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Aerospace & Defense

Turkey plans drone-heavy roadshow in display of future warfare

From Indonesia to Azerbaijan, Ankara eyes new power projection

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses participants at TEKNOFEST, overlooking the new Akinci armed drone, developed by Baykar on Sept. 25. (Anadolu Agency) 

ISTANBUL -- A modern remix of Ottoman military music blared as the Turkish Air Force's locally produced F-16 fighter flew in formation with a newly developed indigenous drone -- giving a glimpse of the future warfare that Turkey envisions.

Next, supersonic light fighters drew a crescent and star -- symbols of the national flag -- in the blue skies. 

This was the scene at TEKNOFEST, Turkey's Aerospace and Technology Festival, which ended Sunday after a six-day run in Istanbul. The free-of-charge show merged an air show with technology competitions for students in 35 fields, including swarming drones, rocket making and artificial intelligence in health care.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, fresh from a trip to New York for the U.N. General Assembly, attended the event Saturday, speaking to the younger crowd that had gathered to try out the drone-control joysticks.

Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II was just 21 years old when he conquered Constantinople, today's Istanbul, the president said. As his descendants, "Great and powerful Turkey will rise on your shoulders," he reminded them, to loud cheers.

Next year, the event will go international for the first time and be staged in Azerbaijan, Erdogan announced. It will be a fitting venue to showcase Turkey's new drone power. Turkish-provided drones delivered a devastating blow to Armenian tanks during the battle over Nagorno-Karabakh last year, resulting in Azerbaijan retaking the landlocked territory for the first time in decades.

Haluk and Selcuk Bayraktar, the brothers who run Turkish drone maker Baykar, told reporters that many countries including Indonesia and Ukraine had also applied to host the event.

Baykar's armed drones have altered the outcome of military conflicts in Azerbaijan, Libya, Syria and Iraq, either directly used by Turkish military or by states offered the weapon systems by Ankara. They are also exported to more than 10 countries, including Central Asian countries like Turkmenistan.

TEKNOFESTs held abroad are expected to offer an opportunity for Turkey to project its military and civilian tech abroad.

The Bayraktars are treated like rock stars in Turkey today, with hype similar to Tesla CEO Elon Musk in the U.S. At TEKNOFEST, they were swarmed by fans wanting selfies with them.

Supersonic fighters drew the crescent and star in the sky at TEKNOFEST. (Photo by Sinan Tavsan) 

Younger brother Selcuk Bayraktar is Erdogan's son-in-law. The chief technology officer of Baykar, he is an engineer educated at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology -- one of the top engineering schools in the U.S.

Older brother Haluk Bayraktar is a Columbia University-educated engineer serves as the CEO.

TEKNOFEST was also the showcase for the debut of Baykar's new armed drone Akinci, which is named after Ottoman light cavalry raiders.

The company recently started to mass produce the Akinci for the Turkish military. The new model has 10 times the payload capacity than the TB-2, the mainstay drone of the Azerbaijan-Armenian war, and can be used for weapons, sensors and cameras.

According to Haluk Bayraktar, Akinci is in the same class as the famed U.S. armed drone MQ-9 Reaper, "but better" because of its twin engines and ability to incorporate artificial intelligence.

Turkey says U.S. reluctance to sell drones to Turkey prompted them to develop their own products. Erdogan's decision to acquire Russian S-400 surface to air missile defense systems triggered U.S. sanctions against Turkey, and resulted in kicking Turkey out of the F-35 stealth fighter program.

Absent of the F-35 option to vertically take off and land, Baykar is now developing drones called TB-3 and MIUS that can take off and land from amphibious assault ships.

Turkey is building such drones, partially to substitute F-35s on ships. A separate company is also working on developing a fighter aircraft called TF-X, showing foreign policy choices are complicating defense industry projects.

Enes Teke, a high school student participating in a drone competition at TEKNOFEST, told Nikkei Asia that Selcuk Bayraktar is his local inspiration, while Elon Musk is his global idol. Dreaming to become a mechatronics engineer, Enes said: "The U.S. not providing Turkey armed drones and now canceling deliveries of our F-35 fighter aircrafts is a blessing in disguise, as it pushes Turkey to produce its own military equipment. We have to thank them."

Asked what prompted the Bayraktar brothers to develop drones, Haluk Bayraktar said the trauma after seeing U.S. troops -- NATO allies -- detaining Turkish special forces members in Iraq and putting hoods on their heads in 2003 "affected everything and relevant entities came together and canceled military projects for purchasing UAVs, tanks, helicopters" worth billions of dollars in 2004. That resulted in support for local companies.

"I think that was the breakthrough," Haluk said. The company started to develop drones 20 years ago with seven employees. It now employs 1,500 engineers and technicians.

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