When assessing Turkey's military involvement over the past few years – including in Syria, Libya and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict – one thing must be highlighted: the significant capabilities of its military drones.
During the last 10 years, the export of Turkish weapons has been directly linked to the country's economic rise, as well as to its political manoeuvre. These sales have led to the coining of a new term, "drone diplomacy".
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Russia has been a dominant player in the African arms market with 49 per cent of the continent's imports level between 2015 and 2019. Although Russia has a huge weapon sales capacity in the region, the interest in Turkish weaponry is growing.
Last month, the main topic of a three-day Turkey-Africa Partnership Summit was defence cooperation between Turkey and its African counterparts. Leaders and top ministers from 39 countries, including 13 presidents, met in Istanbul with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to set an agenda for military cooperation.
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Frankly, the main reason the African leaders are seeking opportunities to buy military equipment from Turkey is its cheaper prices with fewer preconditions. Low-cost armed Turkish army equipment such as Bayraktar TB2 drones are in demand for future warfare in Africa. According to a report published by Wall Street Journal, Turkish drones "point to future warfare being shaped as much by cheap but effective fighting vehicles as expensive ones with the most advanced technology."
"A set of six Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones, ground units, and other essential operations equipment costs tens of millions of dollars, rather than hundreds of millions for the American MQ-9," the report highlighted.
Angola is the latest country to express its interest in unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) during Erdoğan's first visit to the southern African country last October.
"In the short-term, we have agreed to raise our annual bilateral trade volume to $500 million," President Erdogan noted, up from the current $250 million. Half of this trade is expected to become military equipment.
Airbase and troop deployment diplomacy
Turkey's military engagement with Africa is not limited to arms sales. There are now over 40 Turkish embassies in Africa, and state-controlled Turkish Airlines flies to more than 50 African destinations. There are 37 military offices of Turkey on the African continent. In Morocco, Somalia and Tunisia, Turkey already has military bases.
The most prominent base, CAMP TURKSOM, is Turkey's largest overseas military base in the world. According to military and defence expert, Can Kasapoglu's article published by the Jamestown Foundation in the summer of 2020, Turkey had graduated some 2,500 Somali troops.
The report adds that Turkey's next African Eagle Land would be in Libya as Turkey and Libya signed a military cooperation agreement in 2019. Although it created tension between Turkey and France, Turkey managed to deploy troops to Libya under an accord on military cooperation signed with the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA). There are reports that it sent thousands of Syrian fighters to Libya.
Additionally, in the last week of December 2021, Turkey was ready to meet and speak with eastern-based putschist Gen. Khalifa Haftar, Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu said. In addition, it is clear that Turkey is trying to develop a balanced diplomatic approach in Libya between war-lord Khalifa and the Tripoli government. The military MoU signed between the two countries is still valid and Turkey still trains the troops in the North African country to counter-terrorism.
To sum up, Turkish drones are in hot demand around Africa to highlight Turkey's drone diplomacy in the region. Right after successful military operations in Libya, Syria and, most importantly, in Azerbaijan, the Bayraktar TB2 armed drones and UAVs are drawing the attention of prospective buyer countries as a combat-proven technology. Yet, the biggest challenge for Turkey for military trade in Africa is China's military power. China is the main rival for Turkey in terms of drone technology. China has a cost advantage by lowering the price tag in exchange for other concessions from African states. To sustain successful drone diplomacy, Turkey can only be superior to China by offering high technological NATO guaranteed service and standards. Most crucially, it must broaden the scope of its cooperation with African countries to include developmental projects.
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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.