Turkey’s armed forces gained worldwide attention when its air force launched a remarkable and innovative airpower show-of-force against Bashir al-Assad’s Syrian Army. As part of a combined air and ground operation, the Turkish air force used its Anka-S and Bayraktar TB2 drones to conduct hundreds of strikes against Syrian Arab Army units to halt a Syrian advance that threatened the assorted security forces, irregular militias and terrorist groups that form the Turkish-backed coalition which has been trying to hang onto Syria’s Idlib governorate. The Turkish air campaign was brief, beginning on 1 March and ending just 5 days later, when Ankara and Moscow hammered out a regional cease-fire.
Since the Idlib operation, a number of articles have appeared with glowing reviews on the sophistication of Turkey’s homegrown drone force and its tactical effectiveness in Syria. While decidedly impactful, a review of the operation suggests there are some shortcomings as well. These include questions about the Turkish drones’ operational reach, lethality and survivability. Any analysis of the implications of Turkey’s demonstrated UAS strength, particularly their potential role in other conflict zones, should consider these potential vulnerabilities as well.
Operation Spring Shield
The event triggering Turkey’s drone operation in Syria was a 27 February airstrike against a Turkish military convoy and observation post that happened between the villages of Balioun and Al‑Barah in southern Idlib. The attack killed thirty-three Turkish soldiers. Although Russian aircraft had been conducting airstrikes in the area, Turkey immediately blamed Syria for the incident.[i] Three days later, Turkey launched a combined ground, artillery and air operation called “Spring Shield” against the Syrian army. For Turkey, the operation was more than just a reprisal for the Turkish deaths; it was also a counteroffensive against the Syrian Arab Army, which was, with Russian and Iranian-sponsored militia support, methodically routing the Turkish-backed militants in Idlib. The defeat of these forces would not only complete the Assad regime’s consolidation of its national territory after a decade of civil war, it would upend Ankara’s plans to use the region as a containment zone for a million desperate Syrian refugees, who would otherwise join the estimated three million Syrians already taking refuge in Turkey.
Given the number of Turkish battle losses from the Syrian airstrike, a response from Turkey was expected; however, the scale of operation Spring Shield was a surprise. It also was a marked escalation in the conflict in terms of drone employment. Until Spring Shield, Turkey had refrained from using its drones offensively against the Syrians. In the operation, Turkey claimed its drone strikes and artillery fires had knocked out over one hundred armored vehicles, dozens of artillery systems and killed hundreds of Syrian personnel.[ii] While those numbers cannot be verified, the operation was an unquestioned success in that it stopped the Syrian advance and enabled Turkey to stabilize the conditions on the battlefield.
A view from above: Image captured for drone video of an airstrike by on Syrian regime positions. (Photo: Turkish Defense Ministry)
The drone combat losses for Turkey from the operation were minimal. In a statement, the government in Damascus claimed its forces shot down six Turkish drones.[iii] That may be a fairly accurate accounting. Video posted on social media sites, such as Twitter, showed what appeared to be the wreckages of four Turkish UAS (3ea. Bayraktar TB2s and 1ea. Anka-S).[iv] [v] [vi] An additional Anka-S was probably shot down on 25 February[vii] and two other Bayraktars were downed in Syria in February prior to Spring Shield. Even with these losses, the tally was probably well within Ankara’s risk threshold for the operation. Afterall, the largest expense of sophisticated military UAS operations is not so much the aircraft, as it is the intelligence organization, communications architecture, and logistical infrastructure needed to support them. As such, losing four to six drones was a marginal cost at most.
Turkey’s Home-Grown Drone Force
Turkey’s Anka-S and Bayraktar Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAV) featured prominently in the Spring Shield operation. Both aircraft are designed and built in Turkey, the Anka-S by Turkish Aerospace Industry (TAI) and the Bayraktar TB2 by Baykar Makina. The Bayraktar is the better known of the two drone designs. Although they share similar flight performance characteristics, including endurance, maximum altitude, and speed, the Bayraktar is smaller in terms of size and payload. The Bayraktar’s payload of 55 kg is about a quarter of the Anka-S 200 kg payload capacity. Because of the size difference, smaller payload and the Bayraktar’s shorter range, Turkey considers it a tactical UCAV and the Anka-S, the larger classification, medium‑altitude long-endurance aircraft. Further, the modular design of the Anka-S gvies it more flexibility than the Bayraktar and enables it to be used for surveillance, attacks, or electronic warfare.
