Tensions over Aegean airspace continue to grow as Turkish and Greek aircraft have been involved in several confrontations this month. One unique encounter, however, was particularly interesting.
As Turkish Chief of General Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar on April 6 was inspecting his country's Aegean army, two Greek F-16s began pursuing a Turkish-made ANKA-B drone that had just entered service with the Turkish navy and was testing its reconnaissance and surveillance flights over the Aegean Sea. As the drone, which was launched from Turkey's Dalaman Naval Air Base, was operating at an altitude of 6,600 meters (21,600 feet) off the Greek island of Rhodes, it was approached by the F-16s from Kastelli Air Base on Crete. According to a report in Greece's Ekathimerini newspaper, the planes flew alongside the drone for a while before handing over the intercept mission to two other F-16s.
Both Ankara and Athens were satisfied with the outcome. Ankara was pleased for having compelled the Greek air force to consume thousands of dollars' worth of fuel to pursue the ANKA-B — manufactured by Turkish Aerospace Industries Inc. of Ankara — on its first flight over the Aegean Sea, panicking the Greek side. Greece was pleased with its successful intercept of the drone. The first incident of this nature between Greece and Turkey in their enduring power struggle over Aegean Sea airspace has the potential to radically alter the character of the decades-old struggle.
Greece claims 10 nautical miles of national airspace over the sea from its coasts; Turkey rejects that claim. For Turkey, the basic aspects of this dispute are Greece's persistent abuses of its flight information region responsibility, and the unique Greek claim of 10 miles of airspace, when the width of its territorial waters is 6 miles. Ankara thinks Greece’s claim to 10 miles of airspace violates international law and that four of those miles are actually international airspace.
The Turkish drone's reconnaissance flight could be categorized as Ankara's retaliation for Greece’s militarization of disputed islets very close to Turkey.
Sources in Ankara told Al-Monitor this was the first time Turkey had carried out reconnaissance over Rhodes to collect important intelligence data.
The navy was the last of Turkey's forces to acquire medium-altitude, long-endurance class ANKA drones, which were already in the arsenals of the Turkish army, gendarmerie command and National Intelligence Service (MIT). The ANKA series includes several types of drones. ANKA-A was the first model, with 18 hours of flight endurance and 23,000 feet of altitude capability. It has been used by Turkish Aerospace Industries since 2010 and although that model is not in the Turkish Armed Forces inventory, the military uses it when needed.
ANKA-B has optional Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR), which is multidimensional and can fly at 30,000 feet with 24-hour endurance. It made its maiden flight in 2016 and is the model now supplied to the Turkish navy and is already in use by the gendarmerie. When needed, it can be armed.
ANKA-C is the armed drone Turkey procured last year. How many of this particular model are in inventory is confidential information.
ANKA-S is satellite-controlled and can carry radio relays. Because of its encrypted radio communications, it can be used far beyond the country’s borders. Turkey's state-run news agency reported April 8 that the air force received two ANKA-S models.
ANKA-I is the version supplied to the MIT. It's an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance craft that can monitor signal intelligence (SIGINT).
Why deploy ANKA-series unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for reconnaissance and patrolling on the Aegean Sea? The answer is simple: As Turkish air force combat aircraft are engaged in anti-terror operations in Iraq, Syria and Turkey, Ankara wants to overcome its shortage of warplanes in the Aegean by using drones. Then there are the financial aspects. An ANKA drone can fly 24 hours and consume only $3,000 worth of fuel, while it costs far more than that just to keep a single F-16 in the air for only an hour. In other words, Ankara compelled Athens to lose the financial dogfight miserably during the confrontation over the Aegean.
Of course, drones don't risk human casualties, which can't be said of piloted aircraft. These are the aircraft various governments have shot down in the Mediterranean-Syria theater in past five years: a Turkish RF-4E (2012), Russian Su-24 (2015), Syrian Mi-17 helicopter (2013), Syrian MiG-23 (2016) and Syrian Su-22 (2017).
Aeronautics expert Hakan Kilic thinks that in coming days there will be frequent confrontations between Turkish drones and Greek F-16s in the Aegean. He said: “There are reports that Greece will purchase Heron UAVs from Israel. [But] until those UAVs are procured and begin flying over the Aegean, it appears the notorious and risky Turkish F-16 versus Greek F-16 dogfights in the Aegean have been replaced by Turkish UAV vs. Greek F-16 dogfights.”
He said, “Both countries are vulnerable to provocations nowadays." He cited an energy alliance composed of Greeks, Greek Cypriots, Israelis and Egyptians in the eastern Mediterranean, "which is seen as a gang by Turkey." Ankara "is keeping its cool because of the superpower US task force in the region. But there is no US presence in the Aegean, only Turkey and Greece."
Shooting down a drone is technically easier than shooting down a piloted plane and there's less risk of a war breaking out, he said. "This is why I personally think that Greece may even react to ANKA flights by shooting them down. I especially think Greece, which wants to put Turkey in a difficult position in the Aegean, may opt for such a provocation.”
Similarly, when low-cost and low-risk drones are in play, Turkey may decide to respond in kind to Greek provocations.
The number of drones flying over the eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean is increasing. Kilic thinks drone flights nowadays can pose a bigger threat to an enemy than piloted warplanes.
Can Athens risk shooting down a Turkish-made ANKA drone? If it does, how will Ankara react? I hope we won’t have to find out the answer anytime soon. If such a situation develops, at a time when drone warfare is increasingly transforming military strategy, there will be a new chapter opening in the power struggle between Greece and Turkey in the Aegean.