Turkey claims it no longer needs Canadian military drone tech

Stung by the federal government’s decision to ban the export of state-of-the-art Canadian drone optics and targeting systems to Turkey, the country’s largest drone producer says Turkish arms manufacturers have developed their own technology and no longer need the Canadian devices.

Military experts say they're skeptical of Turkish claims related to domestic drone technology

A Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drone with a WESCAM MX-15D sensor and targeting system. (Birol Bebek/AFP via Getty Images)

Stung by the federal government's decision to ban the export of state-of-the-art Canadian drone optics and targeting systems to Turkey, the country's largest drone producer says Turkish arms manufacturers have developed their own technology and no longer need the Canadian devices.

Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau announced last week that Ottawa had cancelled arms export licences for Turkey's Bayraktar TB2 drone systems after a review found "credible evidence" that Canadian technology was diverted to Azerbaijan without Ottawa's consent and was used in fighting against Armenian forces in Nagorno-Karabakh last fall.

In an angry tweet issued soon after Garneau's announcement, Selçuk Bayraktar, a top executive with Turkish drone producer Baykar, said Canada's cancellation of export permits for optical sensors and targeting systems produced by L3 Harris WESCAM in Burlington, Ont. will not harm Turkey's burgeoning drone industry, according to a report by the Anadolu Agency.

Bayraktar — who is Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's son-in-law — also warned "that if Turkey decides not to sell Canada armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) during an emergency, this may cause it serious problems as Turkey is one of only four countries in the world that make battle-tested drones," Anadolu Agency reported.

These WESCAM pods for their drones are really, really important. Otherwise, they wouldn't be calling.​​​​​- Defence expert Chris Kilford on Turkey's drone production

Baykar did not respond to Radio Canada International's request for an interview with Bayraktar.

Canadian defence experts say they doubt that Turkey's domestically produced optical sensors are as good as WESCAM's and argue that Ankara's repeated attempts to reverse the ban at the highest political levels — which included a personal overture by Erdogan to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last spring — strongly suggest the reverse.

Chris Kilford, a defence and security expert and a former Canadian defence attaché in Turkey, said there's no question the Canadian ban has upset Ankara.

"What we've seen since all of this has happened is that you had President Erdogan call the prime minister at one point, you had the Turkish foreign minister call our foreign minister, and the defence minister in Turkey call our defence minister," Kilford said.

"And what does it really tell you? It tells you that these WESCAM pods for their drones are really, really important. Otherwise, they wouldn't be calling."

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, left, welcomes Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to the G-20 summit in Antalya, Turkey, Sunday, Nov. 15, 2015. (Lefteris Pitarakis/Associated Press)

Kilford said the optical sensor and targeting system pod developed by Turkish arms manufacturer ASELSAN is reportedly about 20 kilograms heavier than WESCAM's MX-15 pod installed on the Bayraktar TB2s.

And unlike the WESCAM sensors, Kilford said, ASELSAN's product hasn't been battle-tested in Libya, Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh — where the Turkish drones proved to be so effective that Selçuk Bayraktar was recently awarded the Karabakh Order by Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev for the role his drones played in defeating Armenian forces.

"A rule I often apply to Turkish headlines or statements is that when they say 'no damage,' it is the exact opposite," Kilford said.

"Indeed, the WESCAM pods are arguably the best available and proven in three recent combat situations in different terrains and conditions. Whatever is on hand to replace the WESCAM pods will likely not be as good, as foreign customers will also note."

Turkey broke the rules: defence expert

Christian Leuprecht, a professor at Queen's University who specializes in defence and security issues, said that while Turkey has been working hard for decades to expand its own domestic defence capability, about 70 per cent of its arms industry is still "essentially building other people's stuff under licence."

"And keep in mind that other countries, such as France, have either frozen or suspended permits," Leuprecht said.

That means Turkey has cut itself off from supplies produced by several key allies, he added.

"And that's the crux of the issue — Turkey violated its end-use assurances," Leuprecht said.

For the multilateral export control system to work, he said, the repercussions for Turkey must themselves be multilateral – both to rein in Turkey and to send a clear message that the conditions on export control permits must be obeyed.

Turkish research vessel Oruc Reis is seen anchored off the coast of Antalya in the Mediterranean on Sept. 13, 2020. Greece's prime minister later welcomed the return of the survey vessel to port from a disputed area of the eastern Mediterranean that has been at the heart of a stand-off between Greece and Turkey over energy rights. (Burhan Ozbilici/Associated Press)

"In Turkey's case, we already see the next confrontation with Western military gear brewing — its naval adventures protecting its hydrocarbon seabed claims against Greece and Cyprus," Leuprecht said, referring to tensions between Greece and Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Given the history between Turkey and Greece, that confrontation "could easily go sideways," Leuprecht added.

"And once again Canadian technology is at stake. So this really has to be a conversation about looking forward, rather than just looking back."

Turkey points to Canada's arms sales to Saudi Arabia

Turkey in turn has accused Canada of maintaining a double standard, pointing to its continued arms shipments to Saudi Arabia despite that country's leading role in the Yemen conflict and its poor human rights record.

Turkey has been a significant customer for Canada's defence industry.

According to documents released by the federal government to the parliamentary committee looking into the arms export permits issue, Canada has exported over $446 million in high-tech equipment to Turkey's burgeoning domestic arms industry since 2014.

Bessma Momani, a University of Waterloo professor and a senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, said the issue of arms exports warrants a serious public debate in Canada.

Momani said the defence industry makes a big contribution to the Canadian economy. According to the federal government, the industry contributed over $7 billion in GDP and close to 64,000 jobs to the Canadian economy in 2018.

"It's quite significant and if you look at jobs, it's manufacturing jobs and they have a lot of potential high value added in terms of jobs of the future. It's where you want technology investment to go in terms of AI (artificial intelligence), in terms of quantum [computing]," Momani said.

"If we were to stand on high moral ground and say we shouldn't be exporting any of this stuff, that's fine. But somebody else will."