Turkey Now Has Swarming Suicide Drones It Could Export

This is yet another wake-up call to the threat that low-end weaponized hobby-like drones pose and how widespread they will become.

byJoseph Trevithick|
Turkey photo


The Turkish military reportedly plans to buy more than 500 quad-copter-type Kargu series loitering munitions, or suicide drones, in the near term. The Kargus, at present, can operate in semi-autonomous or manually-controlled modes, but work is underway to give up to 20 of them the ability to carry out mass attacks as a swarm, which could give Turkey's troops a potentially game-changing new capability.

Turkey's state-run Anadolu Agency news outlet first reported that Defense Technologies Engineering and Trade Inc., also known by its Turkish acronym STM, was expecting to deliver the hundreds of drones to the Turkish armed forces on June 15, 2020. It's not clear if this total order for "over 500" of the drones includes or is in addition to a purchase agreement for 356 Kargus that the Turkish government itself announced in January.

STM introduced the first generation Kargu in 2017 and the Turkish military first began receiving small numbers of the improved Kargu-2 variant last year. Turkish forces have reportedly at least deployed, if not employed, the drones during operations along the country's border with Syria last year.

The manufacturer says that Kargu, a name that literally translates as "hawk" in Turkish, and which is also used to refer to small mountain watchtowers, "has been engineered specifically for anti-terror and asymmetric warfare scenarios." The 15-pound Kargu-2 can fly at up to 90 miles per hour and can remain airborne for up to 30 minutes. It has a line-of-sight control link with a range of around six miles.

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The Kargu-2 can also fly higher, has a longer range, and has the ability to remain in a designated area for a longer period of time compared to the earlier models. It also has updated targeting capabilities and improvements to reduce its auditory signature, the latter of which helps reduce the chance that an opponent will spot the drone before it's too late.

An operator on the ground can manually control any of the Kargu series drones and use their onboard sensors, which includes electro-optical and infrared video cameras and a laser imaging system, or LIDAR, to conduct general surveillance and identify and track targets. They can then direct the quad-copters to attack a designated threat, even if it's on the move. The loitering munitions can also safely return to their operators for re-use if no targets are found.

The drones can carry one of three different types of warheads, including a high-explosive fragmentation one for engaging personnel and other unarmored targets in the open, a thermobaric type good for targets in confined spaces such as buildings or caves, and a shaped charge for attacking lightly armored threats. Each one weighs around three pounds. The drone's warhead can also be set to function on impact or airburst above the target, the latter being a feature particularly useful for the fragmentation and thermobaric types.

A Kargu-2 drone. Its warhead is seen on top in the center. , STM

The operator can also employ the Kargus as a traditional missile against fixed targets. In this method of attack, the drone would use its GPS navigation system to strike the desired location.

The Kargu series of drones can also operate in a semi-autonomous mode, wherein the operator directs the quad-copter to fly to a certain area and then detect and engage targets on its own. As long as the line-of-sight control link remains unbroke, the operator remains in-the-loop throughout the process and can redirect the drone or abort its attack, if necessary. Israel has long been a pioneer of these kinds of man-in-the-loop control systems, which are now the default for most suicide drones and have become increasingly popular on other types of munitions, as well.

Most importantly, however, last year, STM announced it was working to give the Kargu family of drones additional autonomy and the ability to work together in large swarms. The swarming technology is in development as part of a larger Turkish government program known as Kerkes, which is also looking to develop systems to improve the ability of drones to operate in GPS-denied environments, something that is increasingly a very real threat.

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It's not clear how heavily networked together the company is expecting to make the armed quad-copters, but even being able to launch more rudimentary massed attacks with up to 20 of them at a time would offer a significant boost in capability.

Tests have shown that a single Kargu with the air-bursting high-explosive fragmentation warhead can effectively engage clusters of personnel within a circle around 20 feet in diameter. More than one working together could evenly engage threats across a relatively wide area. Beyond just being devastating to concentrations of personnel, this could enable quick large scale attacks against other soft targets, including convoys of light vehicles, parked aircraft, radar dishes and sensor systems, ammunition and fuel dumps, and much more. With a mixture of the different warhead options presently available for Kargu, a group of the drones might be able to carry out more complex attacks, as well.

If the swarming Kargus have the ability to operate in a fully-autonomous mode, within pre-set parameters, they could become even more capable. Swarms by their very nature can confuse and overwhelm an opponent's defenses, even those belonging to major militaries, causing havoc even if a significant number of them get shot down before they can reach their targets. This is a very real threat that War Zone

has explored in detail on multiple occasions in the past.

Based on its general size and configuration, the Kargus appear to be a relatively low-cost option for providing this capability, which also underscores how low the barrier to entry for this kind of swarming technology is becoming. Beyond more robust military developments with regards to swarming, small quad-copter-type drones flying in large coordinated formations have been employed in the commercial sector for years now, as well. 

The swarming technology STM is developing may also be applicable to other drones and loitering munitions it is developing now. Among its other products, the company also offers a fixed-wing tube-launched loitering munition, called Alpagu, which is very similar in form and function to AeroVironment's Switchblade and is now also in Turkish service.

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It seems very possible that, in addition to providing these improved Kargus to the Turkish armed forces, STM could also seek to export them, proliferating this capability further around the world. STM has already said that it has received serious inquires about the Kargu series from at least three unnamed potential foreign customers. Turkey, as a whole, has become a powerhouse of drone development and production, employing larger types to great effect in Syria and Libya just this year.

This is precisely the type of weapon we have been warning about for years now. The fact that it is already here and potentially exportable should be yet another wake-up call to the level of threat low-end drones pose to U.S. and allied forces, as well as domestic infrastructure and VIPs

"I argue all the time with my Air Force friends that the future of flight is vertical and it's unmanned," U.S. Marine General Kenneth McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, said at an event hosted by the Middle East Institute last week. "I'm not talking about large unmanned platforms, which are the size of a conventional fighter jet that we can see and deal with, as we would any other platform."

"I'm talking about the one you can go out and buy at Costco right now in the United States for a thousand dollars, four quad, rotorcraft or something like that that can be launched and flown," he continued. "And with very simple modifications, it can make made into something that can drop a weapon like a hand grenade or something else."

The Kargus, and their future swarming capabilities, could very well become the next major Turkish drone success story, for better or worse.

Contact the author: joe@thedrive.com