The Kalashnikov of Drones, Kinda Sorta

Turkey's Bayraktar-2 is not a liberation tool favored by guerillas. But for states looking to engage in some drone warfare of their own, it sure lowers the barrier to entry.

The Kalashnikov of Drones, Kinda Sorta
Eugene M. Stoner and Mikhail Kalashnikov hold the M-16 and the AK-47. Sgt. Chris Lawson, Marines, July 1990, via the Hathi Trust digital library.

Edited by Sam Thielman

A FEW YEARS AGO, the Dutch peace organization PAX issued an overview of the expanding market for surveillance and strike drones. It asked a critical question:

[W]ho will develop the AK-47 version of the drone? A version that is cheap and easy to produce and operate, and that can be used by a wide range of State and non-state actors. Combined with near-future developments such as swarming technology, cheaper production materials, longer endurance capabilities, autonomy and miniaturization, the battlefield could witness a significant change in warfare tactics and methods, including the need for counter-drone technologies.

My former Guardian colleague, Financial Times Mideast Correspondent Raya Jalabi, co-wrote a piece the other day that serves as something like an early answer. Turkey's Bayraktar 2 is the most Kalashnikov-y of drones. At the very least it's a frontrunner.

Let's not get too hung up on analogies. The Kalashnikov is a historically significant military technology for its inexpensiveness and reliability, both of which made it a tool of people's war. An armed drone that costs in the low millions and is only purchased by national militaries and their proxies—i.e., not (true) non-state actors—isn't a tool of people's war. A true Kalashdronekov (MQ-47?), I suppose, would be something manufactured or jury-rigged in an insurgent-sized factory/garage that could provide recon and close air support for a bunch of dudes riding technicals. Not to be too spicy, but perhaps a contender for MQ-47 status might be the Iranian KAS-04, which appears to be a suicide drone (as opposed to one that fires a missile). The Iran-sponsored Iraqi militia Kataib Hezbollah is believed to have used the KAS-04 to attack the U.S. military base at al-Tanf earlier this month.

For now, however, we live in an era when export controls reign; those controls accordingly restrict strike-capable drones to national militaries (or proxy militias). And the Bayraktar's inexpensiveness and reliability have dramatically lowered the barrier to entry for mid-tier militaries to engage in drone warfare. That's what I mean here by drawing the Kalashnikov parallel. Another great legacy of the United States of America during the War on Terror, that showcase era for the possibilities of lethal drones.

JALABI AND CO-WRITER LAURA PITEL survey the moment the Bayraktar is having. Turkey developed the drone in response to the U.S. refusing to sell its nominal NATO ally Predators or Reapers due to human-rights concerns. Ankara turned right around and validated those concerns by attacking Kurdish forces in both Syria and Iraq; Bashar Assad's forces in Syria; and a whole lot of innocent people. Pitel and Jalabi tell the story of Azad Mehdi Mem, a 26-year-old man in Shiladze, Iraq, killed by Turkish forces operating the Bayraktar on the apparently groundless suspicion of his involvement in the left-wing Kurdish guerilla movement PKK.

"In our upcoming report on drone warfare in Syria, we will argue that Turkey has replaced the U.S. as the leader in extrajudicial targeted killings due to its drone capabilities," says PAX's project leader for humanitarian disarmament, drone watcher Wim Zwijnenburg.

But the real windfall for Turkey from the Bayraktar has come from exporting the drone. Baykar Technologies, the Bayraktar's manufacturer—where Selçuk Bayraktar, Turkish president Recip Tayyip Erdoğan’s ​ son-in-law, is CTO—won plaudits for sending Bayraktars to Ukraine free of charge. But Ukraine, which is under the manifest threat of dismemberment by Russia, appears to be an exception among Bayraktar's users. The 22 known or suspected purchasers of the Bayraktar include Ethiopia for its assaults on Tigrayan civilians; Azerbaijan for the resumption of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Armenia; and new customer Togo, which plans to use its Bayraktars on jihadists coming from Burkina Faso.

While drones are typically flimsy and disposable air frames—that's an advantage of an unmanned aircraft—they nevertheless provide some militaries with an off-the-shelf air force. "With the exception of Qatar and Oman, though the latter is not a confirmed buyer, most [Bayraktar purchasers] are low and middle income countries," observes Zwijnenburg. "Some face internal insurgences, such as Nigeria, Iraq and Ethiopia, while others are dealing with separatists or armed groups moving across borders, like Morocco, Togo, or Niger." (Nigeria has a crazy large army but a relatively small air force. Zwijnenburg points out that it compensates by buying Chinese drones.)

