Turkish reconnaissance drones spotted Kurdish fighters emerging from a tunnel. The drone fed their coordinates to an F-16, as they were loading ammunition onto a truck in a parched Syrian landscape. Seconds later, Turkish forces carried out an attack based on the intel. There was nothing left but a crater after the smoke was cleared, declared Turkey’s defense ministry as it released a video of the strike.

Drone warfare has put Turkey on the top

Such operations highlight the changing face of war in one of the world’s most volatile regions. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) turned the tide in Ankara’s decades-old counterinsurgency against the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party in the country’s southeast, northern Iraq, and Syria. Moreover, the deployment of drones has not only been saving the lives of Turkish soldiers but also the financial resources of the defense ministry.

Turkey is using UAVs to gain the upper hand against the Kurdish party’s sister organization, the People’s Protection Units. Turkish drones, after the U.S troops began withdrawing on Oct. 9, 2019, in tandem with fighter jets, started pounding a strip of land along the border with Syria to clear the way for its troops. “In most cases, they reach the scene of the attack and confirm the enemy was totally destroyed,” says Nihat Ali Ozcan, a strategist at the Economic Policy Research Foundation in Ankara. 

Altogether there were three types of drones that have been deployed. The first one was mini-drones used for surveillance and photography. Then comes the much larger Anka-S surveillance drone. The last one was the Bayraktar TB-2, Turkey’s only armed drone. The Institute for Strategic Research in Paris has already recommended that NATO and European militaries ready themselves for drone threats in future conflicts.

Turkish drones

Will future wars be automated?

“Drones will definitely be taking more important roles in the next few years, but they aren’t about to replace soldiers,” says Ben Nassi, a researcher at Ben-Gurion University in Israel. For that to happen, he says, drones will need longer battery life and the development of a centralized computer command-and-control server that will allow a single person to control a swarm of drones, similar to how individual players manage their militaries in a computer game.

A swarm is a group of unmanned systems working together in a high level of collaboration autonomously (or almost autonomously), as birds or insects do. In 10 years, expect to see more autonomous systems operated by artificial intelligence “working at a high level of collaboration as a swarm, which will alter fighting, as we know it, by changing the rhythm of decision-making, for example, and many other factors that influence war-making,” says Antebi.

“The fantasy that many of us have is to have units of robots going in, and that will take a lot of time,” says Daniel Statman, a professor of philosophy at the University of Haifa in Israel who studies drones, robots, and the ethics of war. “Let’s say that in 30 years, we will see more and more automated tools on the battlefield but still see a lot of soldiers.” Statman also sees a future with “robots in the air and on the ground and underwater, and all of them will be based on artificial intelligence and be completely autonomous and very well programmed and know—so to speak—the rules of war, the general conventions on how to distinguish between combatants and noncombatants. We will give them everything we know, and how to identify legitimate military targets, and they will do a much better job than human beings.”