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The First Rule of Drone Club

The bad lessons Turkey learned from Obama's war from above.

Senior Airman Anthony Sanchelli/DVIDS
Senior Airman Anthony Sanchelli/DVIDS

As the United States continues to grapple with the legal ramifications of using armed unmanned aerial vehicles to strike individuals, a slew of countries are eager to develop their own drones and mimic American tactics. Turkey is an avid supporter of drones and argues that it needs an indigenously-built UAV to combat the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the Kurdish insurgents it has been fighting since the 1980s. The problem is that the Turkish republic seems to have adopted the principles currently guiding the U.S. use of drones: Say nothing about how you employ them and ignore the potential consequences.

The PKK has come to dominate the country’s security planning, but for years the Turkish Army’s large conscript force and emphasis on heavy equipment left it ill-equipped to effectively fight an insurgency, particularly during the winter months. So, in addition to professionalizing its forces, it focused on improving its intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities. Ankara, therefore, purchased off-the-shelf drone systems from the United States, partnered with Israel for sale of Heron UAVs, and launched an effort to build one of its own — an effort that has apparently come to fruition. Turkey now claims that the country’s first domestically produced UAV — a reconnaissance drone dubbed the "Anka" — is set for serial production.

While the Anka was beset with problems during testing, the drone is reported to be able to operate for 24 hours at an altitude up to 30,000 feet in adverse weather conditions during the day or at night. The Anka will primarily be used to surveil Turkey’s Kurdish majority southeast and the PKK camps in the Kandil Mountains in Northern Iraq. Ankara hopes to develop an armed version of the Anka so that it can decrease the time needed to launch airstrikes against Kurdish targets. To help augment Turkey’s drone capabilities in the interim, Ankara has requested unarmed and armed Predator and Reaper drones from the United States.

Despite Turkey’s repeated requests, U.S. export control law and congressional opposition will likely prevent the sale, but the Obama administration has sought to appease its Turkish counterparts and has agreed to station four unarmed Predator drones at Incirlik Air Force Base. The drones are flown by an American contractor from a joint operations center near Ankara. Turkish Air Force officers are in the room with their American counterparts and reportedly have the authority to direct the drones’ movements.

In 2011, Turkish officers in the Ankara operations center directed an American drone to surveil a known smuggling route near the Kurdish majority town of Uludere.* After a group of men were spotted crossing the border illegally, the Turks reportedly ordered the Predator to fly away. A Turkish Heron then picked up the surveillance, and the Turkish Air Force bombed the smugglers.

*Correction: This sentence originally misstated the year of the surveilance as 2007. 

It was later revealed that the group of men were not members of the PKK, but 34 Kurdish citizens attempting to eke out a living by smuggling subsidized Iraqi gasoline to Turkey for resale. The subsequent uproar has led to a parliamentary investigation, though the report has been repeatedly delayed, and no minister has resigned. Most believe that the government is conspiring to prevent the authorities from carrying out their investigation in order to protect the person responsible for issuing the kill order.

Turkey’s pursuit of armed drones reflects, in part, the new consensus, driven by the United States, that they are useful, even critical, for counterterrorism. But there is little acknowledgment of the difficulties and dangers that drones pose. For example, few Turkish officials have made clear to the electorate that drones rely heavily on human operators and pre-existing intelligence. Nor have they acknowledged that the total cost of operating armed drones is reported to be higher than 240 F-16s in the Turkish Air Force. Most significantly, few in Turkey have grappled with the moral and legal implications of a country — one hoping to join the European Union — using drones to assassinate its own citizens.

Turkey hasn’t addressed the regional implications of increased drone use either. Unlike the United States, it has not received overflight rights from the countries where it would likely use its drones. Given Turkey’s tense relationship with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, it is unlikely to secure drone overflight rights similar to those used by the United States in Yemen, Somalia, and Afghanistan. It is also unlikely that Turkish ally Masoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), would turn a blind eye to the Turkish military operating and using armed drones to kill Iraqi Kurds. True, it is widely believed that Turkey is using its fleet of Herons to violate Iraqi airspace to monitor PKK bases in Kandil. However, if Iraqi territory were repeatedly targeted with drone-fired missiles, relations with Baghdad would sour and Turkey’s close alliance with the KRG would flag.

Turkey’s desire to export the Anka could also undermine its recent efforts to stem proliferation in the region. Turkish President Abdullah Gul told the opening session of Turkey’s parliament in October 2012 that the threats posed by WMD in the region reinforced the need to make progress towards a Middle East WMD-free zone. But Egypt, which is not a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), has agreed to purchase ten Anka drones from Turkey’s Turkish Aersopace Industries. If the sale is finalized, Ankara will have agreed to export a dual-use item to a non-signatory of the CWC that has a history of chemical weapons use (in North Yemen in the 1960s). While it is unlikely that Egypt would arm the Anka with chemical weapons, the sale would nevertheless send conflicting messages about Turkey’s commitment to regional disarmament and nonproliferation.

So, just like the United States, Turkey faces a series of unresolved political, legal, and strategic issues as it moves forward with its drone program. It may well conclude that armed drones — and even the assassination of Turkish citizens — are vital for Turkish security. But whatever debate the government is having is a mystery. Turkey, therefore, appears to have adopted almost all of the American established norms associated with drones. The problem is those norms are to keep all of the details secret and to prevent the public from weighing in.

Aaron Stein is a resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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