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Turkey: For Ankara, Will Drones Be a Military Blessing or Curse?

Are armed drones the answer to Turkey's continuing fight against the militants of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK)? That certainly seems to be the signal coming out of Ankara, which has been pushing Washington to provide it with American-made Predator unmanned aerial vehicles, which can be armed with air-to-ground missiles.

To a large extent, Ankara's military strategy regarding the PKK fight seems to be evolving in a direction that mimics that used by the United States in Pakistan and Yemen, where drones have become a central weapon in Washington's counterterrorism efforts. Like the US has learned in Pakistan, though, Turkey has recently also discovered that relying on drones can lead to trouble. As described in this previous post, the use of UAV's has become a topic of intense debate in Turkey after the Turkish military last December killed 34 Kurdish villagers that were mistakenly thought to be PKK militants. The deadly attack on the 34, part of a convoy of smugglers heading towards the Turkish border from Iraq, came as a result of intelligence provided by an American drone on loan to Turkey that first noticed the convoy.

In a highly illuminating article, Turkey-basd analyst Aaron Stein takes a look at Turkey's efforts to develop its drone fleet and some of the politics behind it, asking the important question of whether Turkish policymakers have really thought through the implications of introducing armed UAV's into their country's military strategy. From Stein's article:

In keeping with unofficial policy, the Obama administration has refused to submit an arms sale package to Congress that includes the armed drones. Even if the administration were to submit such a package, however, its uncertain if it would pass given Turkey’s diminished reputation among some Republican lawmakers. Thus the Obama administration has opted for compromise half-measures. To its valuable ally, Turkey, the U.S. opted to loan and pilot unarmed predator drones used in the Iraq War. Eager to address Turkish needs but unwilling to buck convention, the Obama administration’s policy enabled it to bypass Congressional approval while reassuring Turkey of the United States’ commitment to its most pressing security threat.

The domestic backdrop for Turkey’s repeated requests has been the breakdown of the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) Kurdish opening and the re-militarization of the Kurdish issue. After appearing to change tactics and address the issue politically in his first term, Erodgan’s approach has reverted back to that of Turkey’s old gaurd: defeating the PKK militarily. This approach leads Ankara to covet armed drones as the weapon of choice for its own “war on terror.”

Yet, adding armed drones to Turkey’s vast arsenal will yield few, if any, greater successes in its military campaign against the Kurdish insurgency. At the same time, use of armed drones poses a threat of unconsidered and unintended political and security consequences. For example, the United States has received permission from the Pakistani, Yemeni, and Somali leadership to violate their respective sovereign airspaces when conducting drone missions. Will Turkey conclude similar agreements with Iraq, Iran, or Syria? Turkey’s ongoing political difficulties with all three countries are likely to complicate such a request. Is Turkey willing to carry out cross border attacks without permission? If not, where does the military plan to use these drones and what are the legal implications of the Turkish military using missile strikes to assassinate its own citizens? How will Turkey handle the fall out after the first drone strike misses its target and kills civilians in the Kurdish majority southeast?

Beyond these pressing domestic concerns, Turkey’s leadership has paid far too little attention to the spread of drone technology globally. Countries like China, Russia, India and Pakistan have invested in drone technology as part of a larger effort to replicate the capabilities of the United States’ current UAVs. Iran has also developed drones to help compensate for its weak air force. Hezbollah has acquired Iranian-made drones capable of carrying out kamikaze attacks. In the United States, a 26-year-old man was charged with plotting to load explosives on a remotely controlled plane and fly it into the Pentagon or the Capitol.

Already, the capability for similar small scale attacks using unmanned aircraft is within reach of terrorist organizations like the PKK—or its more radical offshoots. A terrorist group could simply purchase a large radio-controlled aircraft, attach plastic explosives, and fly it into a public area. Given the history of reprisal killings in Turkey and the PKK’s history of attacking civilian targets, a scenario involving some sort of radio controlled response to future Turkish drone strikes is a possibility worthy of consideration by the government, academics and military tacticians.

The full article, well worth reading, can be found here.

Turkey: For Ankara, Will Drones Be a Military Blessing or Curse?

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