The Turkish Drone That Changed the Nature of Warfare

Özdemir set out to secure government support for Selçuk’s drones. Özdemir was friendly with Necmettin Erbakan, an Islamic nationalist and a vitriolic critic of Western culture. Turkey had been a secular republic since the nineteen-twenties, but Erbakan, a professor of mechanical engineering, believed that by investing in industry and grooming technological talent the country could become a prosperous Islamic nation. In 1996, Erbakan had been elected Turkey’s Prime Minister, but he resigned from the post under pressure from the armed forces, and was banned from politics for threatening to violate Turkey’s constitutional separation of religion and the state. (Erbakan, who had developed connections with the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, blamed his ouster on “Zionists.”)

Bayraktar briefed Erbakan on his work, and by the mid-two-thousands Bayraktar was spending his school breaks embedded with the Turkish military. The Bayraktar family also had ties to Erbakan’s protégé, Erdoğan, who was elected Prime Minister in 2002. Bayraktar’s father had been an adviser to Erdoğan when he was a local politician in Istanbul, and Bayraktar recalled Erdoğan visiting the family house.

Bayraktar’s first drone, the hand-launched Mini UAV, weighed about twenty pounds. In early tests, it flew about ten feet, but Bayraktar refined the design, and soon the Mini could stay aloft for more than an hour. Bayraktar tested it in the snowy mountains of southeastern Anatolia, surveiling the armed rebels of the PKK, a Kurdish separatist movement. Feron recalled his astonishment when he contacted Bayraktar in the mountains. “He has no hesitation to go to the front lines, to really the worst conditions that the Turkish military can go into, and basically be with them, and live with them, and learn directly from the user,” he said. Bayraktar told me he prefers to field-test a drone in an active combat theater. “It needs to be battle-hardened and robust,” he said. “If this doesn’t work at ten-thousand-feet elevation, at minus-thirty-degrees temperature, then this is just another item that you have to carry in your backpack.”

Bayraktar began developing a larger drone. In 2014, he debuted a prototype of the TB2, a propeller-driven fixed-wing aircraft large enough to carry munitions. That year, Erdoğan, who was facing term limits as Prime Minister, won the Presidential election. A popular referendum had given him control of the courts as well, and he began using his powers to prosecute political enemies. “They arrested not only a quarter of active-duty admirals and generals but also many of Erdoğan’s civil-society opponents,” Soner Cagaptay, who has written four biographies of Erdoğan, told me. Bayraktar dedicated his prototype to the memory of Erdoğan’s mentor, Erbakan. “He gave all his life’s work to changing the culture,” Bayraktar said. (In his posthumously published memoirs, Erbakan asserted that, for the past four hundred years, the world has secretly been governed by a coalition of Jews and Freemasons.)

In December, 2015, Bayraktar oversaw the first tests of the TB2’s precision-strike capability. Using a laser to guide dummy bombs, the drone was able to strike a target the size of a picnic blanket from five miles away. By April, 2016, the TB2 was delivering live munitions. The earliest targets were the PKK—drone strikes have killed at least twenty of the organization’s leaders, along with whoever was standing near them. The strikes also taught Bayraktar to fight for the airwaves. Drones are controlled through radio signals, which opponents can jam by broadcasting static. Pilots can counter by hopping frequencies, or by boosting the amplitude of their broadcast signal. “There’s so many jammers in Turkey, because the PKK had been using drones, too,” Bayraktar said. “It’s one of the hottest places to fly.” Turkey’s remote-controlled counterinsurgency was thought to be the first time a country had conducted a drone campaign against citizens on its own soil, but Bayraktar, citing the threat of terrorism, remains an enthusiastic supporter of the campaign.

That May, he married the President’s daughter. More than five thousand people attended the wedding, including much of the country’s political élite. Sümeyye wore a head scarf and an immaculate long-sleeved white dress from the Paris designer Dice Kayek. By then, the Turkish state had taken on an overtly Islamic character. In the nineteen-nineties, the hijab was banned in universities and public buildings. Now “having a hijab-wearing wife is the surest way to get a job in the Erdogan administration,” Cagaptay wrote. Bayraktar regularly tweets Islamic blessings to his followers on social media, and both Sümeyye and the elder Canan wear the hijab.

