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Turkey's Cheap Drones Quiet Killing Machines: Greece at Risk?

Αssociated Press

FILE- A Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drone is seen shortly after its landing at an airport in Gecitkala, known as Lefkoniko in Greek, in Cyprus, Monday, Dec. 16, 2019. (DHA via AP)

The new face of war – which could render tanks, rocket-launchers, air defense systems, artillery, fighter jets, and radar almost useless and defenseless – is being made in Turkey: a cheap and deadly accurate drone.

For now, it's being sold and exported to other countries militaries amid worries whether the technology could undermine NATO, the defense alliance to which Turkey belongs.

So does Greece, which at times over the past couple of years as been at near-conflict levels over Turkish provocations in the Aegean and East Mediterranean and plans to hunt for energy in waters off Greek islands.

Greece has been building international alliances and its arsenal of defenses, including French frigates and fighter jets, wants to acquire US-made F-35 fighter jets denied Turkey, but there's no report whether it has an answer to drones.

In 2018, the US Air Force – the US and Greece have tightened military alliances and the US Navy has a key base at Souda Bay on Crete – began using MQ-9 Reaper drones out of Larisa Air Force Base, said to be for reconnaissance.

There's no indication that Turkey would use them against Greece but the drones are a tipping point that can give even small militaries a decided advantage, as happened when Azerbaijan used them to devastate Armenian forces and regain lost areas of the Nagorno-Karabakh.

In a feature on the critical advantage of the Bayraktar TB2 drones, the Wall Street Journal noted that Armenia was backed by Russia – which had sold S-400 missile defense systems to Turkey that could undercut NATO.

That purchase saw Turkey shut out of the F-35 program, and turn toward developing its own drones, dissatisfied with American and Israeli versions and wanting a weapon against the PKK, a Kurdish militant group, The Wall Street Journal reported in a feature on them.

“Those countries did not cooperate with us sufficiently, so we had to launch our own program,” Mustafa Varank, Turkey’s Minister of Industry and Technology, told the paper. “Turkey is now reaping the fruits of taking the right decisions at the right time,” he said.

GAME OVER

The newspaper said that attacks by the TB2's were recorded for videos and posted online by Azerbaijan's Defense Ministry with the blog Oryx, which verifies assaults, reporting they took out 106 Armenian tanks, 146 artillery pieces, 62 multiple rocket-launch systems, 18 surface-to-air missile systems, seven radar units and 161 other vehicles.

Total losses, Oryx noted, were likely higher. Azerbaijan had 30 tanks destroyed, among other vehicles and equipment, according to the blog, leading Armenia to quickly up the fight, over-matched by the drones.

“The implications are game changing,” UK Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said in a speech last year, citing Syria’s heavy losses to Turkish drones that were employed after 30 Turkish soldiers were killed fighting there.

They're right out of a modern war movie showing how relatively cheap equipment can wipe out heavily armed and armored forces without risking the loss of a single soldier, death delivered quietly and swiftly from the air.

The drones can fly alone or in groups, strike silently against troops or armored vehicles, fly for 24 hours and detect gaps in air defense systems, fire missiles or be used to guide strikes by fighter jets and artillery.

“The US, like a lot of European partners, is leery of Turkey’s drone exports and the aggressive way Turkey has been using drones in these conflicts,”  Dan Gettinger, a researcher at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, a nonpartisan policy research group in Arlington, Virginia told the paper.

Mike Nagata, a retired U.S. Army Lt. General in Special Operations, said drones were “part of a much larger challenge regarding the future of the relationship between Turkey and the United States and NATO,” said the  story by James Marson and Brett Forrest.

THE MIT CONNECTION

The TB2's, built with affordable digital technology wrecked tanks and other armored vehicles, as well as air-defense systems, of Russian protégés in battles waged in Syria and Libya too, rattling strategists and upsetting the idea of conventional warfare.

Frantically trying to find a counter, militaries – including the US – are upgrading air defense systems to try to find a way to take down the cheap drones without firing missiles that cost more than the targets.

A set of six Bayraktar TB2 drones, ground units, and other essential operations equipment costs tens of millions of dollars, rather than hundreds of millions for the American-made MQ-9.

They proved highly effective in Syria after an air raid killed the Turkish soldiers, the drones flying for hours seeking gaps in air-defense systems, which fell “like domino tiles” once breached, said Baykar CEO Haluk Bayra.

Ismail Demir, head of Turkey’s state body overseeing the defense industry, said the low cost of these drones allows military forces to take more risks with them. “If you lose one, two, three,” he said, it doesn’t matter as long as others find a target, he told the paper.

They've also given Erdogan a big bargaining chip when it comes to getting his way, the European Union already backing away from sanctions for Turkey's claims in the Aegean and East Mediterranean, without a military.

Ironically, it was American education and know-how that led to the TB's being developed by  Selcuk Bayraktar, who took advanced studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and came up with flight-control software and guidance systems, using off-the-shelf components.