Turkey Manufactures National UAVs, an Interview with Haluk Bayraktar

September 13, 2017

While we were testing Bayraktar Mini ten years ago in southeastern Turkey, military officers told us: “No one interacted with us like you did.” However, engineers must cooperate with the military as they need to see and feel the military's necessities.

Turkey marks significant developments in the defense industry. Undoubtedly, the project of developing indigenously-developed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) is among the country’s leading innovations. Manufacturing and using indigenously produced drones contributed to Turkey’s counter-terror fight to a great extent in recent months. Therefore, the developments in UAV technologies and their place in the defense industry constitute a considerable object of interest. SETA Foundation’s Strategy Program Director Hasan Basri Yalçın and researcher Abdullah Erboğa conducted an interview with Haluk Bayraktar, the General Manager of Baykar Makina, which presents important information regarding Turkey’s position in the field.

The requirement of building a national and domestic defense industry has been highlighted in Turkey for a long time and we have lately observed that Turkey has achieved rapid progress in terms of developing UAVs. What kind of a transformation has Turkey experienced in the defense industry? Was there any critical turning point?

In Turkey, major steps were taken in the defense industry during the early Republican period. A number of national entrepreneurs and businessmen such as Nuri Demirağ, Vecihi Hürkuş, Şakir Zümre and Nuri Kılligil formed a convention in this respect. These names used to embrace their jobs as a mission. During the late 1940s, their initiatives were interrupted with the Marshall Plan aid that was introduced after Turkey’s strategic decision was shaped by the U.S. during World War II. Instead of the national entrepreneur/businessman model, the businessman model based on distributing important foreign brands was preferred. The question as to why Turkey does not yet have a domestic automobile partially stems from such choices made at the time. With the Marshall Plan aid, our military was equipped with donated foreign armored vehicles, tanks and weapons instead of domestic weapons.

The interrupted phase resumed with the Cyprus incidents in 1974, as during this period Turkey was subject to an arms embargo. It was during this era that the “make your own plane” campaign was re-initiated. Turkish Aerospace Industries Inc. (TAI) and Turkey’s leading defense systems producer ASELSAN were among the facilities established during this period. The period from the 1970s to early 2000s can be defined as the period of direct procurement and utilization from abroad. Meanwhile, joint production and montage activities were seen in certain projects.

In addition to manufacturing plants being found, a joint montage line of F-16 jets were also established with TAI in 1984. ASELSAN was established in 1974 as a consequence of the embargo imposed following the Cyprus Operation. Following ASELSAN’s establishment, while the U.S. continued to donate radios to Turkey, these were not used solely in order to encourage the operations of ASELSAN. There was another turning point as of 2004. It is argued that the hood event was the main factor triggering this since the turning point did not occur solely with the effect of a civilian initiative. Some military factors were also in play and we were direct witnesses of this period.  From the 1990s onward, the “network centric warfare” strategy gained prominence across the world and software and electronic components came into prominence in platforms. This reflected the possibility that those weapons might be used against us unless an investment was made within our own means. With advancing technologies, this situation became even more clear. Everything was mechanic a century ago, and electronic software dramatically changed the modes in the industry.

The turning point occurred in 2004 due to the fact that major bids corresponding to several billion dollars were on the agenda during the previous five years, such as bids on UAVs, tanks and helicopters. All of these were canceled and a domestic and original development model began to be implemented in 2004. The model was implemented in the field of UAVs in the most outstanding way. So, Turkey’s current position in the field of UAV technologies is the result of gradual process. Although it was really interrupted – for instance we confronted numerous obstacles as Baykar – a will was certainly displayed in this respect and we are now living the outcomes of this will.

UAVs in Counter-Terrorism

UAV technologies have developed at a rapid pace – is this because they are more producible or did the field emerge as a strategic necessity in the context of counter-terrorism?

