Turkey's drone diplomacy with NATO members and its possible implication on the Alliance

By THO Contributor, Adinda Khaerani

Turkey has been an official NATO member since February 18, 1952, and remains a significant contributor to the alliance to this day. Turkey has been engaged in various NATO missions. It was involved in providing security inside Afghanistan as a member of ISAF. Since the Taliban captured Kabul, Turkey, along with Qatar, has been working on the security at the Hamid Karzai Airport. In the Black Sea, it supports the Standing NATO Maritime Group's activities. To the west, Turkey provides permanent naval assistance in the Aegean Sea to NATO missions, as well as hosts a LANDCOM, NATO's land command. Ankara has also opened its Konya Air Base for AWACS planes. Other than the United States, no other member of the alliance is actively engaged in as many initiatives. 

When asked what factors have contributed to Ankara as an invaluable ally for NATO despite existing tensions with Washington, Col. Rich Outzen (Ret.), a geopolitical consultant and retired foreign area officer who served in the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, mentioned four factors, the first one being geography. Turkey's location renders  it a critical player regarding waterways, airspace, and ground conflicts across a broad swath of Eurasia. The second one is the country’s large military and defense industry, while the third involves its diplomatic and economic networks. Col. Outzen explained further that Ankara has developed cooperative relationships based on aid, trade, and effective transactional approaches with dozens of countries and national leaders in Africa and Asia. He added that Ankara has the influence, not of a hegemon, but of a serious partner in a number of regions where the US and other Western states have limited presence and effectiveness. The fourth is Turkey’s proven power projection capability. Col. Outzen reiterated that Turkey has demonstrated the political will and focus to match political objectives to specific armed campaigns, which coupled with the first three items, give Ankara an effective veto over major geopolitical changes that threaten its interests in its neighbourhood. 

He also added: “These four points are arguments of value from a practical and interest-based rather than moral perspective. Morally and prudentially one can argue also that Turkey's formal alliance with the West and long history of supporting the U.S. in international ventures — Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia (1990s), the Balkan wars (1990s), the Cold War — have created a shared strategic interest and mutual obligation that is worth preserving. A world in which Turkey is an antagonist of the US rather than a difficult ally would be a much less safe world.”

As Col. Outzen noted, one of the factors is the country’s advanced armed forces and defense systems. Turkey boasts the second-largest army in NATO and has a reliable armaments industry; for example, it is listed as one of only five countries licensed to build F-16s

Following the acceptance of the S-400 Russian air defence missile system, the US removed Turkey from the list of countries participating in the F-35 joint strike fighter program. Since the 1980s, Turkey has purchased F-16 from the US and currently owns one of the world’s largest fleets of fighter planes. Last month, it was reported that the Biden Administration had offered a package of F-16s to the Erdogan government and modernization kits in exchange for the payment that was initially allocated for the F-35. 

Turkey’s self-reliance was prompted by various factors in recent years, including the concerns over Moscow’s possible threat in Syria and its naval expansion in the Black Sea, as well as the sanctions imposed by Washington after the purchase of Russia’s S-400 air defence missile system. 

According to The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Turkey is listed as one of three countries that have risen up the ranks of arm exporters. The year of 2014 marked the entrance of Bayraktar TB-2 to the army’s inventory, and they are currently used by Qatar, Ukraine, and Azerbaijan. The Bayraktar Tactic Block 2 (TB2) may be considered a milestone in indigenous drone technology, as the drones are credited with playing significant roles in Libya, Syria, and Karabakh. As a consequence, Turkey has become the fourth largest 4th biggest drone producer after the US, Israel, and China. 

In May of this year, Poland became the first NATO member to make a purchase, after announcing to buy 24 Bayraktar TB2 type UAVs, which are due to be delivered next year. Polish Defence Minister Mariusz Blaszczak stated that the drones “have proven themselves in war.”  The cooperation in the defense sector with Ankara will strengthen the Polish Army and thereby reinforce NATO’s eastern flank. 

Latvia subsequently hinted that it will become the second NATO member to acquire TB2s and Albania's parliament approved additional defense funding approximating $9.7 million in its budget for a supply. The next potential candidates are believed to be Hungary, Kazakhstan,  Romania, as well as the Baltic States. 

Turkey’s drone diplomacy has clearly paid dividends. As Col. Outzen explained, the endeavor “strengthen[s] the defense capabilities of exposed eastern flank NATO members against Russian-style warfare as applied in Ukraine. In essence, the drones give a small defending force enhanced Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance capabilities, as well as an offensive and defensive air component that complicates any sudden moves against it. This will raise the costs for Russia of launching any new hybrid campaigns in the Balkans, Poland, or wherever else they are deployed.”

What is the impact on Ankara’s relationship with Moscow? “Russia can't be happy about this,” Col. Outzen observed, “but Russia gains too much from having a commodious (if bumpy) relationship with a major NATO country to decisively upset the apple cart over such sales.’

Instead, said Col. Outzen, “Russia may seek ways to impose costs on Turkey in Syria, or in the realm of trade, to express displeasure, but will avoid a rupture that would move Turkey into tighter solidarity within NATO and a more pronounced anti-Russian stance.” 

According to Col. Outzen, Russian military strategy in Ukraine involves the integration of small conventional forces, autonomous or unmanned systems, cyber operations, and deniable/proxy forces, in addition to other elements. 

 One may reasonably contend that Turkey’s drone diplomacy on behalf of NATO Eastern European members and Ukraine is compatible with both Washington and NATO’s interests, as the initiative clearly impacts Moscow’s interests. Unfortunately, there are few voices inside the Beltway sounding appreciative of Turkey providing much-needed assistance to countries attempting to deter Russian aggression. Still, while drone diplomacy may not be improving the relationship between Ankara and Washington at this time, it shows other NATO members that Ankara remains a critical NATO ally that is helping contain Russia’s growing assertiveness in Eastern Europe.