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.