Analysis: Turkey’s Fruitless Quest for Armed Drones
Turkey has long coveted a fleet of armed drones to patrol its Southern border with Syria and monitor Kurdish populations inside the country, but the U.S. has declined to provide the UAVs.
According to a report in Turkey’s Taraf daily on Tuesday, the U.S. has cancelled a delivery of 10 General Atomics MQ-9 Reapers, a UAV formerly named the Predator B, each costing about $16.9 million.
Taraf claims the decision came as retaliation from Washington after it was reported that Ankara revealed information about Israeli spies who were operating in Iran, identifying them to Tehran. It may be true that the spy issue, leaked to the Washington Post last week, is now being used to explain the U.S. decision, but a closer reading of local media reports shows a long and fruitless Turkish search for armed UAVs indicating that their request was simply one that the U.S. never intended on granting.
In July, Turkey’s Hurriyet Daily News wrote about an impending decision by the U.S. to sell MQ-9 Reapers to France. The article discussed the details of the French order, totaling $1.5 billion, for 16 drones along with all the assorted controls, plus 32 spare engines, but then it noted one thing that differed from what Paris asked for compared to Ankara:
“The French shopping list for the MQ-9 talks about almost every item when governments buy complicated weapons systems but lacks one: arms. In short, Paris has requested to acquire the unarmed Reaper for ‘reconnaissance and surveillance purposes only.'”
“Italy’s request to arm its Reaper fleet has remained unanswered for more than two years and Britain is still the only U.S. ally in the world that possesses the armed Reapers – and that’s for the Afghan military campaign.”
“‘Congress’s reluctance to grant permission to transfer the MQ-9 to our Turkish allies is because Ankara has been vehemently requesting its armed version,’ said one U.S. defense official. ‘In short, it is not that the U.S. does not grant Reapers to Turkey, but it is just reluctant to grant armed Reapers.'”
While trying to import the armed drones from the U.S. on one hand, Turkey has also been busy working to build a domestic drone business, just as Israel has become a global leader in drone design and production, guaranteeing its own supply.
Indeed, along with the story about the order for the 10 drones reportedly cancelled by the U.S. today, Hurriyet has been reporting since the Summer that 10 locally-built drones, called the ANKA, meaning phoenix in Turkish, could be ordered by the Turkish Army as early as March 2014.
According to other Hurriyet reports, the ANKA project, which has been in some stage of development by Turkish Aerospace Industries for a decade, planned to use Turkish engines. In December 2012, Turkey’s defense procurement agency, the Undersecretariat for Defense Industries, said it signed an agreement with Tusaş Engine Industries to develop and produce the engines, the most difficult part of a drone to build, for the ANKA.
But last month, Hurriyet reported that the drone engines were in jeopardy. Rather than make them in Turkey, TEI had subcontracted to Thielert, a German specialist maker of diesel engines for aircraft, now bought out by China’s Avic International. Hurriyet said Avic was merging Thielert into its Continental Motors division and giving up the military business. Thielert was also supplying engines for a U.S. Army version of the drone, whose creator General Atomics acquired the engine data package and intends to continue production and support for Thielert engines.
The only thing known for certain is that Turkey wants armed drones, and the U.S. isn’t selling them, at least the ones with mounted weapons systems. In fact, despite the reported spy burning, which took place now almost two years ago, and the much higher profile crisis over the Marmara raid, Israeli leaders say business ties and tourism between the two countries have been growing.
Drones are dangerous when they are armed, becoming remote controlled warships, which is apparently why Turkey wants them and why the U.S. seems disinclined to provide them to the Turks.