It is a riot of jewels at Teknofest, a technology and aviation festival at Istanbuls old Atatürk Airport. Fighter jets race in sync through the sky at high speed leaving red lines, the color of the Turkish flag. Schoolchildren and day trip people watch the spectacular air shows with open mouths. Yet it is a much smaller plane, which makes no noise, which attracts the most attention by far.
It is the latest model of armed drone, the Bayraktar Akinci by drone builder Baykar. Turkeys biggest military pride is on display on site, another one flying non-stop laps above the festival. The first and most used model, the Bayraktar TB2, can also be admired. Visitors take the picture with it, they may even touch the drones.
“This gives me a sense of pride,” says visitor Mehmet:
At least as popular as the drones themselves, are the men who make them. Brothers Selcuk and Haluk Bayraktar; American-trained engineers, who now have the status of pop stars in Turkey. Selcuk, who married President Erdogans youngest daughter in 2016, is particularly surrounded by fans asking for selfies and autographs.
The story of Turkish drones began some fifteen years ago. Selcuk Bayraktar returned to Turkey, with the knowledge he gained from the prestigious American University MIT. He started working on the design of the first Turkish drone: the Bayraktar TB2. In the meantime, the Turkish government tried to buy American drones, but unsuccessfully. The plan to make drones yourself was born.
In 2015, the first successful test flight was. Since then, drones have been part of the Turkish Air Forces permanent arsenal of arms. They are used in the Kurdish southeast of Turkey and northern Iraq in Turkeys fight against the PKK. According to human rights groups, Turkish drones have already killed hundreds, including civilians.
Turkish drones have also popped up at several Turkish military offensives in Syria in recent years. They were deployed on the side of Turkish-backed government forces in Libya. And at the end of last year, the world saw Turkish drones in action in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, held by Azerbaijan against the Armenian army.
“Our drones are in their class the best in the world right now,” says Haluk Bayraktar, shimmering with pride. “They make tens of thousands of flight hours a month and have proven themselves on the battlefield inside and outside our borders.”
The drone programme fits in with the Turkish ambition to become militarily self-sufficient. President Erdogan has invested heavily in its own arms industry over the last decade. With the aim of being as independent as possible from abroad, so that it can remain afloat in the event of arms embargoes or sanctions.
Turkish drones defining in conflict Nagorno-Karabakh
The Nagorno-Karabakh war is also seen as the breakthrough for Turkeys drone industry. Azerbaijan could not have won the war so easily if it had no Turkish (and Israeli) drones. Turkey was criticized by Western NATO allies. Turkey intervened in a long-standing conflict in the Caucasus, and supported a controversial regime in Azerbaijan there. In the European Union, votes were in favour of sanctions against Turkey. That is why Canada ceded the sale of parts that Turkey uses to make the drones.
But the Nagorno-Karabakh war had a different effect as well. Several countries first saw what Turkish drones had in their homes and queued up to buy them. Turkey sold more drones than ever before in the past year. To countries such as Turkmenistan, Qatar and Morocco, but also to Ukraine. Poland is the first NATO country to order Turkish drones. Recently it was announced that Latvia has also shown interest.
“This conflict showed that Turkish technology is capable of taking on Russian weapons systems on Armenian side,” said Sine Ozkarasahin, defence expert at think tank EDAM. “That is why this is also important for NATO.”
Drones as a means of enhancing influence
Armed killer drones are changing the character of war around the world. They are cheaper and more agile than warplanes. In addition, there is less risk for the pilot, as it is remote. The more countries have drones, the more other countries they want.
“Turkey is jumping into a gap in the market,” says Ozkarasahin. “They offer sound, but also cheaper drones than, for example, the United States. Moreover, the US has always been reluctant to sell its drone technology for fear of spread. Turkey is willing to do so.”
With drones, Turkey sets geopolitical proportions to focus. “It is a political tool for Turkey to influence the regionenlarge”, says Ozkarasahin. “Its also a message to the world: show that Turkey is a strong military country that can compete with major powers.”
There is no ethical debate on the desirability of military drones in Turkey. It is especially proud that prevails. “People are proud to use these types of technologies to guard our own sovereignty,” said Haluk Bayraktar. “Ten years ago, we tried to buy drones from other countries. And now look, were self-sufficient, and were even exporting.”