Central Asian countries have been importing an unprecedented number of armed drones since the start of the 2020s.
In May, Iran inaugurated a factory in Tajikistan for manufacturing its Ababil-2 drones, single-use loitering munitions that crash into their targets and explode. In late 2021, Kyrgyzstan also ordered Orlan-10 medium-range drones, primarily used for reconnaissance and electronic warfare, from Russia.
On the other hand, Turkey has exported its well-known Bayraktar TB2 drone to Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan and reached a deal with Kazakhstan to manufacture Turkish Anka-S drones in that country, a much more sophisticated drone than the Ababil-2. So Tajikistan briefly mulled buying TB2s. Kyrgyzstan’s TB2s have already given that country an upper hand in its border conflict with Tajikistan.
Turkish has exported its TB2 drone to dozens of countries, leaving its Russian and Chinese competitors in the dust. It could enjoy similar success in Central Asia for a number of reasons.
Suleyman Ozeren, a professorial lecturer at the American University and senior fellow at the Orion Policy Institute, believes that “Turkey will likely get the upper hand against other competitors in Central Asia for two reasons.”
“First, Turkey’s drone technology is proven to be better than Russia’s and Iran’s drone technology,” he told me. “Second, for Turkey, drone sale to Central Asian countries is more than military cooperation.”
“Through ‘drone diplomacy,’ Turkey aims to add another layer to its political, economic, and military cooperation with the Organization of Turkic States (OTS) members,” he said. “For example, TB2s tips the scale in Kyrgyzstan’s favor in the Kyrgyz-Tajik border conflict.”
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine unwittingly helped Turkey expand its already sizable share of the Central Asian drone market.
“Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine has created deep concerns among Central Asian states about Moscow’s regional intentions,” Ozeren said. “For example, the deal between Kazakhstan and Turkey is one of the externalities of the Ukraine war.”
“For the same reason, the United States and EU could consider Turkey’s growing influence in Central Asia as a positive development for the time being,” he added.
Nevertheless, “drone diplomacy” doesn’t lack “risks and flaws,” which could trigger “countermeasures” from China, Russia, and Iran.
“Facing strong objections from Kyrgyzstan, Turkey couldn’t finalize drone sales to Tajikistan, which then turned to Iran and signed a deal with Tehran,” Ozeren said. “Inadvertently Turkey allowed Iranian influence to grow into Tajikistan.”
“More importantly, while beneficial in the short term, Turkey’s drone diplomacy could deepen rivalries and conflicts in Central Asia, where Ankara’s positive influence has been based on its soft-power measures,” he added.
Then there is China, which already perceives Turkey as a “serious security challenge.”
“The civil war in Libya became a major showcase for the Bayraktar TB2, which outperformed the Chinese Wing Loongs,” Ozeren said. “Accordingly, China sees Turkey’s drone diplomacy in Central Asia as a threat, undermining The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s role in ceasing Kyrgyz-Tajik hostilities and Beijing’s regional influence.”
Samuel Bendett, a research analyst with the Center for Naval Analyses, noted that the TB2 sales to Kyrgyzstan and Turkmenistan are a clear indication that “these countries are looking to Turkey for a MALE (medium-altitude long-endurance) drone share of the market .”
“The other drones are in the short-range and loitering munitions category, so it’s also clear these states are looking for a better option for different drone classes,” he told me.
“It’s likely Central Asian countries will keep their options open and source drones from different states, along with investing in domestic UAV (unmanned aerial vehicles) developments, like Kazakhstan today,” he said. “And it’s unlikely that any Central Asian country will source all its drones from the same state to make sure they are not dependent on a single supplier for all of their needs.”
“Therefore, it’s not clear if China-Turkey will be the only key suppliers of drone technology to the region — with Russian, American, Israeli, and Iranian drones already in the region in service with these states,” he added. “The Central Asian states will seek to diversify their supplies, especially if the countries are locked in a geopolitical competition, like Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.”
“In the end, I also think most of these countries will also start investing in domestic drone solutions, turning to drone leaders for UAV technology that they either cannot build themselves or that makes sense geopolitically.”