Turkey’s Drone Blitz Over Idlib

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 18 Issue: 8

(source: dailysabah.com)

Between February 27 and March 5, Turkey conducted Operation Spring Shield to halt the Syrian Arab Army’s blitz offensive in Idlib and to press Moscow into brokering a ceasefire. Due to the grave risks involved in operating in the Syrian airspace, Turkish military planners opted for using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) as the principal airpower asset. While the Turkish Armed Forces scored a large number of kills on the Baathist regime’s combat units, the unmanned systems’ success in eliminating Syria’s Russian-manufactured surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems deserve the utmost attention. Within a week, Turkey’s UAVs destroyed a total of eight Pantsir and Buk air defenses (Yeni Safak, March 4).

Turkey’s Indigenous Drones in Action

The Turkish military used two primary unmanned aerial systems in its Idlib campaign, the Bayraktar TB-2 and ANKA-S. In terms of concept of operations (CONOPS), Ankara’s drone inventory came with pros and cons. On the positive side, first and foremost, the indigenous design and production capability provided a certain degree of marge de manoeuvre for the Turkish administration. It is worth noting that in the past, several Turkish administrations’ persistent efforts to procure the MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper UAVs were unsuccessful due to the objection of the U.S. Congress (Hurriyet, August 10, 2015).

Second, both the Bayraktar TB-2 and ANKA-S enjoy 24-hour endurance in their missions, which marks a good standard for the medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) class (Baykar, April 9; The Undersecretariat for Defense Industries, April 9). This enabled adequate loitering time over target areas.

Third, throughout its Syria expeditions since 2016, the Turkish military has fostered the integration between tactical land-based fire support (artillery and multiple-launch rocket systems) and UAVs. On a separate note, interestingly, the Russians have gone through the same lessons-learned in light of the experience gained in Syria. Today, Orlan-10 UAVs are integrated into several 152mm artillery formations in the Russian doctrinal order of battle (Jane’s, April 9).

The primary con of Ankara’s drone inventory is the need to overcome troublesome payload limitations.

Going ‘Smart’ in Munitions for Unmanned Systems

Simply put, the Bayraktar TB-2 has a combat payload of 55kg, while the TUSAS company’s ANKA-S, the SATCOM (satellite communications) capable variant of the ANKA family, can carry 200kg maximum payload (The Undersecretariat for Defense Industries, April 9). [1] Given the shortfalls regarding the sheer firepower that these platforms can unleash at a time, the Turkish military had to address the issue with pinpoint accuracy. Roketsan, yet another key actor of Turkey’s burgeoning defense eco-system, comes into play at this stage.

In their combat missions, both UAVs carried Roketsan-made MAM-L and MAM-C smart munitions. The MAM-L, weighing 22 kilograms, has a range of 8 kilometers but can be extended to some 14 kilometers with an inertial navigation system/global positioning system support and offers different warhead options including armor-piercing tandem, high-explosive, and thermobaric solutions. [2] The MAM-C is a smaller smart bomb, weighing only 6.5 kilograms, suitable for a softer target set. [3] Notably, on March 5, Turkey’s main procurement body, the Undersecretariat for Defense Industries, posted a MAM-L video on its official Twitter account, highlighting that it was the primary munitions used in the Idlib campaign. [4]

A New Operational Art for the Turkish Military

Although Roketsan’s smart munitions’ performance was adequate to get the job done, Turkish military planners were still confronted with two primary issues.

Turkish drones had to operate within the engagement envelops of the Syrian Pantsir SAM systems. The baseline Russian Pantsir system is centered on a robust design philosophy that brings together different fires, mobility, and mission flexibility. A self-propelled battery carries up to 12 57E6 missiles and two 30mm 2A38M anti-aircraft artillery. The standard 57E6 missile has a maximum range of 20km and maximum altitude of 15km, while the auto-cannons can cover 4km range and 3km altitude. [5]  A recent upgrade, which was unveiled at the Army 2019 exhibition in Kubinka, has extended the interceptors missiles’ range up to 30km and effective maximum altitude to 18km, although it is unknown if the Russian Federation transferred the latest variant to the Syrian Arab Air Defense Force. [6]

Given the technical characteristics of the Pantsir family of SAM systems, it was impossible for the Turkish Bayraktar TB-2 and ANKA-S to launch the MAM-L smart munitions from outside of the kill zones.

Furthermore, the Syrian Arab Air Force posed a grave threat to the Turkish unmanned systems too. After all, the brief air warfare history has not favored drones against manned aircraft, even if the latter is obsolete. Back in 2002, for example, an Iraqi Mig-25, dating back to the late 1960s Soviet technology, intercepted a U.S. Predator UAV (YouTube.com, 2017). It was only back in 2018 that a U.S. MQ-9 Reaper UAV shot down another drone in air-to-air combat (Popular Mechanics, 2018). Unmanned systems are not yet capable air-to-air combat assets.

