Turkey flies “one of world’s most advanced” drones in Syria operations

A locally-built Turkish unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) described as one of the most advanced of its type in the world has been used successfully in hundreds of operations over Syria since going operational in 2015, the Aviation International News Online (AIN) site reported on Tuesday.

Turkey’s only locally-developed UCAV, the Bayraktar Tactical Block (BTB2), has clocked in over 42,000 flight hours in over a thousand operations over the last three years, including 49 occasions when it dropped weapons out of 382 sorties.

“On another 680 occasions, they found and designated targets for ensuing kinetic action by Turkey’s T129 ATAK helicopters, F-4 and F-16 tactical fighters as well as artillery,” said AIN.

The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) have been active in Syria in recent years, carrying out two major cross-border military operations to fight the mainly Kurdish forces of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) as well as the extremist jihadist Islamic State (ISIS).

The first of these, the 2016-17 Operation Euphrates Shield, pushed back ISIS forces to carve out an area of control in northern Syria west of the Euphrates river that also prevented the YPG’s control over contiguous territory along the Syrian-Turkish border.

The second, Operation Olive Branch, was launched against YPG forces in the northwest Syrian enclave of Afrin in January this year, and succeeded in capturing the town centre on Mar. 18.

Kale Baykar, the company that developed the drone, has stated that it has used data gathered during the fighting in Syria to upgrade it with “many software and electronic updating processes”.

TSK has so far received 34 BTB2s, while the gendarmerie and police force have also received six each. Half of these 46 have been modified to carry air-launched munitions, including a 50-pound smart munition developed by Turkish defence company Roketsan.

“On a typical strike mission, the BTB2 carried four such laser-guided bombs, which may come with an armor-piercing warhead, a thermobaric or a high-explosive/splinter charge. Other Turkish guided weapons specially designed for UCAVs are MAM-C with a reduced caliber and OMTAS anti-tank missile with more than eight kilometers' firing range,” said AIN.

These locally-developed UCAVs mark the first in an ambitious drive by Turkey to develop its own defence industry rather than relying on imported weaponry. A top Turkish defence procurement official stated in March that Turkey’s arsenal would soon be strengthened by land, naval and aerial unmanned vehicles, and a new aerial drone, Turkish Aerospace Industries’ Anka-T, is set to join the BTB2 soon.

This marks only a fraction of the billions of dollars in possible defence procurement projects discussed in January by a panel headed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Two of the BTB2s have been shot down since operations began, one in May 2017 over a Russian naval base in the Syrian city of Tartus, and another in February this year by the Syrian Democratic Forces, a U.S.-supported affiliate of the YPG.