US calls for tighter control of Turkish TB2 drones

This story was originally published by ProPublica.

As countries around the world add armed drones to their arsenals, federal lawmakers are urging the Biden administration to investigate how American parts and technology ended up in what has quickly become one of the models most popular on the world market: the Turkish TB2.

Manufactured by Turkish company Baykar Technology, the TB2 can hover over a battlefield and strike targets with laser-guided missiles. Baykar maintained that TB2s are produced domestically, with almost all parts sourced from Turkey.

But, as ProPublica reported this month, wreckage from downed drones in multiple conflicts has shown otherwise. A range of components were made by manufacturers in the United States, Canada and Europe.

To find out more, Rep. Tony Cárdenas, (D-CA), recently introduced an amendment to the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act.

The annual budget bill is often an opportunity for lawmakers to demand administration reports on pressing matters, and Cárdenas focused on TB2, pointing to Azerbaijan’s deployment of the weapon in its 2020 war against neighboring Armenia over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Footage of drone wreckage released by local media and the Armenian military at the time showed parts that matched those made by several US-based companies. Some of those companies told ProPublica they have taken steps to stop direct sales to Turkey, but others continue to sell essential parts.

Turkey has increased its exports of TB2 in recent years. At least 14 countries now own the drones and 16 more are looking to buy them.

The Turkish military drone, the Bayraktar TB2, has proven itself in Syria, Nagorno-Karabakh and Ukraine. Photo: AFP / Muhammed Enes Yildirim / Anadolu Agency

“We have been paying close attention to Turkey’s drone sales and how these weapons have been deployed around the world,” Cárdenas told ProPublica in a statement. “I am troubled by the destabilizing effects we are seeing and the ensuing human rights concerns, especially in places like Nagorno-Karabakh. We need a full account of the role that American-made parts play so Congress can do the proper oversight.

If enacted, the legislation would require the Department of Defense, in consultation with the State Department, to produce a report on U.S. TB2 parts used in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict and any potential violations of anti-terrorism laws. export, sanctions or other regulations.

Neither the Turkish Embassy in Washington nor Baykar Technology returned requests for comment on this story. Previously asked about the source of key components of its drones, Baykar did not respond to specific questions and only said those queries were based on unspecified “false accusations”.

At issue are US export laws. Typically, military parts are strictly controlled, requiring licenses from the State Department detailing their purchasers and end uses. But many of the key components of the TB2 are commercial-grade technologies, found in a variety of consumer products and not subject to gun laws.

And as a member of major global anti-arms pacts, Turkey can easily import trade parts, avoiding a web of sanctions and restrictions designed to curb the efforts of countries like Iran and China, which also exploit drone programs.

Some critics have called on the Biden administration to get tough on Turkey. Other countries, including Canada, have already instituted export bans to prevent the flow of critical parts. But for the United States, experts say, there are a number of diplomatic considerations. Turkey is a long-time NATO ally.

And, more recently, the TB2 has become an essential tool in places like Ukraine, where the country’s military has used it to fight Russian forces – a fact drone maker Baykar has repeatedly pointed out. repeated in media coverage of the conflict. “I think it’s one of the symbols of resistance,” Selçuk Bayraktar, the company’s chief technology officer, told CNN. “It gives them hope.”

Elsewhere, however, the TB2 is much less revered. In fact, it has been used to kill not only soldiers but also civilians, angering various governments and human rights groups.

In 2019, for example, Turkey sent the drones to Libya’s Tripoli-based Government of National Accord, despite a United Nations arms embargo. The UN said the weapon then helped turn a “low-intensity, low-tech” fight into a bloody conflict. In Ethiopia, in the midst of a war with rebels, the government used TB2s in airstrikes that killed dozens of civilians, including those living in a camp for displaced people.

Biden administration officials raised concerns about the use of drones in the Ethiopian conflict with their Turkish counterparts, but took no action, despite an executive order authorizing them to impose sanctions on any party involved in the fighting.

This year’s National Defense Authorization Act reflects the strained relationship between America and Turkey. If signed into law, it would restrict the administration’s efforts to sell F-16 fighter jets domestically.

Lawmakers cited a number of recent moves by Turkey, including its opposition to Finland and Sweden joining NATO. “How do you reward a nation that does all of these things,” Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) told Politico.

The TB2 House amendment, introduced by Cárdenas and co-sponsored by 19 others, represents the second attempt in the past year to put Turkey’s drone program on the White House’s radar.

Last year lawmakers requested a similar mandate for a report on US parts and technology used in the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. A version of the 2021 amendment, introduced by Menendez, called for a broad assessment of TB2s, their sales since 2018, and the US parts used in them. The final version, however, was watered down.

He did not name the Turkish drone or Turkey specifically, and he asked the Biden administration to broadly review American “weapons systems or controlled technologies” used in the 2020 Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict. ProPublica found that the Turkish government hired lobbyists to discuss the drone issue with lawmakers at the time.

A Karabakh Defense Army soldier fires an artillery piece towards Azeri positions during fighting above the separatist region of Nagorno-Karabakh on September 28, 2020. Photo: Handout / Armenian Defense Ministry / AFP

By law, this report was to be published in June, but the Ministry of Defense has not yet published it. A spokesperson told ProPublica this month that it was “under final review with relevant stakeholders.” The department did not respond to subsequent requests for an update on when that review would be completed.

For some critics of the administration, the delay is another indication of Turkey’s influence in Washington.

“Taking something off the shelf and using it to assemble a weapon might not technically cross a legal line, but it should be of concern,” said Aram Hamparian, executive director of the Armenian National Committee of America, a group of pro-Armenia pressure. who called for a series of measures against Turkey. “It should be addressed as part of our overall relationship between the United States and Turkey, and I’m not sure that is the case. I think they get a free pass.

The Senate is expected to finalize its version of the National Defense Authorization Act in the coming months.

This story was originally published by ProPublica under Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

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