NEW YORK/ISTANBUL — In a video posted from his personal Twitter account last week, the chief technology officer of Turkish defense company Baykar — which is owned by his family — brimmed with pride as he unveiled the details of a future unmanned combat aircraft.
Selcuk Bayraktar, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology-educated engineer in his early 40s, explained that the aircraft, known as MIUS, eventually will possess supersonic speed, stealth capability and a maximum payload of nearly 1.5 tons.
“Unmanned aircraft will change the concept of air warfare and will replace fifth-generation aircraft,” Bayraktar said while walking inside the company’s armed-drone research and production center in Istanbul, passing by various types of finished and semifinished drones. Huge flags of Turkey hung inside the facility.
In a crucial difference from drones developed elsewhere in the world, Baykar’s model can take off without a catapult from vessels with shorter tracks like Turkey’s amphibious assault ship TCG Anadolu to be delivered next year, he said, allowing it to become a force multiplier in a theater of war.
Bayraktar is the leading mind behind Turkey’s drone program and also the son-in-law of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Turkish drones, whether used directly by Ankara or provided to allies, have altered the outcomes of recent regional conflicts and captured the attention of military experts worldwide. Some of these experts characterize this new warfare — fighting with a large number of small things — as the opening phase of a revolution in military affairs (RMA).
Erdogan noted the country’s growing regional reach in a speech to ruling party lawmakers earlier this month, telling them: “Turkey now has the power, will and determination to eliminate at the source every threat to its homeland’s integrity, the nation’s unity and the state’s permanence.”
“Turkey’s security now starts not at our borders, but wherever threats exist,” he said. “We are taking the necessary steps to thwart any actual or potential threat, menace or attack against Turkey’s political and economic interests before they reach our borders.”
Turkey’s newfound military clout and the willingness to use it have raised concerns in Washington, with many members of Congress calling for President Joe Biden to curb Ankara’s actions.
In Syria, Turkey’s drone-driven assaults took out two jets, two drones, eight helicopters, 135 tanks and 10 air defense systems while killing or seriously wounding 2,557 personnel, according to Ankara’s estimate.
Richard Outzen, a geopolitical consultant and former member of the U.S. State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, calls 2020 a “watershed year for Turkish power projection.” He profiled four major overseas military campaigns involving the Turkish armed forces last year in a new report published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy titled “Deals, Drones and National Will — The New Era in Turkish Power Projection.”
In Nagorno-Karabakh, a landlocked region in the South Caucasus, Turkish-backed Azerbaijani forces destroyed 190 main battle tanks, 100 armored personnel carriers and infantry fighting vehicles, along with dozens of air defense systems, while killing more than 4,000 personnel, according to Outzen’s report. Similar devastating damage was seen in Libya and northern Iraq as well.
“The combination of access, tools, integration, experience, and will has enabled Turkey to exercise along and near its periphery what amounts to a geopolitical veto,” Outzen wrote.
Can Kasapoglu, director of the security and defense studies program at leading Turkish think tank Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM), noted the change.
“An RMA is in the making here, yet only if the right concept of operations is also applied,” Kasapoglu said.
Turkey’s demonstration of hard power represents a shift from the “zero problems with neighbors” policy under former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, an academic, when Turkey pursued accession to the European Union and sought diplomatic solutions to issues with Iran, Syria and Israel while holding talks with the armed guerrilla movement Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is designated as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the U.S. and the European Union.
“For much of the 2000s, [Turkey] thought that a friendly-to-everyone foreign policy could solve the key problems around them,” Outzen told Nikkei Asia in an interview. “But one by one, these problems not only failed to be solved, they got worse. Somewhere around 2010, ’11, ’12, there was a sea change, a fundamental atmospheric change in Turkish foreign policy, and they realized that if they did not have the hard-power ability to reach out and change the status quo, that they would have no influence over outcomes.”
This shift, combined with Erdogan’s consolidation of power and the suffocation of press freedom in Turkey, has put many members of the U.S. Congress firmly in the anti-Erdogan camp.
Victoria Nuland, undersecretary of state for political affairs, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on July 21 that the U.S. and Turkey, a NATO ally for nearly 70 years, have a “multifaceted and complex relationship.”
But the lawmakers hearing her testimony took a far sterner view of Turkey.
Sen. Robert Menendez, a Democrat and the committee chairman, took issue with Erdogan providing military support for Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and accused Turkey of facilitating the passage of mercenaries from Syria to fight on the side of Azerbaijan.
The criticism was bipartisan. Sen. James Risch, the committee’s ranking Republican, said Turkey was not acting like a NATO ally. He cited Ankara’s acquisition of Russian S-400 anti-air defense systems. In response, Washington kicked Turkey out of the F-35 fighter program, which was a motivation for Turkey to step up its development of drones.
Nuland sought a more nuanced approach, saying there are areas where the two allies “are firmly aligned in policy and outlook” but also “areas where we have profound disagreements with the Turkish government.”
“Our partnership with Turkey, which has the second-largest standing military in NATO, enables us to project power in the region and defend NATO’s eastern and southern flanks,” she said.
She also commended Turkey’s offer to handle security at the Kabul airport after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Nuland called the decision “extremely welcome and absolutely vital to all of us who want to continue to maintain robust diplomatic presence in Afghanistan.”