A drone carrying explosives attacks a Turkish army outpost in a video released by the Kurdish guerrilla group, the PKK. This marked a new stage in the drone campaign by the PKK, a Kurdish separatist group that has been fighting Turkish forces for more than 40 years.
The attack is claimed to have been carried out at Şeladize in the Duhok district on 20th August, and “many invading Turkish soldiers were punished, but the exact number could not be clarified,” according to the PKK statement.
On the same day, local Kurdish news channel NRT carried pictures of two small bomb-carrying drones shot down by Turkish soldiers. However, these appear quite different to the one on the video, which is more of a flying bomb.
The PKK armed drone program dates back four years. In February 2016 the Turkish military captured a weapon stash including drones rigged with explosives. Since then the PKK has fielded several generations of weaponized drones, including modified consumer quadcopters and fixed-wing drones resembling model aircraft from commercial kits. Being able to strike distant targets with high precision makes these improvised attack drones a unique capability.
The first definite PKK armed drone was captured in Sirnak on the Iraqi border in July 2017, a modified consumer quadcopter. This was followed in August by the first successful attack, in which two Turkish soldiers were injured by a modified AGS-17 grenade dropped from another multicopter, near Semdinli. Similar drones were shot down in Agril and Semdinli.
Reports and images indicate three types of PKK drone in 2017 were based on DJI consumer drones – the small Mavic with a ‘shuttlecock comb,’ the Phantom and the commercial-grade Matrix.
By 2018 new types of drone were appearing. Pictures show small fixed-wing drones made from commercial Talon X-UAV hobby kits with Styrofoam wings. These were armed with crude shrapnel bombs of C-4 explosive studded with nails. In addition, the PKK had moved up to higher-value targets. In November 2018 an unsuccessful drone attack targeted a ceremony attended by the governor of Simlak. This apparently involved no fewer than eight drones.
In November 2018, seven Turkish soldiers were killed by an explosion at an ammunition dump in Semdinli, which the PKK claimed was the result of a drone attack, like the destruction of ammunition dumps in Ukraine by small drones with incendiaries such as Kalnivka in 2017 The local government responded by banning the possession of drones, suggesting they believed the claim.
Nick Waters, analyst with Bellingcat and author of the definitive guide to drone bombs used by Islamic State, says that the PKK drone weapons are far more advanced that the crude devices used by drug cartels in Mexico, and show a degree of manufacturing skill.
“This is similar to what other groups used with drones, from ISIS to various groups in Idlib,” says Waters.
The Turkish military have taken measures to neutralize the drone threat from the PKK, and have deployed a number of jammers. These are credited with thwarting the November 2018 attack and in other cases drones were brought down with gunfire. The most common jammer appears to be the locally-made iHASAVAR, a backpack-mounted system which looks like an SF movie prop.
While such jammers can easily take down slow, noisy quadcopters Waters is doubtful how effective they will be against the PKKs more advanced drones.
“In order to hit the target with one of those you first have to see the target,” says Waters. “It seems the PKK are using small, fixed wing drones for these attacks, which I think would be very hard to spot and bring down before they’re on target.”
Turkey is becoming a superpower in drone warfare, exporting armed drones and competing with the U.S. and China, with recent notable success in destroying Russian-made air defense systems. They have ordered 500 tactical kamikaze drones, which are likely to be used against Kurdish groups. However, Turkey is not immune itself to drone attacks. Even the modest $115 Talon X-UAV drones used by the PKK can be souped up with a battery pack to reach a 60-mile range and hit with GPS-guided accuracy.