BAKU (AFP): Looping in the air at lightning speed, Turkish drones like those used against Russian forces in Ukraine draw cheers from the crowd at an air show in Azerbaijan.
Turkey is showcasing its defence technology at the aerospace and technology festival “Teknofest” that started in Azerbaijan’s capital Baku this week.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is expected to attend on Saturday.
Turkey’s TB2 drones are manufactured by aerospace company Baykar Defence, where Erdogan’s increasingly prominent son-in-law Selcuk Bayraktar is chief technology officer.
On Wednesday, Bayraktar flew over Baku aboard an Azerbaijani air force Mikoyan MiG-29 plane. One of his combat drones, the “Akinci”, accompanied the flight.
A video showing Bayraktar in command of the warplane, dressed in a pilot’s uniform decorated with Turkish and Azerbaijani flag patches, went viral on social media.
“This has been a childhood dream for me,” Bayraktar told reporters after the flight.
– Proximity to ‘threats’ –
Turkey’s drones first attracted attention in 2019 when they were used during the war in Libya to thwart an advance by rebel commander, General Khalifa Haftar, against the government in Tripoli.
They were then again put into action the following year when Turkey-backed Azerbaijan in recapturing most of the land it lost to separatist Armenian forces in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region.
Azerbaijani audience members at the aviation festival applauded during a display of TB2 drones, which are now playing a prominent role against invading Russian forces in Ukraine.
A senior official from the Turkish defence industry said his country was facing a wide spectrum of “threats”, including the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Islamic State group jihadists.
The PKK is listed as a terror group by Ankara and its Western allies.
But with NATO allies — including the United States — having imposed embargoes on Turkey, Ankara was forced to take matters into its own hands to build defence equipment, the official told AFP.
“The situation is changing now with the war in Ukraine,” the official said.
Turkey has been looking to modernise its air force after it was kicked out of the F-35 fighter jet programme because of its purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile defence system.
But Ankara’s role in trying to mediate an end to the Ukraine conflict through direct negotiations may have helped improve its relations with Washington in the past months.
In April, US President Joe Biden’s administration said it now believed that supplying Turkey with F-16 fighter jets would serve Washington’s strategic interests.
– Exports to 25 countries –
Michael Boyle, of the Rutgers University-Camden in the United States, said Turkish drones such as Bayraktar TB2 drones were “increasingly important to modern conflicts because they have spread so widely”.
For years, leading exporters like the United States and Israel limited the number of countries they would sell to, and also limited the models they were willing to sell, he told AFP.
“This created an opening in the export market which other countries, notably Turkey and China, have been willing to fill,” added the author of the book “The Drone Age: How Drone Technology Will Change War and Peace”.
The Turkish official said Turkey has been investing in the defence industry since the 2000s, but the real leap came in 2014 after serious investments in advanced technologies and a shift towards using locally made goods.
While Turkey’s export of defence technologies amounted to $248 million in early 2000, it surpassed $3 billion in 2021 and was expected to reach $4 billion in 2022, he said.
Today Turkey exports its relatively cheap and effective drones to more than 25 countries.
Boyle said these drones could be used “for direct strikes, particularly against insurgent and terrorist forces, but also for battlefield reconnaissance to increase the accuracy and lethality of strikes”.
“So they are an enabler of ground forces, and this makes them particularly useful for countries like Ukraine which are fighting a militarily superior enemy,” he said.