“The Drone Problem”: How the U.S. Has Struggled to Curb Turkey

“The Drone Problem”: How the U.S. Has Struggled to Curb Turkey
Update: 14 July 2022 14:50
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Some U.S. lawmakers seek to crack down on the country, saying it’s exploiting its NATO status to obtain key parts from Western manufacturers

Turkey is changing the face of modern warfare with its TB2 drone. As the weapon spreads across the globe, some U.S. lawmakers seek to crack down on the country, saying it’s exploiting its NATO status to obtain key parts from Western manufacturers, Umar Farooq wrote in an article for Propublica.

The technology offers even the smallest militaries the capacity to inflict the kind of damage that was once the exclusive province of wealthy, Western nations, and Turkey seems eager to expand global sales of the weapon, he said.

As the western world is satisfied with the use of drones in Ukraine, there is little will in Washington to take measures against Turkey, he concluded.

Here are some excerpts from the analysis

14 countries now own TB2s

“Today, much of the discussion around the TB2 drone centers on Ukraine, where it is playing a pivotal role in the war against Russia. Ukraine has put out a steady stream of propaganda videos that show TB2s taking out equipment like surface-to-air missiles and helping other aircraft and artillery target Moscow’s forces. Some lawmakers in Congress have even cast the drone as a crucial weapon and are pushing for the U.S. to help Ukraine buy more.”

“But the public relations blitz obscures growing concerns around the world about Turkey and the proliferation of a weapon that is changing the nature of modern warfare. At least 14 countries now own TB2s, and another 16 are seeking to purchase them. Selçuk Bayraktar, the firm’s chief technology officer, told Reuters in May. “The whole world is a customer.”

Some components of the drone are made outside Turkey

“Officials tout the drone as the product of Turkish industry, with nearly all of its components coming from within Turkey. But time and again, wreckage from downed drones in multiple conflicts have shown otherwise. In fact, a whole range of components — from antennas to fuel pumps to missile batteries — were made by manufacturers in the U.S., Canada and Europe, according to images of wreckage examined by ProPublica and statements by companies, some of whom have acknowledged sales to Turkey.”

‘Turkey’s drone sales are dangerous, destabilizing and a threat to peace and human rights - Sen. Robert Menendez

US lawmakers oppose the sale of drones

“Some lawmakers have called on the Biden administration to pressure Turkey to restrict sales of the drone by suspending exports of U.S. technology that could be used in the uncrewed aircraft. They argue that the drones and their missiles are sparking more instability around the world, and, in some cases, violating American and international arms embargoes meant to contain wars like the conflict in Ethiopia. ‘Turkey’s drone sales are dangerous, destabilizing and a threat to peace and human rights,’ said Sen. Robert Menendez last year, as he pushed for an investigation into whether U.S. exports are being used in the Turkish drones.”

Key parts of the drone do not violate export regulations

ProPublica reviewed videos and photos of TB2s released by media outlets and government agencies, as well as reports by the United Nations and anti-arms-proliferation advocates. The news organization then compiled a list of key parts and consulted with U.S. arms experts to check whether their sale violated export regulations. They did not. Many of the components in the TB2s were commercial-grade parts found in a variety of consumer products, such as HD video cameras or self-driving cars, so they evaded the strict regulatory scrutiny applied to military parts in the U.S.”

“Still, other countries, including Canada, have instituted export bans that have kept some key commercial parts from flowing to Turkey. And experts say the U.S., if it chose to, could take similar measures at home and step up enforcement abroad.”

“Baykar declined to respond to questions about the source of key components in its drones or how it had obtained them. The company would only say that ProPublica’s questions were based on unspecified “false accusations.” In March, Bayraktar, the company’s CTO, said on social media that “93%” of the components in the TB2s are locally made.”

The design has a key feature: The 40-foot-wide, 20-foot-long drone can be controlled from ground stations up to 185 miles away, just below the range that’s subject to Category 1 missile technology restrictions.

Turkey built its drone when it couldn’t buy from the US

“Turkey supercharged its own efforts after the U.S. declined to sell the country armed drones. U.S. officials were concerned about potential human rights violations, as Turkish officials planned to use the weapons in conflicts with Kurdish insurgents, said Vann Van Diepen, who helped oversee nonproliferation programs at the State Department until 2016. The turning point came in 2015 when Bayraktar, an MIT-educated engineer who ran an armed drone program out of his father’s defense manufacturing firm in Istanbul, debuted the TB2. Using a Turkish-made missile, he held a demonstration to show that the drone could hit a target from miles away.”

