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International relations

Ascendant and assertive Turkey creates tough choices for US

Drone-driven warfare makes Ankara's clout impossible for Washington to ignore

Baykar's armed drone Bayraktar TB2: Poland said in May that it will purchase 24 drones from Turkey, becoming the first NATO member to buy Turkish-made unmanned aerial vehicles. (Photo courtesy of Baykar)

NEW YORK/ISTANBUL -- In a video posted from his personal Twitter account last week, the chief technology officer of Turkish defense company Baykar -- which is owned by his family -- brimmed with pride as he unveiled the details of a future unmanned combat aircraft.

Selcuk Bayraktar, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology-educated engineer in his early 40s, explained that the aircraft, known as MIUS, eventually will possess supersonic speed, stealth capability and a maximum payload of nearly 1.5 tons.

"Unmanned aircraft will change the concept of air warfare and will replace fifth-generation aircraft," Bayraktar said while walking inside the company's armed-drone research and production center in Istanbul, passing by various types of finished and semifinished drones. Huge flags of Turkey hung inside the facility.

In a crucial difference from drones developed elsewhere in the world, Baykar's model can take off without a catapult from vessels with shorter tracks like Turkey's amphibious assault ship TCG Anadolu to be delivered next year, he said, allowing it to become a force multiplier in a theater of war.

Baykar shared the conceptual design visuals of the MIUS project with the public for the first time in a tweet on July 20. (Photo courtesy of Baykar)

Bayraktar is the leading mind behind Turkey's drone program and also the son-in-law of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Turkish drones, whether used directly by Ankara or provided to allies, have altered the outcomes of recent regional conflicts and captured the attention of military experts worldwide. Some of these experts characterize this new warfare -- fighting with a large number of small things -- as the opening phase of a revolution in military affairs (RMA).

Erdogan noted the country's growing regional reach in a speech to ruling party lawmakers earlier this month, telling them: "Turkey now has the power, will and determination to eliminate at the source every threat to its homeland's integrity, the nation's unity and the state's permanence."

"Turkey's security now starts not at our borders, but wherever threats exist," he said. "We are taking the necessary steps to thwart any actual or potential threat, menace or attack against Turkey's political and economic interests before they reach our borders."

Turkey's newfound military clout and the willingness to use it have raised concerns in Washington, with many members of Congress calling for President Joe Biden to curb Ankara's actions.

In Syria, Turkey's drone-driven assaults took out two jets, two drones, eight helicopters, 135 tanks and 10 air defense systems while killing or seriously wounding 2,557 personnel, according to Ankara's estimate.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan inspects the amphibious assault ship TCG Anadolu in December 2019. (Anadolu Agency)

Richard Outzen, a geopolitical consultant and former member of the U.S. State Department's Policy Planning Staff, calls 2020 a "watershed year for Turkish power projection." He profiled four major overseas military campaigns involving the Turkish armed forces last year in a new report published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy titled "Deals, Drones and National Will -- The New Era in Turkish Power Projection."

In Nagorno-Karabakh, a landlocked region in the South Caucasus, Turkish-backed Azerbaijani forces destroyed 190 main battle tanks, 100 armored personnel carriers and infantry fighting vehicles, along with dozens of air defense systems, while killing more than 4,000 personnel, according to Outzen's report. Similar devastating damage was seen in Libya and northern Iraq as well.

"The combination of access, tools, integration, experience, and will has enabled Turkey to exercise along and near its periphery what amounts to a geopolitical veto," Outzen wrote.

Can Kasapoglu, director of the security and defense studies program at leading Turkish think tank Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies (EDAM), noted the change.

Flags of NATO member countries, including that of Turkey, flutter at the alliance headquarters in Brussels.    © Reuters

"An RMA is in the making here, yet only if the right concept of operations is also applied," Kasapoglu said.

Turkey's demonstration of hard power represents a shift from the "zero problems with neighbors" policy under former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, an academic, when Turkey pursued accession to the European Union and sought diplomatic solutions to issues with Iran, Syria and Israel while holding talks with the armed guerrilla movement Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), which is designated as a terrorist organization by Turkey, the U.S. and the European Union.

"For much of the 2000s, [Turkey] thought that a friendly-to-everyone foreign policy could solve the key problems around them," Outzen told Nikkei Asia in an interview. "But one by one, these problems not only failed to be solved, they got worse. Somewhere around 2010, '11, '12, there was a sea change, a fundamental atmospheric change in Turkish foreign policy, and they realized that if they did not have the hard-power ability to reach out and change the status quo, that they would have no influence over outcomes."

This shift, combined with Erdogan's consolidation of power and the suffocation of press freedom in Turkey, has put many members of the U.S. Congress firmly in the anti-Erdogan camp.

Victoria Nuland, undersecretary of state for political affairs, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on July 21 that the U.S. and Turkey, a NATO ally for nearly 70 years, have a "multifaceted and complex relationship."

But the lawmakers hearing her testimony took a far sterner view of Turkey.

A presidential security officer patrols as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attends a ceremony at parliament July 15. The portraits depict Turkey's founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, right, and Erdogan.   © AP

Sen. Robert Menendez, a Democrat and the committee chairman, took issue with Erdogan providing military support for Azerbaijan in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and accused Turkey of facilitating the passage of mercenaries from Syria to fight on the side of Azerbaijan.

The criticism was bipartisan. Sen. James Risch, the committee's ranking Republican, said Turkey was not acting like a NATO ally. He cited Ankara's acquisition of Russian S-400 anti-air defense systems. In response, Washington kicked Turkey out of the F-35 fighter program, which was a motivation for Turkey to step up its development of drones.

Nuland sought a more nuanced approach, saying there are areas where the two allies "are firmly aligned in policy and outlook" but also "areas where we have profound disagreements with the Turkish government."

"Our partnership with Turkey, which has the second-largest standing military in NATO, enables us to project power in the region and defend NATO's eastern and southern flanks," she said.

She also commended Turkey's offer to handle security at the Kabul airport after the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Nuland called the decision "extremely welcome and absolutely vital to all of us who want to continue to maintain robust diplomatic presence in Afghanistan."

Victoria Nuland, the U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs, testifies July 21 before a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing regarding Turkey.   © Reuters

Nuland told the committee: "I am now speaking probably every two weeks with my Turkish counterpart."

But Menendez shared no such praise for Turkey or its leader.

"To say that more lawyers and journalists are arrested and in jail in Turkey than in any other place in the world is saying something, considering some of those other places in the world," Menendez said. "These are the actions of a weak government, not a world power. And we should treat it as such."

Outzen disagrees. "Rather than just economic or military power, they're a power that has the ability to act," he said.

Though Erdogan's approval ratings have fallen due to the poor performance of the economy, the longtime leader has overwhelming support on foreign policy decisions, Outzen said.

"In the area in and around Turkey -- southern Europe, eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, the Balkans, the Caucasus and even into Central Asia -- Turkey has to be reckoned with as a great power because they've proven the ability to use hard power," he said.

Outzen said the crucial question for U.S. foreign policy is whether the empirical reality of a more powerful Turkey should be viewed as a threat or an opportunity.

Though Congress may wish to pursue "coercion diplomacy" to correct Turkish behavior, such a path "almost always fails when the pressure is not accompanied by a mutually acceptable solution that's creative and has value for both sides," he said.

"If we don't seek more collaboration and more win-win situations with the Turks, we will increase hedging behaviors," Outzen said. "One is closer cooperation with countries that we truly don't want them to be hedging with like China, Russia and Iran. The other option is to become more self-sufficient in the defense industry, which they're doing, and to pursue an independent diplomatic network, which they're also doing."

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