The Turkish UAV Workhorses: Anka-S MALE UAS (left) and Bayraktar TB2 tactical UAS (right)
The Bayraktar TB2 used by the Turkish Air Force works as a system that consists of six drones, two ground control stations, three ground data terminals, two remote video terminals and ground-support equipment.[viii] The Turkish military has approximately ninety-four Bayraktars, which operate from nine drone airbases along the Syrian border, as well as the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts.[ix] Turkey has considerably fewer Anka-S than Bayraktars (approximately 15ea. armed and 10ea. unarmed Ankas).[x]
Besides the Syrian operation, Turkey has employed Bayraktar TB2 drones against the Kurdish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Iraq and Syria. Additionally, Turkey has deployed approximately a dozen Bayraktars to Libya, where Turkey is supporting the U.N. backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in fighting against the Libyan National Army, also known as the Haftar Armed Forces (HAF), led by Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar. Turkey also exports the Bayraktar and Anka-S UAS. In the past year, Turkey has sold six Bayraktars Qatar[xi] and more to Ukraine[xii] It is believed the Qatar batch was shipped to Libya to replace battle losses there but Ukraine is keeping theirs and just accepted delivery of their first six.[xiii] [xiv] As this article was being written, Tunisia announced it was procuring six Anka-S aircraft from Ankara.[xv]
Houthi-Movement rebels pick over the wreckage an MQ-9 Reaper in Yemen, June 2019 (photo: Al-Masirah TV)
The Changing US Approach to Drones
It is somewhat ironic that a few days before Turkey’s drones began their successful operation against the Syrians, the US Air Force announced its plan to stop buying MQ-9 Reapers from General Atomics Aviation.[xvi] The Reaper is the Air Force’s hunter-killer UAV; it’s built for long-endurance, high-altitude target surveillance, acquisition, and attack. Within the U.S., the Reaper performs roles similar to Turkey’s Anka-S and Bayraktar TB2 with the Anka-S being closer in size and weight to the Reaper. The smaller Bayraktar is more comparable to the Reaper’s predecessor, the RQ-1 Predator UAV, which the Air Force retired in 2018. The Air Force’s decision to end its Reaper program marked a shift in its investment strategy from supporting counterinsurgency operations, “towards improved readiness and increased lethality for operations against near-peer adversaries.”[xvii]
The Air Force statements regarding the discontinuation of the MQ-9 Reaper program suggests some of the limitations of Turkey’s drones. As William Roper, the service’s assistant secretary for acquisition, technology and logistics, recently observed, “The Reaper has been a great platform for us. Four million flight hours, just undeniable overmatch in a low-end uncontested fight, and it is certainly saving lives,” however, as Roper told lawmakers, [When] “we look to the high end fight, we just can’t take them into the battlefield. They are easily shot down.”[xviii]
And, Predators and Reapers do get shot down. Last May, Houthi-Movement rebels in Yemen shot down an RQ-1 Predator in Yemen. The Houthis then shot down an MQ-9 Reaper in June, another in August. In Libya, the HAF, with possible help from Russian military contractors of the Wagner Group brought down an Italian RQ-1 Predator in November and the day afterward an American Reaper. Although it is important to note, the Houthi’s were supported by Iran which provide them surface-to-air missiles and the HAF was most likely helped by Russian contractors, the incidents still show the vulnerability of slower moving UAS to relatively unsophisticated air defenses.
In a way, the air force’s decision regarding the MQ-9 Reaper and recent incidents of shoot downs, reflect what is probably the ceiling for Turkey’s drone program and defines the space within which they can operate. Against opponents with limited air defenses, like the Kurdish PKK or the HAF in Libya, the Anka‑S and Bayraktar TB2 can be workhorses but in Idlib, as will be discussed, when a marginally tougher opponent such as the Syrian Arab Army is in the fight, the limitations of Turkey’s drones begin to show.
The Limitations of Turkey’s Drones
Among the ingredients that combined to create Turkey’s Spring Shield were large measures of technical superiority, massed effect, and – perhaps most importantly – the element of surprise. While Turkey will continue to maintain a level of technical superiority vis-à-vis the Syrians, achieving massed airpower and springing surprise again will be hard. The Syrians will be more ready the next time. In light of this, the Turkish military will undoubtedly conduct a critical examination of operation Spring Shield, so they are ready as well.
