Western firms have supplied critical components for Turkish drones

Western firms have supplied critical components for Turkish drones
3 min read
Western firms have supplied critical components for Turkish drones
White helmet crews on the scene after a rocket strike of PKK [Getty Images]

Turkey has escalated its use of airstrikes in its fight against the PKK and allies in Iraq and Syria in recent years.

Many of the strikes are carried out by armed drones, including the Bayraktar TB2, according to local officials in Iraq and weapons experts.

The drone's maker, Istanbul-based company Baykar, is run by brothers Haluk and Selcuk Bayraktar. The latter is married to Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan's daughter. The company was founded in the 1980s by their father Özdemir and began to focus on drones in 2005. The company did not respond to a request for comment.

At least two Western companies have supplied critical components for the drones. Among them are optical sensors. Weapons experts say these sensors enable unmanned aerial vehicles to surveil and identify targets on the ground and execute airstrikes. There is no indication that Western companies have violated sanctions.

German defence electronics manufacturer Hensoldt told Reuters it has been equipping the Bayraktar TB2 with its ARGOS II optical sensor since 2020. It said it had also supplied the sensor to Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) and Lentatek, two other Turkish manufacturers of drones. Hensoldt said the quantities and exact delivery dates of the sensors were confidential and could not be shared.

"Without these types of sensors drones as we know them wouldn't work," said Kelsey Gallagher, a researcher with Project Ploughshares, a Canadian peace research institute.

Hensoldt added that the ARGOS II is developed and manufactured by its subsidiary in South Africa and is free of any components governed by German export law or the U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regulations, which control the export of a wide range of military equipment and technologies that can be used in weapons.

L3Harris Wescam, a Canadian subsidiary of U.S. defence contractor L3 Harris Technologies, has also supplied drone technology to Turkey in the past. In October 2020, the Canadian government suspended export permits for military goods and technology to Turkey while it reviewed allegations that Azeri forces were deploying drones equipped with Wescam's imaging and targeting systems against Armenia in the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. Canada cancelled the permits in April 2021 after finding credible evidence that Bayraktar TB2 drones, equipped with Wescam sensors, had been used in the conflict.

"This use was not consistent with Canadian foreign policy, nor end-use assurances given by Turkey," Marc Garneau, who was Canadian foreign minister at the time, said in a statement.

The Canadian government said at the time Wescam had reviewed images shared by Armenia and confirmed delivering a system with the same serial number to Turkey in 2020. Canadian officials and L3Harris did not respond to requests for comment for this article. Turkey did not answer a question about its drone exports.

Sales of the TB2 drone have grown rapidly in the past few years. Baykar has said it has signed export agreements with 30 countries for the drone. Since 2018, customers have included Ukraine, Ethiopia, Libya and Azerbaijan, according to arms trade data through 2022 collected by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), a think tank.

In July, Saudi Arabia agreed to buy the Bayraktar Akinci, another Baykar drone, in what Baykar described as the biggest defence contract in Turkey's history.

In Ukraine, the TB2 drone has helped destroy Russian armoured vehicles and artillery systems.

Elsewhere, Western officials have expressed concerns about the use of Turkish drones.

In December 2021, a senior Western official told Reuters Washington had "profound humanitarian concerns" over the sales of the drones to Ethiopia, which could contravene U.S. restrictions on exports to the country. In May 2021, the U.S. Department of State said it had imposed wide-ranging restrictions on economic and security assistance to Ethiopia. Ethiopia accused the U.S. of meddling in its affairs. A conflict between Ethiopia's government and the leadership of the northern Tigray region killed thousands of civilians and displaced millions.