Turkish-made drones have featured prominently in Ukraine’s resistance against Russia’s invasion, taking out significant Russian targets in the first few weeks of the war. But the conflict, and any possibility of a Russian victory, have cast a shadow over the future of Turkey’s rapidly growing drone industry, which relies on Ukrainian engines.
In one of many videos released by the Ukrainian military, a Turkish-made Bayraktar drone destroys a Russian tank to the cheers of the drone operators. But with the Bayraktar drone powered by Ukrainian engines, Samuel Bennet of the U.S.-based Center for Naval Analyses warns any Russian victory in Ukraine could set back Turkey’s rapidly growing drone industry.
“Russia sees Bayraktar’s TV2s in particular as a highly competitive weapon and technology not just in the former Soviet space, but in the global aerial vehicle market. Russians are nervous that Bayraktar are penetrating the former Soviet space, the Caucasus and Central Asia and now Ukraine,” Bennet said. “And so, if Russians were to sort of exercise the full extent of their powers in the outcome of the negotiations, they would probably seek to limit Ukrainian military cooperation with Turkey so as not to further Turkish growing advantage in certain technologies like UAVs.”
Ukraine provides cutting-edge engine know-how, and does not put restrictions on Turkish companies selling to third parties. Turkish drone use in conflicts like the Ethiopian civil war has drawn international criticism from rights groups.
James Rogers, assistant professor in War Studies at the University of Southern Denmark, says the Turkish drone industry would not have the same freedom of use if it turned to its Western allies for engines.
“There are more restrictions when you deal with UK, European or American suppliers, and that is something Turkey will definitely keep in mind,” he said. “We know that the United States has been very select to who it sells drones and drone elements to around the world. This was one of the reasons why Turkey started its entire indigenous drone program because Congress wouldn’t approve the sale of Reaper-Predator generation medium altitude long endurance drones to Turkey.”
Earlier this year, a prominent Turkish military helicopter deal with Pakistan collapsed over Washington’s restrictions on the use of American engines. In addition, Congress has been enforcing increased controls on the supplies of military components to Turkey over Ankara’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile defense system.
While Ankara has received praise from Washington over its support of Ukraine, Aaron Stein, director of research at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, expects little change in Washington’s stance towards Turkey.
“One side is that Turkey is hostile to the United States. It’s no longer an ally, it’s (an) adversary. So, we should be treating it as such. And the other side is we misunderstand Turkey, and it needs a big hug because it’s so important. And the government is somewhere in the middle, and usually, current events reinforce positions on either side,” Stein said.
Given the challenges of finding an alternative to Ukrainian engines, Turkey’s drone industry will likely look for drones to thwart Moscow’s ambitions and secure both Kyiv and its future.