the Syrian civil war and diplomatic manoeuvres.
"The Idlib operation is the first time Turkey has used drones in large numbers simultaneously for artillery and surveillance.
"They can also identify and illuminate targets for fighter jets operating from across the border.
"This provides high precision long-range strikes, enabling Turkey to bypass the Idlib airspace yet managing to inflict heavy casualties to Syrian Arab Army targets."
Turkey has an estimated 94 TB2 drones produced by Bayraktar, according to Dan Gettinger of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, New York.
The TB2 is a small drone that can carry limited munitions, but enough to destroy armoured vehicles. It has been used in Idlib alongside the ANKA drone from the state-owned Turkish Aerospace.
Turkey is the “leader of a group of new nations that are investing a lot in this technology and trying to make an impact”, Gettinger said.
Humble beginnings of Turkey's domestic drone industry
The attacks last week marked the culmination of years of investment and evolution for Turkey, whose military has become one of the most experienced users of drones. 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.
Much of the credit for Turkey’s drone industry has gone to the so called 'Godfather of drones' Selçuk Bayraktar, an engineer who trained in the US.
The spark came from Bayraktar in 2005 when he convinced a group of Turkish officials to view a short demonstration of a home-made drone. He had studied electrical engineering at Turkey's top university, obtained a master's at the University of Pennsylvania and was a doctoral student at MIT. During the demonstration, the officials looked on but were not too impressed and his project began to fizzle. Bayraktar's family owned and ran a company called Bayraktar Makina but it wasn't until the later 2000s that a shift in diplomatic relations would lead to the auto-parts producing organisation to focus on drone production.
Due to arms restrictions, Turkey was unable to purchase US-made drones such as the Reaper and Predator, and as such had begun looking for other options, including the development of its own drone industry.
In 2006, Turkey purchased 10 unarmed Heron drones from Israel, however, due to delays in delivery and repairs once in service they were quickly ruled out as an option for Turkey into the future. In that same year, Bayraktar won a competition by the Turkish military for an unarmed mini drone, which led to 19 being ordered.
In 2010, Turkey unveiled its indigenous drone to replace its Herons with the announcement of the ANKA drone produced by Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI), and in 2015, Bayraktar drew more attention with a live fire exercise by its most advanced drone, the TB2.
That same year, Bayraktar assured himself of the role of turkey's key drone manufacturer when he married the daughter of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
The TB2 now forms the backbone of Ankara’s aerial operations. It can fly at an altitude of 24,000 feet for up to 24 hours but relies on ground control stations for communication. With a range of up to 150 kilometres, it can carry a payload of 120 pounds, and before use in Idlib had been used widely against Kurdish forces in southern Turkey and Iraq.
Through this time the drones have acquired a higher significance as a symbol of Turkish ingenuity and military capability to the world.
Idlib – The perfect conditions for a marketing campaign
While the operation in Idlib can be seen as a success for Turkish technology and military strategy and expertise, there were some key factors that may mean it is something that will be able to be replicated in other areas.
Idlib provided a nearly perfect venue for Turkey to deploy its drone fleet to maximum effect. The area’s geography, poor condition of Syrian government forces and its shoddy implementation of Russian air defence systems all set the stage for Turkey’s success, Egeli said.
“Idlib is a very confined area in close proximity to the Turkish border,” he added. “You take off from Turkey and are there within minutes. Targets are also very close together, which means you don’t have to spend hours looking for them.”
Turkey’s experience in Idlib is in stark contrast to Libya, where Turkish drones have been extensively deployed. Their effectiveness has been severely limited by the great distances needed to be flown to reach disparate targets, as well as by the lack of off-site shooters that were used in Idlib, Egeli said.
In addition, Russian-supplied air defence systems seem to have been employed in a patchwork fashion by Syrian government forces, limiting their ability to defend against drones and qualifying claims of the Russian-made systems being entirely ineffective.
Drone strikes received extensive media coverage with features on the aircraft on Turkish TV and news organisations world over using words like "revolutionary", "changed the game", "innovative" and "unprecedented" in headlines. While not the initial goal, this was definitely a secondary victory for the Turkish military industry.
In 2018, the Turkish Ministry of Defence released a plan to boost its exports from $2 billion to $10.2 billion in 2023 and the constant stream of Syrian tanks, artillery and anti-aircraft being blasted by the drones will surely reach the minds of countries looking to increase or acquire drone capabilities.
Turkey’s well-televised experience in Idlib could have a similar boost on its defence exports. It is possible, however, that foreign military sales could run into political obstacles, as Turkey’s diplomatic isolation limits who is willing to buy its arms.
Drones 2.0 and your thoughts
In reference to the recent drone activity, Australian Strategic Policy Institute defence technology and strategy analyst Malcolm Davis also recognised the limitations to the current tech in a statement to Defence Connect, and pointed to options for Australia looking forward to ensure our technology is top of the line.
"I think the Turks are making good use of drone tech, and its promotion of those operations is nothing new per se – the Israelis do the same, and the Brits and the US have done these sorts of operations in recent conflicts against insurgent/terrorist forces. But it does highlight now that UAVs armed with precision guided weapons are becoming ‘mainstream’ – they are just another capability and Australia’s acquisition of MQ-9B Skyguardian UAVs reinforces that," Davis said.
"What is significant though is that they are being shot down. A Syrian drone was shot down a few days back. It's highlighting how vulnerable these slow, subsonic, non-stealthy platforms are becoming – and that may be one reason why the US is pausing Triton production (it lost a Global Hawk to the Iranians in 2019), and ending Reaper production. It suggests that ‘Drones 1.0’ period is ending – ‘Drones 2.0’ will be a more survivable, preferably stealthy platform, more akin to UCAVs than UAVs."
"Australia needs to respond to this change – our UAVs (if we proceed with Triton, and in the case of SkyGuardian) will most likely be operating in highly contested airspace. They will be shot down. How many can we lose and how quickly we lose them, before the investment in a Drones 1.0 solution becomes unwise? Should we cut our losses with Triton now – and look towards a more survivable solution? I think we should," concluded Mr Davis.