Like Bayraktar, Sümeyye is a second-generation member of Turkey’s Islamist élite, and she graduated from Indiana University in 2005 with a degree in sociology. “She has great ethics,” Bayraktar told me. “She She’s a real challenger.” Other people describe her as a fashionable, feminist upgrade on her father’s politics—a Turkish version of Ivanka Trump. “Women have lost significantly under Erdoğan in terms of access to political power,” Cagaptay told me. “When there are women appointed in the cabinet, they have token jobs.”

In June, 2016, terrorists affiliated with ISIS killed forty-five people at the Istanbul airport, and soon a new front was opened in Syria, where Turkey used Bayraktar’s drones to attack the short-lived ISIS caliphate (The drones were later turned on Syria’s Kurds.) In July, a small group inside the Turkish military staged a coup against Erdoğan. The coup was chaotic and unpopular—the main opposition parties condemned it, a conspirator flying a fighter jet dropped a bomb on the Turkish parliament, and Erdoğan was reportedly targeted by an assassination squad sent to his hotel. Erdoğan blamed the followers of Fetullah Gülen, an exiled cleric and political leader who now lives in Pennsylvania, and purged more than a hundred thousand government employees. (Gülen denies involvement in the coup.) Bayraktar was now part of Erdoğan’s inner circle, and his drones were marketed for export.

Bayraktar is a Turkish celebrity, and his social-media feeds are crowded with patriotic reply guys. when he gives talks to trainee pilots, which he does often, he wears a leather jacket decorated with flight patches; when he tours universities, which he also does often, he wears a blazer over a turtleneck. In our conversation, he referred to concepts from critical gender theory, spoke of Russia’s violations of international law, and quoted Benjamin Franklin: “Those who give up essential freedom for temporary security deserve neither security nor freedom.” But he is also an outspoken defender of Erdogan’s government. In 2017, Erdoğan held a constitutional referendum that resulted in the dissolution of the post of Prime Minister, effectively enshrining his control of the state. Using politically motivated tax audits to seize independent media outlets, his government sold them in single-bidder “auctions” to supporters, and a number of journalists have been jailed for the crime of “insulting the President.” Erdoğan frequently sues journalists, and Bayraktar has done so, too. He recently celebrated a thirty-thousand-ra fine levied against Çiğdem Toker, who was investigating a foundation that Bayraktar helps run. Bayraktar tweeted, “Journalism: Lying, fraud, shamelessness.”

Bayraktar’s older brother, Haluk, is the CEO of Baykar Technologies; Selçuk is the CTO and the chairman of the board. (Their died last year.) In addition to being used in Ukraine and Azerbaijan, TB2s have been deployed by the father of Nigeria, Ethiopia, Qatar, Libya, Morocco, and Poland. When I spoke with Bayraktar, Baykar had just completed a sales call in East Asia, marketing its forthcoming TB3 drone, which can be launched from a boat.

Several news sources have reported that a single TB2 drone can be purchased for a million dollars, but Bayraktar, while not giving a precise figure, told me that it costs more. In any event, single-unit figures are misleading; TB2s are sold as a “platform,” along with portable command stations and communications equipment. In 2019, Ukraine bought a fleet of at least six TB2s for a reported sixty-nine million dollars; a similar fleet of Reaper drones costs about six times that. “Tactically, it’s right in the sweet spot,” Bayraktar said of the TB2. “It’s not too small, but it’s not too big. And it’s not too cheap, but it’s not too expensive.”

Once a fleet is purchased, operators travel to a facility in western Turkey for several months of training. “You don’t just buy it,” Mark Cancian, a military-procurement specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told me. “You have married the supplier, because you need a constant stream of spare parts and repair expertise.” Turkey has become adept at leveraging this relationship. It struck a defense deal with Nigeria, which included training the country’s pilots on TB2s, in exchange for access to minerals and liquefied natural gas. In Ethiopia, TB2s were delivered after the government seized a number of Gülenist schools. Unlike dealing with the US, obtaining weapons from Turkey doesn’t involve human-rights oversight. “There are really no restrictions on use,” Cancian said.

Buyers are also supported by Baykar’s programmers. The TB2, which Bayraktar compares to his smartphone, has more than forty onboard computers, and the company sends out software updates several times a month to adapt to adversarial tactics. “You’ve seen the articles, probably, asking how World War One-performance aircraft can compete against some of the most advanced air defenses in the world,” Bayraktar said. “The trick there is to continuously upgrade them.”

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