Turkey’s Drones Target Kurdish Militants
The Kurds could retaliate with bombs ... and robots of their own
Turkey in recent years has gone from being a buyer of drones to a producer of them. It has built and fielded a variety of unmanned aerial vehicles, including armed ones, in combat.
As invariably is the case is with any new Turkish military equipment, Ankara’s drones flew their inaugural strikes against Turkey’s perennial enemy, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, commonly known by its acronym PKK.
Ankara first used armed drones against the group in Turkey’s Kurdish-majority southeast in late 2016. The Turkish drones’s combat debut occurred during ferocious urban battles that devastated entire towns and large swathes of Kurdish cities.
According to Turkish military analyst Metin Gurcan, the PKK countered the drones by escalating its attacks on Turkish army outposts using suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices, or VBIEDs.
VBIEDs, Gurcan explained, enabled the PKK to exploit “the poor physical defenses of security outposts in Turkey’s rural southeast” in a clear bid “to overcome the advantage afforded to Ankara by drones.”
Islamic State demonstrated the lethality of VBIEDs. When the group seized the Iraqi city of Ramadi in 2015, it demolished a fortified Iraqi army position by first using an armored bulldozer to smash through a concrete blast wall.
Then the militants sent in seven, five-ton VBIED trucks, “each of them having exactly the same explosive power that Tim McVeigh used in the Oklahoma City bombing,” according to Douglas Ollivant, an analyst at the New America Foundation.
In August 2018 Turkish forces assassinated a senior PKK commander in Iraq’s Sinjar region, using a drone’s laser-designator to guide bombs to their target. This feat showcased Ankara’s ability to directly harm PKK leadership beyond Turkey’s own borders.
“The action-reaction cycle could take an unexpected route that’s not intended or wanted by either side of the conflict,” Gurcan warned. He then predicted that if Turkey continues such targeted killings of the PKK leadership beyond its borders, the group “might revert to intense attacks using VBIEDs and drones, which could create a new dimension to the lengthy conflict between Turkey and the PKK.”
The PKK is not known to currently possess any drones. This could change in the near future, given the proliferation of unmanned aircraft in the Middle East and the growing capability of non-state actors to transform the simplest commercial drone into a weapon.
“For the PKK or its various offshoots to use drones against Turkey would in many ways be easier than Turkish targeting of PKK fighters in the mountains of Iraq or villages of Syria for the simple reason that both Turkish bases inside Turkey and government offices are large and stationary,” analyst Michael Rubin mused.
In January 2018 rebel drones swarmed Russia’s Khmeimim air base in Syria. While they didn’t cause serious damage, the attack nevertheless demonstrated how vulnerable Moscow’s warplanes are in Syria. Similar drone swarms could pose a serious security risk to Turkish air bases in the country’s Kurdish-majority southeast.
Rubin also suggested that some neighboring state could potentially supply the PKK with drones in order to undercut Turkey. “As states maneuver for power in the region, almost any one of Turkey’s neighbors might calculate it to be in their interest to share UAVs with the Kurds.”