ANKARA, Turkey — Several unmanned systems independently designed, developed and produced by Turkey’s industry have in recent years proven their export potential, providing hope for future deals with foreign customers.
Procurement policymakers say two important aspects make indigenous unmanned systems distinct from other military platforms such as helicopters and tanks: Turkish drones do not require foreign export licenses, and they are combat proven.
The Turkish military has used unmanned systems in its fight against Kurdish militants in the country’s southeast and in counterinsurgency operations in neighboring Syria and Iraq, where thousands of Kurdish fighters are holed up in mountainous areas.
The Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, has been fighting for Kurdish autonomy in southeast Turkey since 1984, when it launched a violent war responsible for the death of more than 40,000 people. Turkey, the United States and the European Union have listed the PKK as a terrorist organization.
“Turkish-made drones have proven to be a most useful asset in our anti-terror fight over the past few years,” said a top commander in charge of Turkey’s fight against the PKK. “Their usefulness is beyond our imagination.”
Scores of PKK commanders have been killed in air raids in northern Iraq, assisted by intelligence from Turkish-made drones.
In January, Baykar Makina, a privately owned Turkish drone maker, won a contract to sell a batch of 12 of its Bayraktar TB2 UAVs to Ukraine. The aircraft later passed performance tests there. The deal also involves the sale of ammunition for the armed version of the Bayraktar TB2.
In a 2017 deal, Baykar Makina sold a batch of six TB2s to Qatar. And the company recently launched a naval version of the drone.
The Turkish military currently has 75 TB2s in its inventory.
The Bayraktar TB2 is a medium-altitude, long-range, tactical UAV system. It was developed by Kale-Baykar, a joint venture of Baykar Makina and the Kale Group. The UAV operates as a platform for conducting reconnaissance and intelligence missions.
In 2011, Kale-Baykar won a serial production for the Bayraktar from Turkey’s procurement office.
The second phase involving the development and serial production of Bayraktar Block B (TB2) commenced in January 2012. Bayraktar TB2 completed its first flight in April 2014. The first acceptance tests of the UAV were conducted in November 2014, and six UAVs were delivered to the Turkish Land Forces by 2014. A second batch of six indigenous Bayraktar TB2s was handed over to the Turkish Land Forces in June 2015.
Bayraktar TB2 features a monocoque design integrating an inverse V-tail structure. The fuselage is made of carbon fiber, Kevlar and hybrid composites, whereas the joint segments constitute precision "computer numerical control” aluminium machined parts.
Each Bayraktar TB2 system consists of six aerial vehicles, two ground control stations, three ground data terminals, two remote video terminals and ground support equipment.
The drone’s maximum payload exceeds 55 kilograms. The standard payload configuration includes an electro-optical camera module, an infrared camera module, a laser designator, a laser range finder and a laser pointer.
Turkey’s national engine maker, Tusas Engine Industries, recently completed the development phase of a program to build the country’s first drone engine. TEI officials say the PD170 engine was successful in initial tests.
TEI has been working on the PD170 since December 2012, when it signed a development contract with Turkey’s procurement authority, then the Undersecretariat for Defense Industries, but know known as the Presidency of Defence Industries.
The 2.1-liter, turbo-diesel PD170 can produce 170 horsepower at 20,000 feet and 130 horsepower at 30,000 feet. It can generate power at a maximum altitude of 40,000 feet. The PD170 was designed for the Anka, Turkey’s first indigenous medium-altitude, long-endurance drone, built by Turkish Aerospace Industries.
In 2017, the Presidency of Defence Industries released a request for information for a drone system with aerial photography capabilities. It also released an RFI for the acquisition of a ship-based vertical-takeoff-and-landing drone.
To support drone programs with subsystems, the Turkish industry has locally produced the BS-101, a signals intellignece system and an automatic takeoff-and-landing system for drones.
Last year, Selçuk Bayraktar, the chief technology officer at Baykar Makina, identified the installation of wings as the latest progress on the Ucan Balik/Akinci” program (“Flying Fish/Raider”), an unmanned fighter in the making.
The Akinci is a combat UAV, but Bayraktar thinks that it could serve as an overture to a more advanced unmanned fighter jet.
“We are hoping to have our first unmanned fighter aircraft by 2023. We are also hoping to fly our first unmanned aerial vehicle that can carry up to 1.5 tons of payload for strategic missions in 2019,” said Bayraktar, the CTO.
The Akinci is the latest version of a family of drones Turkey thinks would perform well in counterinsurgency operations. In June, Turkish officials announced the country signed a contract for the development and production of the 4.5-ton Akinci. The first deliveries are scheduled for 2020.
The Akinci can reach an altitude of 40,000 feet and has a payload capacity of 1,350 kilograms, which it can carry for up to 24 hours. The aircraft is powered by two turboprop engines, each generating 550 horsepower. The engine under development by TEI, maker of the PD170.
“All these indigenous programs promise the emergence of new combat-proven systems in the next years, and without delays,” a government drone specialist with Turkey’s procurement authority said. “That will pave the way for further exports of unmanned systems.”
Burak Ege Bekdil is a Turkey correspondent for Defense News. He has written for Hurriyet Daily News, and worked as Ankara bureau chief for Dow Jones Newswires and CNBC-e television. He is also a fellow at the Middle East Forum and regularly writes for the Middle East Quarterly and Gatestone Institute.