A topic Turkey will most likely consider in its postmortems is the lethality of the Bayraktar TB2. The armament basic load of a Bayraktar TB2 consists of MAM-L and MAM-C smart micro-guided munitions produced by Turkey’s Roketsan. The MAM-L and MAM-C are semi-active laser seeking munitions with a choice of several possible warheads (i.e., anti-reactive armor, high explosive, thermobaric, et al.). The MAM-L weighs 22 kg and the smaller MAM-C weighs 6.5 kg. The weight limitations of the Bayraktar constrains the number of MAM munitions the aircraft can carry. On the Turkish Armed Forces website, there is picture a Bayraktar with 2ea. MAM-L and 2ea. MAM-C.[xix] That configuration well represents a Bayraktar’s maximum payload.
Until the Syrian campaign, the Bayraktar’s MAM-L and MAM-C munitions were used primarily for counterterror operations against the Kurdish PKK. In this role, they attack exposed terrorists, light vehicles, and bunkers. Against these terrorist targets, the munitions are very effective. As an example, Turkey used a Bayraktar missile to kill the Kurdish PKK leader İsmail Özden, a most wanted terrorist on 5 August 2018 in Sinjar, northwestern Iraq. The strike which killed Özden is just one of hundreds of counterterror drone missions conducted by Turkey over the past three years which include large-scale operations, such as Euphrates Shield (2016-2017), Olive Branch (2018) and Peace Spring (2019) in Syria, and ongoing operations in eastern Turkey and northern Iraq.
While the Bayraktar’s armaments are lethal against terrorist targets, against heavier armor and defensive positions there are some indications the MAM-L was less effective. This might be why Turkey decided to use Spring Shield for the combat debut for the Anka-S which allowed Turkey to take advantage of the Anka’s considerably larger payload capacity.[xx]
It is unlikely Turkey will be able to increase the 55 kg payload of the Bayraktar TB2 very much, since half of its lift capacity is already allotted to the camera it carries. The TB2 uses an MX-15D camera, produced by L3-Wescam, which can weigh up to 51.4 kg with a full sensor suite.[xxi] Because of the importance of the camera to the aircraft’s mission, there are few tradeoffs to be made related to size and weight. High quality cameras factor strongly in the survivability and lethality of drones. Cameras enable the aircraft to fly high enough to avoid detection and carry essential target acquisition subsystems like laser range finders and advanced image processing. In the long term, Turkey may partially address the armament limitation of the Bayraktar and Anka UCAVs with the fielding of the Bayraktar Akıncı High-Altitude Long-Endurance UCAV. The Akıncı has twin turboprops and can carry an external payload of 900 kg.
The combined ground and air operation executed by Turkey enabled it to leverage their drones’ ability to laser designate targets for supporting artillery. The ratio of targets hit directly by Turkey’s drone weapons versus indirectly by artillery fire is unknown. Using unmanned systems in conjunction with artillery and precision munitions significantly improve lethality.
In the next fight, Turkey will have to think through how it will sustain combat power over time. In the two weeks before operation Spring Shield, Turkey lost an Anka-S and two Bayraktars in operations over Syria. During the same period, Turkey lost another two Bayraktars in Libya. While these losses seem low, when coupled with their losses in Spring Shield, the number of lost aircraft over a three-week period is noteworthy in that it represented ten to fifteen percent of their armed forces total attack drone fleet. It is guesswork to interpolate the production rate at which Baykar Makina makes Bayraktars; however, in the last five years the company has only produced approximately 118 airframes. In a longer operation against Syria with a similar rate of attrition, it might be difficult for Turkey to replace battlefield losses and sustain an effective drone operational tempo.
Generating combat power has also proven a problem for Turkey in Libya, where shoot downs and logistical challenges have combined to limit Turkey’s ability to provide air support to the GNA. The Turkish deployment to Libya looks designed to provide one Bayraktar set (6ea. aircraft) to defend the GNA in Tripoli. To do this, Turkey has twice had to deliver additional aircraft to Libya to replenish battlefield losses. The total number of aircraft shipped to Tripoli is thought somewhere sixteen and eighteen but possibly larger. Even with these efforts, analysis by the UN indicates the Turkish contingent, over a six month period was able to generate less than two Bayraktar sorties per day.[xxii]
The cruising speed of Bayraktar TB2 is only 130 kph (80 mph). When flying at low altitude, the aircraft’s slow speed makes it vulnerable to surface-to-air missiles (SAM). In February, Kurdish peoples’ protection units (SDF) operating in Afrin, north-central Syria, presented video of a wrecked Bayraktar TB2 which they claimed they shoot down using a SAM. The incident happened one day after a Turkish T129 ATAK helicopter was downed in the same area. Turkey has long held that the SDF has MANPADS and on 2 February said, they had captured a Russian SA-18 MANPADS from the SDF near Afrin.