“For Baykar and its customers, the design had a key feature: The 40-foot-wide, 20-foot-long drone can be controlled from ground stations up to 185 miles away, just below the range that’s subject to Category 1 missile technology restrictions. The drone also has plenty of high-tech firepower. From an altitude of 18,000 feet, where it can hover for more than 24 hours, the TB2 can find and track targets, then hit them with laser-guided weapons, usually a lightweight missile called an MAM-L, made by the Turkish manufacturer Roketsan.”

Libya and Azerbaijan should have been wake up calls

In 2019, Turkey sent TB2 drones, along with pilots to operate them, to Libya to help the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord in a complicated civil war it was fighting against Khalifa Haftar, a warlord backed by Russia, Jordan and Turkey’s regional enemies, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. Haftar’s forces — which were themselves equipped with Chinese Wing Loong drones provided by the UAE — had mounted a major assault that threatened Tripoli, but the TB2s helped push them back.

“TB2s showed up in Azerbaijan, with Baku’s propaganda drone strike videos clearly indicating the MX-15s were being used there. Photos of crashed drones, taken by Armenian forces and posted on social media, showed that the cameras had been made in Canada as late as June 2020. This time the Trudeau government undertook a larger review, and in October 2020 it suspended all existing export permits that had allowed Wescam to ship the cameras to Turkey. Canadian officials said Turkey appeared to have broken the U.N. arms embargo on Libya and illegally exported the TB2s with the Canadian MX-15 camera system to Azerbaijan, in violation of its pledges.”

“Nagata, the former special forces commander, said Libya and Nagorno-Karabakh should have been a wake-up call for the U.S. military, which was surprised when the TB2s literally turned the tide of war there. The proliferation of this kind of weaponized technology is unstoppable, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to at least create friction against it. And that’s a policy choice, he said. Van Diepen, the former State official who helped oversee nonproliferation programs, said that if the Biden administration chose to take action, it could start by activating so-called end-use checks on key drone parts.

Six U.S.-based manufacturers said they would stop selling Turkey parts of the drone 

“The issue hit Washington’s political radar in November 2020, after a report from the Armenian National Committee of America (ANCA), a pro-Armenia lobbying group that has pushed for tougher action against Turkey. The report contained evidence that TB2 parts, found in wreckage of drones shot down by Armenian forces in the Nagorno-Karabakh war, had come from U.S.-based firms.

ANCA and other groups critical of Turkey mobilized supporters to write to parts manufacturers, winning pledges from many that they would stop selling to Baykar Technology. Six U.S.-based manufacturers whose parts showed up in the TB2 drones responded to ProPublica, confirming that they had taken steps to stop direct sales to Turkey of parts that could be used by Baykar for the drones. But experts said it was probably difficult to stop Turkey from acquiring the parts through distributors and resellers on the open market.”

Bipartisan letter from the Congress asked Biden to take action

In August 2021, a bipartisan group of 27 members of Congress pressed the Biden administration to take action, saying Turkey was using U.S. technology to fuel drone proliferation around the globe. “Turkish actions have continued to run contrary to its responsibilities as a NATO member state,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter. “​​The potential for these drones to further destabilize flashpoints in the Caucuses, South Asia, the Eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East, and North Africa is too great to ignore.”

“In the end, the final defense bill, passed in December 2021, did not reference Turkish drones specifically, but still required the Biden administration to report to Congress within 180 days on whether U.S. “weapon systems or controlled technology” were used in the Nagorno-Karabakh war. A spokesperson for the Defense Department, which is tasked with leading that review, said that the department was working on finalizing the report and had not yet delivered it to Congress.”

“Everybody in NATO is now looking for ways to deter Putin and up the cost of further Russian military action in Ukraine, and the [Turkish] drones, as proven on the battlefield, are one of the best ways to do that,” said Matthew Bryza, former U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan.

In the US, it is business as usual

“To some of the strongest critics of Turkey’s armed drones though, it appears there is little will in Washington to do more. “Canada, they did the due diligence and took actions that haven’t happened here,” said Aram Hamparian, executive director of ANCA. In the U.S., “it’s just business as usual. So then why even bother having these laws? And the answer to my question is: So we can use them conveniently when it advances some policy aim.”