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Will Turkish-made drones give Azerbaijan the edge in Nagorno-Karabakh?

Audio 04:49
Armenian soldiers have to be alert for drone attacks.
Armenian soldiers have to be alert for drone attacks. AFP
By: Dorian Jones
9 min

Turkish-made drones are at the forefront of Azerbaijan's fight to reclaim the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh enclave from ethnic Armenian control. Azerbaijan claims success with the Turkish weapons and is touting the drones as a potential game-changer in the decades-long, on-off conflict.

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A clean machine: one of the Turkish-made weapons.
A clean machine: one of the Turkish-made weapons. © Baykar Technologies

"They are very modern sophisticated weapons," said Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev in a recent interview with France 24.

 

"And I can tell you, only by the drones which we acquired from Turkey, we destroyed Armenian military equipment worth one billion dollars," he added. 

Turkish drones are central to Ankara's backing of its close ally Azerbaijan in the conflict, military support which Armenia has condemned. 

The apparent success of Turkish drones underscores Turkey's growing reputation as a significant player in the growing realm of drone weaponry.  

"Turkey has accumulated a large amount of experience infrastructure, to integrate design and manufacture such advanced drones," said Turkish Defense analyst Arda Mevlutoglu.  

"Not maybe as sophisticated as the United States, but surely being able to compete with Chinese drones. Turkish drones are rapidly gaining technology advantage."  

Turkey uses its drones across the region, from supporting Syrian rebels to fighting against Kurdish insurgents in Iraq.  

Turkish drones decisive in war in Libya

Turkish-made drones also helped turn the tide in favour of Ankara-backed forces of the Government of National Accord in the Libyan civil war.  

"Armed drones electronic war systems have helped Turkey to carry out a more hard power-oriented foreign and security policy," said Sinan Ulgen of the Istanbul-based Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies.  

"It essentially allowed Turkey to rely on its technological edge," he added, "which is now allowing Turkey to engage in this cross-border power projection and reliance on hard power much more than in the past."  

Cheaper and without political strings

Cheaper than their American counterparts and battle-proven, Turkish drones are winning customers, from Ukraine to Qatar to several unnamed African countries.  

Turkish drones also have another critical edge over western competitors. 

"Turkey doesn't have political strings attached to sophisticated equipment, unlike European counterparts or the United States," says analyst Mevlutoglu.  

"So Turkey can offer sophisticated Nato-grade equipment with little if not zero, political strings attached. This means that for the Middle East and African market, Turkey has become a very serious competitor," added Mevlutoglu. 

Backlash against civilian death toll

But the growing deadly civilian toll in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, blamed in part on Turkish-made drones, is drawing an international backlash.  

Canada has frozen the sale of critical components, a move that exposes the Turkish drone program's vulnerability.  

"We still can't produce engines," said political consultant Atilla Yesilada of consulting firm Global Source Partners. "Obviously, we don't have a chip factory, so all the smartware, software in these drones, or whatever weapons we are talking about, must be imported from the West or China."   

Ankara has criticised Canada's decision. But technology could yet be on the side of the Turkish drone industry. 

"It's more than easy to create alternatives," said Mevlutoglu. "That is the magic thing about the drone sector. The technology to develop sophisticated drones has become cheaper and more accessible by the day."

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