For its engine, the Bayraktar uses an Austrian-made Rotax 912 fuel injected, 100 hp engine. This is the same engine used in the American RQ-1 Predator. The Anka-S uses a turboprop engine which enables it to fly more efficiently at higher altitudes. Originally, Anka UAS used Chinese‑made Thielert Centurion 2.0 turboprop engines which Turkey had to use because European engine sources were unavailable to them. Eventually, TAI switched to the indigenous PD170 turboprop built by Tusus Engine Industries. While using Turkish-made products will better ensure TAI is able to obtain engines, it may increase technical risk due to the relative newness of the industry.
A problem for Bayraktars is their limited operational reach — the duration and distance a system can deploy its capabilities. The Bayraktar TB2 cruises at 130 kph and is able to stay aloft for twenty-four hours; however, they have a fairly limited flight range because of their communications system. For command and control, Bayraktars are tethered to the radios of their ground support teams, which limits their effective range to about 100 miles. As a consequence of this range limitation, their operational reach is confined to northern Syria. As previously mention, Turkey has demonstrated a SATCOM communications link for the Anka-S, so Ankas could conceivably fly deeper into Syria. Doing so, however, would expose the Anka-S aircraft to a much greater risk of coming up against Syrian air defenses.
In Libya, Turkey has overcome the communications challenge of the Bayraktars by using ground relay stations to extend the range of the Bayraktars operating from Mitiga International Airport to 150 km. This has enabled to Turkish UAS to reach the Al-Jufra airbase used by General Haftar’s army.[xxiii] Extending their datalink in Syria might be harder for Turkey because of their limited control of the terrain.
Neither the Anka-S nor the Bayraktar have any means of active or passive defense from air-to-air attack or SAMs. During Spring Shield, at least twenty-nine Iranian proxy and Hezbollah soldiers were killed by Turkish drone strikes.[xxiv] In a future clash, Shia elements could use SAMs to defend themselves. As was proven when the USS Sherman confiscated 358 SAMs from a weapons smuggling dhow in the Strait of Hormuz, Iran has equipped Houthi-Movement rebels in Yemen with multiple SAMs. Tehran might do likewise in Syria to protect its proxy forces there. Such a move could greatly increase the risks posed to Turkish drones during air operations.
Had the Turkish attacks in Idlib continued, the Syrians would have been able to adjust their tactics to reduce losses by moving frequently and improving their concealment. More importantly, had Turkey continued its drone attacks, Russia might have decided to help protect Syria with air power. This was the implicit threat when Syria announced a closure of airspace over Idlib, and Russia announced it would no longer guarantee that Turkish fighter jets operating over Idlib would not be shot down.
Other Drone Players
Complicating the air picture, Turkey is not the only drone player in Syria. Russia, the terror group Hayat Tahrir al‑Sham, the US, Israel, and others conduct UAS operations in the conflict area. Interestingly, each of them has taken a unique approach to drone employment. For instance, Russian drones in Syria do not conduct kinetic strikes. Instead, they use drones primarily for reconnaissance and surveillance. The Russian drones tend to be smaller catapult-launched systems such as the Zala 421, Orlan-10, and Eleron. The Russians also fly the larger Forpost UAS, but as with the smaller drones, the Forpost is primarily an ISR platform. Aligned with Russia in Syria, Iran and its proxies also use drones such as Shahed 123 and 129, which could be armed but in practice appear mostly used for ISR and target acquisition.
The Russian approach: Soldiers from the Syrian Arab Army showoff a Russian Zala 421 recovered in Deir ez Zor, Apr 19 (left) and the wreckage of downed Orlan-10 near Hama, Syria, Sep 19 (right)
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), one of the terror organizations that devolved from the disintegration of the al-Nusra Front, flies handmade drones frequently against the Russian occupied airbases and Syrian positions. These artisanal drones tend to fall into one of two design forms: “turtle drones,” which get their name from their domed shaped fuselages and tube-drones. The crudity of their appearance belies the threat they pose on the battlefield. They are built solely for attack. The turtle drones are typically configured with drop harnesses and armed with six-to-eight grenades. The tube-drones are rigged with antitank warheads that explode when the drone crashes into its target. In addition to HTS, the remaining elements of the Islamic State in the region still possess a UAS capability but their activity is east of Idlib along the Syria-Iraq border.