Both factors have been effective. UAV technologies do really create the effect of force multiplier in operations as combatant force cannot properly be employed unless the targets are pinpointed. In addition, the conditions stemming from asymmetrical warfare environments increase the need for UAVs. It also presents a couple of advantages in terms of production and technological improvement. Each move made in this scope can take you to the cutting edge since UAV technologies experience a paradigm shift in aviation industry. While the previous century was based on a platform-focused aviation, the current focal points of the sector include themes like electronics, software and artificial intelligence.

Military systems are the top platforms. Below them are main subsystems, material technologies and their components. This field is required to encompass both military qualifications and military standards. For instance, if you are developing tanks, an enterprise cannot randomly step up to develop tanks. It is not easy to compete in a field that has remained steady since the Second World War. But an enterprise can develop domestic and independent UAVs, as we did, and can yield successful results. Thanks to the initiatives we made around a decade ago, we can develop and manufacture our local UAVs in our country and put them into the service of our military.

Is this because tanks are more complicated?

Rather than being complicated, it is a system that was developed a long time ago and so therefore it is not very easy to make groundbreaking moves in this field. As UAV technologies are newly developing, no specific standards or qualifications are requested for it. No one puts emphasis on certain qualifications in this field across the world as technology is always ahead of legal regulations. Besides being a newly-developing technology, UAVs do not have established main sub-industries when their subsystems and components are viewed. For example, in the automotive sector, all components can be found in the market from alternators to the most basic ones. It is a stable sector unlike the newly-developing UAV industry and for this very reason, it enables a great deal of flexibility. So many components from civilian sectors can be incorporated into the UAV industry. We call this “off-the-shelf material.” For example, suppose that you are developing the flight control system of an UAV.  It is a computer system that stabilizes the aircraft and enables it to automatically follow the routes identified and uploaded by you. You develop a software to create this system. Also, you need to work on the computer’s electronic equipment design and architecture. You create this design and architecture, and gather the components forming the computer such as its processor, diode and transistor. While you devise an authentic board design, you can purchase the components off-the-shelf since you have access to them for civilian and commercial purposes. This thus allows for the rapid improvement of the UAV industry.

Do you think there has been a critical point in the international arena where the need for UAVs has increased? Such as the Gulf War and the Second Iraq War to give examples from the past. Do you think the progress of UAV technologies accelerated at a certain point?

When you consider the literature, an example of this are the target drones used by the U.S. in Bosnia. There are also reconnaissance drones. Prior to that, drones were used in the Beqaa Valley by Israel. Israel is intensively employing such technologies in wars. We know that they were used in the most intensive way in the aftermath of 9/11. In a sense, this is due to the fact that the opportunities offered by technology make it possible to utilize UAVs in such operations.

While not that common in the Gulf War, AWACS (the E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System) was used in Kosovo.

During the Gulf War, the U.S. did not have an established UAV technology yet. Especially following the results obtained through GNAT UAV in Kosovo, its upgraded version Predator was predominantly used in that area. Meanwhile, Turkey was among the first countries importing GNAT UAVs. We purchased ten of them in 1994 but did not use GNAT or I-GNAT systems in the following years. Their average duration of flight is around 100 hours, which is incredibly low. They were not used then possibly due to the fact that our military structure and outlook on this technology was different.

New Generation Wars and UAVs

There was the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) issue during the 1990s. From now on, military conflicts will arise not because of the problems caused by the industrial revolution but of the problems arising from information revolution. The network centric warfare will be out in the open and all systems will operate interdependently, which is called “system of systems.” Such a state was commonly seen during the 1990s and early 2000s, but there is a claim suggesting that firepower is still effective especially with the start of proxy wars. Which period do you think UAVs belong to?

Considering the phenomenon of network centric warfare, UAV systems encompass many different technologies including communication, sensor, processor, command and control technologies. As a matter of fact, the progress made in these technologies make us effective. For example, sorting out some communication systems allows one to develop satellite communication and a broadband communication system that is higher than the line of sight. This makes you acquire the ability to transmit images with very high resolutions. Or, the sensor you develop becomes portable in drones. In other words, UAVs will have the same function with AWACS. Consequently, technology and practice are parallel to each other. This is the point where network centric warfare comes into play. It enables regarding each component in the battlefield as a communication instrument or a sensor while enabling the reciprocal transmission of data at certain hierarchic layers.