The economics of the Bayraktar, reportedly a bargain-priced drone, costing less than 5 million euros, explain it all. One example from Zwijnenburg: the Netherlands bought four Reapers from the U.S. at an estimated cost of 250 million euros (including the training, maintenance, data and command-and-control packages that can end up netting the contractor more over the lifespan of the airframe than the actual drone itself). But Ethiopia bought 13 Bayraktar-2s (apparently six were delivered) for 60 million Euros. "The average mid-to-low income country doesn't have military budgets" for American drone purchases, Zwijnenburg explains.

Fielding my questions, Merve Tahiroglu, the Turkey program coordinator at the Project on Middle East Democracy, is constructively skeptical of my comparison to the Kalashnikov. Baykar Technologies "also has clients like Ukraine and Poland, and future clients might include Slovakia, Latvia, Bulgaria, Albania, etc. So I think they are casting a wide net for their exports, perhaps focusing more on non-NATO states that can afford its drones," she says. "The drones do seem to be popular among autocracies—but not poor insurgent/terrorist groups as we associate with Kalashnikovs. Still, it's a pretty bad look for Bayraktar to be associated with cases like Ethiopia, and they're now using the Ukraine war to change this image by donating and selling drones to Ukraine—and it's definitely working."

To be extremely clear, I am not saying drone proliferation is bad because now Turkey's doing it and presenting the U.S. military industrial complex with competition for a low-cost surveillance-n-strike drone. I think my track record on this speaks for itself.

The proliferation of drones like the Bayraktar is likely to spread another legacy of the War on Terror: miscalculation, deception and/or self-deception about what drones can actually accomplish. Whatever their reputation, drone strikes rarely make more than a tactical impact, let alone a decisive one. It's telling that months after they arrived in Ukraine, the Bayraktar is hardly among the Ukraine war's signature weapons—those would be the Javelin and HIMARS. Pitel and Jalabi's story shows that in Ukraine, the Bayraktar, now held in reserve or restricted to Black-Sea recon, is more PR than battlefield utility.

Zwijnenburg noted that some purchasers—Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan, he mentioned—are buying the Bayraktar as a "prestige weapon." Accordingly, the temptation for militaries upon acquiring the Bayraktar will be to either inflate the impact the drone makes, or to retcon whomever the drones happen to kill into dangerous militants. Both are examples well-established by the United States, and the United States exports them far more typically than it exports "democracy." With the Bayraktar and beyond, the War on Terror's legacy is more Azad Mehdi Mems.

RUDY GIULIANI says the cops aren't allowed to punch you anymore, which comes as news to me, as during the early evening of May 31, 2020 at the southeastern corner of Broadway and 12th street I watched three officers of the New York Police Department nightstick the shit out of a protester who had fallen down. [They do this all the time! I put it in Daily Variety a decade ago!—Sam.] You'll notice that just this week The City reported that the NYPD won't discipline a cop who pulled down someone's mask to pepper spray them during the George Floyd protest the day before I saw the nightsticking. Anyway, while President Biden talks about the importance of funding the police, here's a story about a state trooper who's a serial killer and who gets away with it because the prosecutor is married to his supervisor.

THE DANGER ROOM T-SHIRTS ARE GONE. One of my autumn projects is going to be to finally organize FOREVER WARS/REIGN/etc. merch. I'll figure this out and subscribers will have a little treat. Paid subscribers, that is! A whole lot of you lied when you said you would pay for this newsletter when it wasn't on Substack. Reclaim your honor—buy a FOREVER WARS subscription today!

COMING THIS FALL: I return to the Cerebro podcast to discuss the mutant Nazis known as Fenris! You may remember from the Professor X episode that this is against my will—I have no desire to dwell on these weird incest Nazis but Connor enlisted me, so we're going to have fun talking about fascism. I don't know when exactly this episode will air, but it's going to be so deeply fucked up and inappropriate—I'm just going off the things I text Connor as I read old Fenris appearances; it's hard to compile a Notes file on Fenris that isn't a cancelable offense—that we agreed it has to go out before Kol Nidre.