Turkish-made drones are playing a role in Azerbaijan's offensive in the breakaway enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. Drones have become an integral part of Turkey's foreign policy, but Turkey's drone industry is facing scrutiny from the international community.
Turkish-made drones operated by Azerbaijani forces are in the forefront in Azerbaijan’s fight to reclaim the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh enclave from ethnic Armenian control. Armenian separatists took Nagorno-Karabakh from Azerbaijan in a bloody 1990s war that killed an estimated 30,000 people.
Turkey has vowed support for Azerbaijan in the escalating conflict.
Defense analyst Arda Mevlutoglu said the conflict underscores Turkey’s growing reputation as a major drone player.
“Turkey has accumulated a large amount of experience infrastructure to integrate design and manufacture such advanced drones. Not maybe as sophisticated as United States, but surely being able to compete with Chinese drones. Turkish drones are rapidly gaining technology advantage,” he said.
Armenia has condemned the use of the Turkish-made drones. Recent reports cite Armenia’s military as saying its rockets shot down an Azerbaijani drone near the capital, Yerevan.
Ankara has confirmed using drones in support of Syrian rebels, and in Iraq against Kurdish insurgents.
Turkish-made drones also helped to turn the tide in favor of Ankara-backed forces of the Government of National Accord in the Libyan civil war.
Drones are now an integral part of what analysts call Ankara's hard power diplomacy, according to Sinan Ulgen of the Istanbul-based Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies.
“Armed drones electronic war systems have helped Turkey to carry out a more hard power-oriented foreign and security policy. Because what it did is it essentially allowed Turkey to rely on its technological edge - which is now allowing Turkey to engage in this cross-border power projection, and reliance on hard power much more than in the past,” he said.
But the growing deadly civilian toll in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, blamed in part on Turkish drones, is drawing an international backlash. Canada has frozen the sale of critical components, a move that political consultant Atilla Yesilada of consulting firm Global Source Partners said could expose a vulnerability of the Turkish drone program.
“We still can't produce engines, and obviously, we don't have a chip factory, so all the smart ware, software in these drones, or whatever weapons we are talking about, must be imported from the West or from China,” he said.
Ankara has criticized Canada’s decision.
But technology could yet be on the side of the Turkish drone industry, said defense analyst Mevlutoglu.
“It's more than easy to create alternatives, that is the key thing or the magic thing about drone technology, the technology itself to develop sophisticated drones has becoming, even more cheaper and more accessible by the day, to many more other countries,” he said.
In a glitzy video, Turkey recently unveiled what it claims is its most powerful drone to date. Drones appear set to remain not only a vital military asset but also a key foreign policy tool.