Handmade drones: A turtle drone recovered by Syrian gov’t militia near in Suqaylabiyah, Dec 19 (left) and tube‑drone with antitank round recovered in Sep 19, north of Aleppo (right)
The US Air Force and Special Operations Forces also operate UAS in Syria; drones are an integral component of joint antiterror operations and terrorist high value targets. The sophistication of the US drones and the technology used in their design and configuration are far ahead of other actors in the region. The Israeli Defense Force drones that the IDF employ in Syria are also highly sophisticated; however, their operations tend to be south of Damascus and focused on destroying Syrian air defenses and countering Iranian arms and technology shipments to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Small rotary wing UAS also fly in the Syrian conflict but their role is less significant than fixed wing aircraft. When their caliphate was at its height, the Islamic State’s use of small drones, like the popular DJI Phantom, was a ubiquitous feature in the regions urban battles but since then, fixed-wing UAS, whether military grade or handmade, have become the mainstay UAS system for the various fighting factions. That said, Turkey is expending some R&D effort into rotary wing UAS. In February, Turkish armed forces received its first shipment what will be 356ea. KARGU-2 kinetic strike quadcopters. In pictures, the KARGU looks like a ruggedized, mini UAV with an explosive change underneath its body. The aircraft looks designed as a beyond line-of-sight, tactical antipersonnel weapon.[xxv]
A Look Ahead
In the Syrian conflict, drone operations will continue to represent a significant element of Turkey’s strategy for maintaining a buffer zone to retain control of Idlib and other territory along its border. Undoubtedly, Syrian forces will take various actions to mitigate the Turkish air threat to their operations. A rough outline of a counter-drone approach would likely include operations designed to attrit Turkish UAS at a steady pace, implementing tactics to reduce Syrian exposure to air attacks, and acquiring technologies which limit the effectiveness of Turkish drones.
Beyond the Syrian theater, it will be interesting to watch how Turkish drones operate and their degree of success. In an article we recently published in the Small Wars Journal, we describe how differences between operational environments greatly affects the introduction of new technologies.[xxvi] This will be undoubtedly true for the Turkish drones as they are exported to other theaters of war. Observations of the Bayraktar’s performance in Libya suggest Turkey has had trouble generating sorties and the aircraft’s impact on the battlefield is minimal. On the other hand, Tunisia may fare better with their Anka-S procurement. In Tunisia, Anka-S can operate as ISR platforms for coordinating counterterror operations against Islamist militants in the country’s northwest and law enforcement activities designed to counter illicit trafficking. There, the Anka-S may prove ideal for operating across wide open terrain where there is little risk or exposure to hostile fire.
In Ukraine, the employment of Bayraktar UCAV could be more problematic. There, the principle threat to country’s Joint Forces Operation comes from Russian-backed separatists in the Donbass Region. More so than the Syrians, the Donbass separatists in Luhansk and Donetsk have effectively demonstrated their ability, with Russian assistance, to defeat unmanned systems by using electronic warfare (EW). On many occasions, the rebels have used EW to bring down or disrupt drones being operated by the Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) to the OSCE which is monitoring compliance of the Minsk II arms agreement. In the Donbass, the SMM has detected and tracked the presence of Russia’s most advanced EW systems, such as the R-330Zh Zhitel, automated jamming communication station and the Tirada-2 EW system. It is reasonable to expect these systems would be used against Ukraine’s Bayraktars in response to an increase in hostilities in the region.
When considered in total, the Turkish drone program still represents a significant technological and engineering achievement. Aside from Turkey, there is only a handful of countries capable of producing sophisticated, military UAS. What makes Turkey’s accomplishments more remarkable is the speed with which they were done. TAI only started making Ankas in 2013, while Baykar Makina just began its Bayraktar TB2 production in 2014. The Bayraktar TB2 UCAV has been an extremely effective counterterrorism tool for Turkey and its role in Spring Shield was decisive. The lessons Turkey is learning on the battlefield in Syria will fuel further innovation and enable the country to mature an important segment of its defense industry sector.