Turkey leveraged two major capabilities to protect the Bayraktar TB-2s and ANKA-S over the dangerous Syrian skies.

First, the Turkish military used intensive electronic warfare (EW) cover to blind the Syrian air defenses. The KORAL remains the leading indigenous EW asset in this respect (Yeni Safak, March 4). Produced by ASELSAN, the system is primarily designed for suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD) missions. [7] The KORAL has an effective range of some 200km, which offered enough electromagnetic projection deep into northern Syria when operated from the Turkish territory (Yeni Safak, October 9, 2019).

Second, the Turkish Air Force showcased a high-tech strike complex of Boeing 737 Barış Kartalı (the Peace Eagle) airborne early warning and control aircraft, F-16 fighter jets, and AMRAAM beyond visual range air-to-air missiles. This network-centric trilogy enabled the downing of the Syrian Arab Air Force’s Su-24s, which were scrambled several times to intercept Turkish drones, without entering Syrian airspace (Aksam, March 3).

Where Do We Go from Here?

Turkey’s la belle époque in drone warfare is yet to come, probably starting within this decade. Heavier systems with larger payloads and more advanced features will enter in service soon. The Akinci (Raider) remains the most noteworthy asset of the next generation Turkish unmanned airpower. Produced by Baykar, the Akinci has a payload of 1,350kg, equipping the platform with heavier munitions, such as MK-82 and MK-83 bombs—which were modernized to joint direct attack munitions class by Turkey’s Tubitak SAGE—SOM-A indigenous air-ground cruise missile with some 250km effective range and the indigenous air-to-air missiles Gökdoğan and Bozdoğan. [8] [9] The Akinci will utilize more artificial intelligence-based capabilities which will boost its autonomy. [10]

TUSAS’ Aksungur remains another noteworthy unmanned aerial system awaiting entry into service. The UAV will bring new horizons to the Turkish Navy’s anti-submarine warfare capabilities thanks to its sonobuoy pod and magnetic anomaly detector (MAD) boom. [11]

Turkey does, however, still need to address key areas in unmanned systems. Above all, the Turkish Air Force needs to replace its Israeli-made loitering munitions with indigenous systems. One should keep in mind that Israel’s raids in Syria revealed the success of anti-radiation kamikaze drones (Harop/Harpy 2) in destroying SAM systems.  Besides, some Turkish writings drew attention to the very need to acquire precision-guided land-based fire support munitions to foster the emerging UAV-artillery complex CONOPS. [12]

At the end of the day, the Idlib campaign, especially the Turkish UAVs’ hunt for the Syrian Pantsirs, once more revealed that Turkey now remains a robust drone power with new technologies, concepts, and a burgeoning military-strategic cultural character prioritizing unmanned systems in fighting wars.


[1] Baykar, https://baykardefence.com/uav-15.html, Accessed on: April 4, 2020.

[2] Roketsan, https://www.roketsan.com.tr/en/product/mam-c-smart-micro-munition/, Accessed on: April 4, 2020.

[3] Roketsan, https://www.roketsan.com.tr/en/product/mam-l-smart-micro-munition/, Accessed on: April 4, 2020.

[4] The Undersecretariat for Defense Industries, Official Twitter Account, https://twitter.com/SavunmaSanayii/status/1235547985175556096, Accessed on: April 9, 2020.

[5] Rosoboronexport, http://roe.ru/eng/catalog/air-defence-systems/air-defense-systems-and-mounts/pantsir-s1/, Accessed on: April 9, 2020.

[6] Jane’s, https://www.janes.com/article/89584/army-2019-russia-unveils-pantsir-s1m-sam-vehicle, Accessed on: April 10, 2020.

[7] ASELSAN, https://www.aselsan.com.tr/KORALENG_1218.pdf, Accessed April 9,, 2020

[8] Tubitak SAGE, http://www.sage.tubitak.gov.tr/en/urunler/wing-assisted-guidance-kit-kgk, Accessed on: April 5, 2020.

[9] Roketsan, https://www.roketsan.com.tr/en/product/som-stand-off-missile/, Accessed on: April 4, 2020.

[10] Baykar, https://baykardefence.com/uav-14.html, Accessed on: April5, 2020.

[11] Tusas, https://www.tusas.com/uploads/2019/12/aksungur-flyer.pdf, Accessed on: April 10, 2020.

[12] Arda Mevlütoğlu, “Bahar Kalkanı Harekâtı’na Dair Gözlemler 1: Türk Tipi Keşif – Taarruz Kompleksi mi?”, March 2020, https://www.siyahgribeyaz.com/2020/03/bahar-kalkan-harekatna-dair-gozlemler-1.html?spref=tw, Accessed on: April 10, 2020.