Turkey launched a coordinated mass of drone strikes March 1 against a Syrian military convoy and base. Nineteen people were killed in the attack. It was, at once, a debut moment for a long-in-the-works drone capability and another day of violence as the Syrian civil war enters its 10th year.
The attack, which featured multiple remotely piloted drones pursuing the same objectives, is a reminder that the capacity to launch drone strikes is hardly limited to superpowers. Turkey’s drone program has developed, over years, several armed drones that are rough analogs to American-operated models like the Reaper, Predator and Shadow.
“This was a mass coordinated attack, not a ‘swarm’ — ‘swarm’ implies autonomous capabilities and UAVs coordinating among themselves,” said Samuel Bendett, an adviser at the Center for Naval Analyses.
While swarming autonomy remains a research project for nations, even such a labor-intensive operation as the mass use of remotely piloted drones offers advantages over flying human-occupied vehicles on the same missions.
“Given a very complicated battleground in Syria — where Syrian and Russian air defenses protect key assets, and where Iranian forces operate alongside their Assad allies — Turkey’s decision to send a mass coordinated UAV attack points to its availability of options,” said Bendett. “Rather than send a piloted aircraft that could be lost, with the pilot killed, Turkey sent unmanned systems, whose loss is less profound and does not ultimately impact Turkish military capability. Turkey is also able to gather key intel on Syrian air defenses, especially those that managed to down Turkish UAVs.”
Those Syrian air defenses were about to shoot down at least seven drones, including at least one Anka-S, priced at tens of millions of dollars. The attack was not without cost to Turkey, but despite the damage inflicted by anti-air defenses, the drones were still able to hit their targets. Defending against drone operations may mean adopting different tools than those used to deter human incursions.
Turkey stood up its drone industry in light of a prohibition from the United States on purchasing armed drones, and since then has also developed those military drones for export. Those drones, like the Bayraktar, have been explored to Ukraine and Libya. Turkey has even reached out to Ukraine for engines to power a long-range drone.
With the capabilities of its drones proven in combat, Turkey joins the United States, United Kingdom, France, Israel, China and Iran as drone-armed nations. A swarm the recent strike was not, but for the people targeted on the ground, a remotely piloted salvo is just as deadly a proposition.