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Turkey’s ambitious drone carrier project dogged by uncertainties

Keen on becoming a major sea power in the region, Turkey plans to convert an amphibious assault ship into a drone carrier, a project that raises operational and technical challenges for the Turkish navy.
The Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drone is pictured on Dec. 16, 2019, at the Gecitkale military air base near Famagusta in the self-proclaimed Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

The United States’ removal of Turkey from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program over its purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense systems last year came as a blow not only for Turkey’s air force but also its navy, which was hoping to launch the F-35B short take-off and vertical-landing variant from a landing dock ship, the Anadolu, currently under construction. Turkey now hopes to transform the ship into a carrier for surveillance and attack drones, an ambitious project that is not free of technical and operational challenges.

The Anadolu, expected to become fully operational by 2023, was launched as an amphibious assault ship project, reflecting Turkey’s growing assertiveness in the Mediterranean, Aegean and Black seas that the country borders. The ship was fitted with a fully equipped flight deck, including a ski-jump ramp modification, suitable for the F-35B aircraft, designed to operate from austere runways and air-capable ships with its short takeoff and vertical landing capability. But having lost the aircraft, Turkey has begun tests to see if the dock ship is strong enough to be transformed into a carrier for surveillance and attack drones. The planned modifications aim to allow the ship to carry drones, along with helicopters and armored land vehicles. This combination brings about a new concept, namely a limited marine task force, likely on a battalion level, blessed with the close air support of armed and surveillance drones.

Speaking to journalists in late March, Ismail Demir, the head of the Presidency of Defense Industries, said the Anadolu would be the first of its kind in the world as a vessel that makes it possible for armed drones to land on its dock.

Turkey’s pro-government media has hyped the project as a milestone in military technology that blends the drone and aircraft carrier concepts and is followed with admiration internationally.

In an April 5 article, renowned US political scientist Francis Fukuyama described Turkey as “the main actor” in the recent proliferation of drones in armed conflicts, citing the use of Turkish drones in Libya, Syria and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. “In the process, [Turkey] has elevated itself to being a major regional power broker with more ability to shape outcomes than Russia, China or the United States,” Fukuyama wrote, generating numerous citations in the pro-government Turkish press, which took the article as an acknowledgment of Turkey’s success.

The Baykar company, which manufactures the battle-proven Bayraktar TB2 drones and is owned by the family of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s son-in-law, Selcuk Bayraktar, is currently developing a Bayraktar TB3 variant, planned for use with the Anadolu. Though official information remains scarce on its design and abilities, the new variant is likely to be a medium-altitude, long-endurance drone ranking between Bayraktar TB2 and Baykar’s cutting-edge combat drone Akinci.

Two other locally produced drones are expected to be deployed on the Anadolu: the medium-altitude, long-endurance ANKA and STM KARGU, a small, portable, rotary-wing kamikaze drone with face-recognition and swarming capabilities, designed mainly for asymmetric warfare or counterinsurgency.

The Anadolu is likely to carry also robotic sea systems such as the ULAQ, Turkey’s first armed, unmanned surface vessel, which has a speed of 65 kilometers (40 miles) per hour and an operational range of 400 kilometers (about 250 miles). The vessel is developed in different versions for various military tasks, including reconnaissance, surveillance, asymmetric warfare, anti-surface warfare, anti-submarine warfare and armed protection of forces and strategic facilities.

Ankara believes the drone carrier concept will grow as important as the short-takeoff and vertical-landing aircraft carriers in the coming years, including, for instance, the prospect of using drone-carrying support ships, built as dual-use platforms, to back amphibious and overseas land operations or carry out naval missions involving airborne early warning and control, anti-submarine warfare, anti-surface warfare and amphibious assault.

Despite such comprehensive capabilities, however, the Anadolu alone could hardly meet all the requirements of modern naval warfare for the Turkish navy.

Naval forces are generally classified in the following three categories:

  • Blue-water navy, a maritime force capable of operating globally, essentially across the deep waters of open oceans.
  • Green-water navy, designed primarily to provide coastal defense and may be beginning to acquire the ability to sustain operations on the open ocean.
  • Brown-water navy capable of military operations in rivers, lakes or littoral environments.

The Turkish navy has been largely a green-water navy lacking the support of aircraft carriers, various other support ships, landing platform docks and landing helicopter docks. Hence, its air defense has relied on missile and artillery systems fitted on ships. The capabilities of those systems fall short of zonal air defense, sufficing only for the self-defense of the ships or protecting vessels at a very close proximity. Therefore, the zonal air defense of the Anadolu would require it to operate in tandem with a frigate with advanced air defense capabilities.

Similarly, the Turkish navy’s main sea-to-air missiles, the SM-1, as well as its semi-active, radar-guided Evolved Sea Sparrow missiles and small, lightweight, infrared homing surface-to-air RIM-116 missiles fall short of fully addressing existing threats. The world’s leading navies aside, most navies rely on similar inadequate air defense missiles, which were developed at a time when supersonic or hypersonic anti-ship missiles were rare in the world. The Anadolu will need to be equipped with such extra capabilities as well.

Thus, operational tasks will likely require the Anadolu to move around just as an aircraft carrier; that is, as part of a carrier battle group — a naval fleet consisting of an aircraft carrier as a capital ship and numerous escorts. This, for the Turkish navy, is a new paradigm.

Carrier battle groups operate alongside destroyers, frigates, logistical support ships and submarines. How Turkey can put such missions together is a crucial question as its naval forces are already hard-pressed to modernize outdated ships and, judging by short- and medium-term plans, are not expected to have a larger inventory in the near future. How a task force would be formed for the Anadolu remains equally unclear, which, in fact, is the biggest cloud of uncertainty hovering over the project.

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