UAV technologies are the direct outcome of network centric warfare as UAVs do not mean anything alone. For example, the aircrafts developed by Bayraktar are flying day and night, both inside and outside the country borders. From the moment, they take off, all the data is gradually transmitted to all centers and monitored by the top level. When an engagement decision is issued, it is conveyed to the base that flies the relevant jet. So, the system operates within a hierarchy of network centric warfare. Imagine a ground control station that flies a drone by itself. It has a pilot and a payload operator. It flies the drone, and while monitoring it, the image is simultaneously conveyed to various centers including brigade command and general staff, and each of them issue a decision on their own level. Then these decisions are transmitted to the system from a certain base.

The practices in the concept of network centric warfare depend on how far the developed technologies comply with this structure. Currently, our UAVs use a home-grown virtual globe, namely the Geographical Analysis System (CAS) developed by Piri Reis company. This is a software-based mapping technology. About a decade ago, the country did not have such a chance: Let’s say you are launching operations in a certain region. As teams change, you did not have a chance to analyze and filter the data of the previous team, which impedes the formation of strong ties. Now we have a software system operating above servers. All data is live. Everyone involved in the process enters their data and each one has the opportunity to see everything live. This is actually a component of the network centric warfare.

Turkey’s UAV capacity

How would you assess Turkey’s position in UAV technologies from a global perspective?

From 2004 onwards, Turkey displayed a will in this field that was reflected to the specifications of the Undersecretary of Defense Industries (SSM), which is the procurement authority. The necessity of being home-grown and authentic is asked in all the critical components as part of the specifications. Some criteria were adopted and implemented in this respect. For example, purchasing a component from a local supplier who buys it from abroad is not considered national. We started with micro UAVs and thought that starting from such a point was the most crucial factor.

As a matter of fact, this is another dimension represented by UAVs. In the previous century, aviation was completely based on aircrafts, air vehicles and platforms, but this has changed with the advent of UAVs. It has evolved into a technology solely focusing on electronic software and guidance and control systems. To give an example, we are currently developing all the components of UAVs including their flight control systems, frames, server systems that operate ailerons, batteries, power systems and ground command and control. Aeronautics and aircraft engineering constitute only 10 percent of this. In other words, designing the airframe is 10 percent of the overall job.

To explain our position, I can say that Turkey is among the countries that use UAVs intensively. Also, aircrafts keep developing as long as they fly. You can develop them. But an aircraft waiting in hangar cannot take you anywhere. It causes you trouble. In this sense, Turkey has significant experiences.

I think Turkey is among the top five or six countries that can use UAVs effectively in operational terms. Thanks to the contribution of the companies that have developed this technology in an authentic way like we have done, this experience has come to the fore. We started from the bottom of the ladder, and have come to our current position by gradually growing. Of course, we will keep our progress. Technology is a race. But one of the most important factors that will contribute to this progress is the experience of using them in the field. This factor will take us even further. Experience, identification of necessities, and additions on the system based on the feedback we have: These are the factors that improve us. No improvement can be achieved without practice.

What is the exact process? Does the military request a specific technology from you or do you develop and serve the technology to the army? Can the political and bureaucratic bodies rapidly respond to the technological improvements?

Bayraktar Mini UAV is the first system we developed. The SSM was the first one demanding Bayraktar Mini UAV. They invited us and other companies according to an invitation method based on competition and everyone developed and presented an aircraft model through their own means without any research and development support. We ranked first and the grounds of Bayraktar Mini was thus laid. For example, Malazgirt rotating-wing UAV is a project we kicked off with our own initiative. We also took initiative in many other things such as Bayraktar Tactical Bloc 2 without any demand from the procurement authority. We call it embracing duty as a mission. It happens very often. The structure in Turkey needs to change, and it is gradually changing. Currently, the military is the consuming body while the the SSM is the procurement authority. And the industry is the producer. The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) has ten years procurement plans. Strategic plans and project necessities are determined based on these plans. The military reveals project needs by working within the structure and conveys the Project Definition Documents to the SSM. The documents state the needs and the SSM endeavors to meet the needs by means of the defense industry.

