Back To Back U.S. Drones Crashes in Turkey as Tensions Simmer Between the Two Countries

How the USAF responds to losing half its Predators at Incirlik could have operational and diplomatic impacts.

USAF

Two MQ-1B Predator drones flying from Incirlik Air Base in Turkey have crashed in three days, possibly cutting the total number of operational drones the U.S. Air Force has situated at the base in half. Combined with the pending retirement of the Predator across the service and tensions between the two countries over support for Kurdish groups in Syria, the accidents might have an immediate impact on operations, as well as feed into increasingly strained U.S.-Turkish relations.

On Aug. 18, 2017, the Air Force confirmed that an MQ-1 had crashed in southern Turkey near Incirlik. On Aug. 21, 2017, the service acknowledged a second Predator had come down in southeastern Turkey.

“At this time the safety of our host nation civilians and the recovery and security of our asset is paramount,” Air Force Colonel David Eaglin, head of the 39th Air Base Wing, which oversees U.S. military activity at Incirlik, said after the first accident. “Our Airmen train continuously to respond to incidents such as this, and we are working closely with our host nation partners to ensure this is resolved without conflict.”

There are no details as yet as to why the aircraft crashed and both mishaps are under investigation. Though there were no reported injuries or fatalities in either case, the 39th put out a notice saying that anyone who believed they had suffered other damages could call their legal office in order to report them and make a claim for potential reimbursement. Pictures on social media of the second incident did show the Predator wreckage in what appeared to be a private cornfield.

It’s not immediately clear if this will have any impact on Predator operations from Incirlik or U.S. military missions, including the campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, in general. But there is the possibility that the Air Force’s Predator force at the Turkish base may now be at half strength.

In November 2011, coinciding with the formal withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, the United States agreed to relocate one combat air patrol, or CAP, of Predators to Incirlik. An MQ-1 CAP has four drones in total. We don’t know if the Air Force subsequently deployed any additional CAPs to Incirlik on top of this first one.

DOD

A slide from a 2013 briefing describing the original deployment of Predators to Incirlik in 2011.

Regardless, the Air Force now likely faces a complicated decision about the future of the unmanned aircraft mission in Turkey. It is possible that the service could continue with a half-strength CAP, at least for the moment, but it would greatly limit the unit’s ability to perform the kind of persistent surveillance that has become a hallmark of American drone operations.

The four-ship model is based on the idea that one aircraft is always on station over a target area, with another one preparing to take over and a third heading back to base to refuel. The fourth aircraft is in reserve to take over in the case of an accident or maintenance issue.

But if the Air Force does decide to shift additional Predators to Incirlik to make up for the shortfall, it will have effectively replaced 100 percent of the MQ-1s there over the past five years. In September 2012, one of the drones flying from Turkish base crashed, followed by another mishap in October 2015.

USAF

An MQ-1 Predator.

With plans to completely retire the Predator by 2018, the Air Force may decide that this is an ideal moment to transition the unit in Turkey to the more capable MQ-9 Reaper or to simply shutter the drone operations there altogether. Though the service has steadily been retiring MQ-1s, it has not always replaced them one for one.

In December 2015, the Air Force stood down the 60th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron in Djibouti, which had flown the Predator over Africa for five years. Instead of sending additional Reapers, the service decided to simply continue operations with the MQ-9s that it already had at the country’s Chabelley Airfield.

At that time, the seemed to make good sense given the Air Force’s chronic shortage of drone pilots and sensor operators, as well as aviators in general, along with what seemed like a general reduction in drone missions over Yemen and Somalia, a trend that quickly reversed itself in 2016. Those operations have only continued to expand even more under President Donald Trump’s administration.

The demand for unmanned aircraft over Iraq and Syria doesn’t appear to be waning now or look like it will do so any time soon. So, in July 2017, when the Air Force’s 361st Expeditionary Attack Squadron, situated in Kuwait, stopped flying Predators, it immediately replaced them with Reapers.

USAF

An MQ-9 Reaper.

Beyond the operational considerations, though, there may be a political dimension to a decision either continue or halt drone operations from Incirlik. After first arriving there in 2011, the 414th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron spent at least two and half years flying unarmed intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions targeting the Kurdistan Workers' Party, better known by its Kurdish acronym PKK, along the Turkey-Iraq border.

The U.S. military would then share relevant intelligence information with their Turkish counterparts, who would launch direct attacks on the group’s camps and fighting positions. Both the United States and Turkey have formally designated the PKK as a terrorist organization.

According to heavily redacted documents the author previously obtained via the Freedom of Information Act, this mission, known as Operation Nomad Shadow, was still ongoing in some form as of July 2014. However, Nomad Shadow was not on a list of active U.S. European Command operations released in response to another FOIA request three months later.

EUCOM via FOIA

A portion of a 2014 fragmentary order (FRAGORD) to the main Operation Nomad Shadow consolidated operations order (OPORD).

Whether or not the United States curtailed its support for Turkey’s fight against the PKK, the two countries have increasingly sparred over how to handle that organization, as well as support for Kurdish groups across the border in Syria. As we at The War Zone have explained in detail in the past, Turkish authorities see no distinction between the PKK and People's Protection Units, more commonly known by the acronym YPG, who form the core element of U.S.-supported now pushing their way deeper into ISIS de facto capital of Raqqa and other areas. The dispute has already pushed Turkey to cooperate closer with Russia, including helping develop a plan for so-called "de-escalation zones" in Syria.

AP

YPG fighters with the SDF battle ISIS in Raqqa in July 2017.

In May 2017, the U.S. government told its Turkish counterparts that it had no intention of cutting off support for the YPG. The next month, American officials announced plans to charge members of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s security detail over their actions during a brawl with activists outside the country’s embassy in Washington, D.C.

Then, in July 2017, Anadolu, a Turkish state-run news outlet, ran a story detailing the locations of American forces in Syria, which many saw as retaliation for the U.S. military’s continued support for the Syrian Kurds. Earlier in August 2017, the YPG’s official media arm posted a video online of Kurdish fighters attacking Turkish-backed rebels in Syria, further inflaming the existing tensions.

As such, planning to remove the MQ-1s from Turkey without a direct replacement or continuing the operation at Incirlik could both have a diplomatic impact, both on U.S. government relations with Turkish officials and with Kurdish groups in Syria. There is already the possibility the situation across the border is becoming increasingly complex, with a spokesman for the American-supported Syrian Democratic Forces telling Reuters that the U.S. military was expecting to remain in the country for the foreseeable future. The Pentagon subsequently denied it had any plans for operations in Syria beyond the defeat of ISIS.

On top of that, there has been a general debate over the future of operations at Incirlik following an attempted coup in 2016 and the increasingly authoritarian tendencies of the Turkish government under Erdoğan since then. The United States has so far declined to extradite Fethullah Gülen, who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania and who Turkish authorities have accused of fomenting the uprising in the first place.

In the end, how the Air Force approaches the future of its drone mission at Incirlik could turn out to be especially important for setting the tone of relations with Turkey immediately and in the long term.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com