But to what extent is this technologically effective? How far are the country’s industrial infrastructure activities and competence concerned while determining the needs? This has many restrictions in terms of technology. Which feature is on which level? Which one needs more focus? To which one is our industry more inclined? As a matter of fact, various spheres across the country including industry and academia are required to take part in the process. In the U.S., there are test centers called battle space. Students, academics and entrepreneurs are invited to take part in exercises with the military. While we were testing Bayraktar Mini ten years ago in southeastern Turkey, military officers told us: “No one interacted with us like you did.” However, engineers must cooperate with the military as they need to see and feel the military’s necessities. If the military and engineers remain detached from each other, the process would not work out. We actually need a transformation in this structure. Currently, there is an array of procedures implemented in Turkey that begin with the manufacturing of the product after the needs are identified. They are currently more flexible and dynamic than a decade ago. As far as I see, the SSM can take on much more initiative. Such factors are also important in advancing the projects.

UAVs and the Regional Balance of Power

Among the regional rivals of Turkey such as Iran, Israel, Egypt and Russia, who are the actors we can compete with in the region?

Iran and Israel started their UAV works before us. They have been making a great deal of investment in the field. In some technological aspects such as guide control algorithms and navigation systems, we are more advanced than these countries. The triple-redundant flight control system we developed and the results we obtained clearly demonstrate that.

For instance, a triple-redundant flight control system has been used in a tactical UAV for the first time in the world. This is such a flight control system that the drone can manage its own taxiing, departure and navigation from the moment it departs hangar. It also has various automatic modes. The landing process is completely automatic and takes place with a triple-mode redundancy. The system automatically determines which landing mode is to be used according to the degree of the wind-force. It applies the brakes after it lands and then returns to hangar. This kind of automation is not available even in airliners yet. Bayraktar is the one who firstly employed this system in the UAVs of such size.

What about Israel’s Heron drones?

Turkey ordered 10 Herons from Israel in 2005. Some delays occurred in their delivery and the first delivery was made in 2010. But many malfunctions were subsequently encountered in the logistic process. Bayraktar TB2 UCAVs, on the other hand, have been in inventory since 2014 and they are currently much more advanced than Heron drones, which are procured for operational activities. This is due to the fact that it is an authentic system developed in line with latest technological advancements.

The U.S. provides a great deal of technological support to Israel. But we have observed that we are far more advanced especially in flight control algorithms and systems. To express more tangibly, Bayraktar TB2 has been in the air for 15.000 hours and it has been operating only for two years. Despite that, many results have been obtained. It is a fully automated system that manages all the phases of the flight on its own. Even the first prototype we developed in 2009 had automatic taxiing, departure and landing modes, while none of them was available in Heron. Heron drones were hired during these years, which were remotely controlled by Israeli pilots. The problems grew after those pilots left the country following the Gaza flotilla raid. In this sense, I can safely express that Turkey is far more advanced than these countries particularly in flight control systems.

Is there a distinction between the vehicles designed to be combatants and the ones that were subsequently used as combatants? For instance, do Bayraktar and other Turkish companies directly plan the vehicles as combatants?

As a matter of fact, Bayraktar TB2 was designed as a reconnaissance aircraft. What they demanded from us was an aircraft that reaches an altitude of 18.000 feet, carries 35 kg weight and flies for 10 hours. We developed an aircraft with further technical features and came up with a system that can reach an altitude of 27.000 feet, carry 100 kg, and fly for 24 hours so that it can carry ammunitions. But of course, it was not developed within the concept of offensive combat. Its airframe can make long-time flights. It also collects and transmits real time data and makes engagements in certain cases. When the types developed for offensive combat are considered, we need air vehicles that are much quicker, a little more maneuverable and with far more carrying capacity.

Does this transition require a qualitative or a quantitative distinction? Or is the distinction much sharper than this?

It is a very smooth and natural transition. There is no difference in terms of technology. It is actually a normal progress. So, what I said is aerodynamically true. There is no radical difference when you look at the subject through the lens of electronics or software.

Does this new platform require a new structuring?

It required a new hull. Also, we need to take certain steps regarding the turbine engine technology as a country. Our target is to become independent especially in critical components.

Domestic Engine Production

How can we solve the engine issue?

We do not have any problem with that since Bayraktar TB2 has a piston engine that can be procured from everywhere. But this is not the case for turbine engines, which have some constraints. Turkey is already investing in turbine technology with the support of the SSM. Also, it must be noted that the aim of developing home-grown and authentic drones is motivated by the will of improvement without depending on external sources. The whole system of Bayraktar TB2 was developed by Turkish engineers. As for the airframes, electronic systems, guidance and ground control systems, we can produce them as many as we desire whenever we wish. This is why they are national – 93 percent of it is home-grown. The average rate of this in the defense industry is currently around 50 percent. It is noteworthy that such an important technology is around 90 percent domestic while the average domesticity rate in the defense industry is around 50 percent. This is due to the fact that a considerably high added value can be provided when its electronics and software are developed.

Being domestic is crucial for the defense industry. This aspect is not so important for other civilian sectors such as the automotive sector. But in the defense industry, being domestic is really of critical importance since foreign producers can deny anything to you when defense is in question. There are many instances to that. Therefore, Turkey has taken certain platform-based steps with regard to critical components and now we are advancing in the field of main subcomponents and subsystems as well as the field of material technologies. We will keep our progress and hopefully reach the point we aim.

But still Turkey cannot procure combatant UAVs.

Piston engine, or internal combustion engine, is not a critical component for Bayraktar TB2. This product is manufactured in many places of the world since the technology for it has been in the market for a hundred years. Although being domestic is significant, there are some priorities for that. For instance, as Baykar, electronic software was a pivotal priority for us. Consequently, we endeavored to develop all the critical electronic and software components as completely home-grown in the first phase and now we are yielding the outcomes of this endeavor. In terms of engine, there is a serious need for tribune engines in the country. The SSM has been initiating and supporting programs in this respect. We are trying to come up with solutions that would consolidate our independence.

Suppose that you decide to make a combatant UAV, but it is not certain how long it will take for the tribune developing company, which was awarded the contract by the SSM to develop this. Do such situations affect your projects?

Sure, they do. But they have certain road maps. The SSM released the roadmap for UAVs for the first time. Maybe you have read about this. There is a road map encompassing the period until 2035 which also touches upon the engine issue. They are also engaging in activities of coordination regarding this. So, the SSM is trying to make a coordination, exerting efforts to prevent programs from conflicting each other.

What kind of advantages do the combatant UAVs offer in the concept of asymmetrical war?

They offer very important advantages. Above all, they can stay in the air for a long time. They can exercise assignments in dangerous spots for long durations without being located. In this sense, they bring a great advantage.

What if satellite technology would be more advanced? Do you have any plans regarding the use of satellite technology?

We are not using satellite in our current communications system as we are communicating in the line of sight by installing antenna systems in certain centers. You can think of it as a base station. Satellite communication is not so necessary for the vehicle we developed.

What kind of experiences have you gained from the Operation Euphrates Shield? Is there any point you find important in this context?

Over the course of the Operation Euphrates Shield, Bayraktar TB2 vehicles offered support to our troops from the air as far as the weather conditions allowed. Of course, we have gained some important experiences. For example, the project of central command and control system emerged as a result of this.

Hasan Basri Yalcin is a faculty member at the Politics and International Relations department at Istanbul Commerce University. Yalcin is also the director of the Strategy department at SETA Istanbul.

Abdullah Erboğa holds a PhD in the Middle East Institute from Sakarya University. His areas of research include Regional Security, Gulf States, US-Gulf Relations and Gulf Security. Erboğa currently works as a Researcher at SETA Istanbul.