Turkey’s Future Drone Carriers
The Turkish TB2, the “Toyota Corolla of drones,” is cheap and reliable — but not fast or powerful. Despite its slow-speed and visibility to ground-based radar, Turkey’s armed drones have gained fame in turning the tide of war in Syria, Libya, and the Caucasus. The now famous Bayraktar TB2s are also credited with helping Ukraine stem the Russian march on Kyiv, involvement in the retake of the strategic Snake Island and the sinking of the Moskva cruiser, the flagship of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. While the success of the TB2 may be linked to its high-definition camera, and savvy operators knowing how to make videos go viral, there is no doubt that Turkey has used drones to great effect in regional conflicts and is carving out an ever-growing percentage of the global market share of drone exports.
Building on this success, Ankara is now pursuing the development of fully-fledged “drone carriers,” a class of light carriers carrying several dozen still-in-development Bayraktar TB3 remotely piloted aircraft. Turkey looks to be the first country with flat-deck ships replacing manned aircraft with unmanned systems. While it is by no means the only state developing carrier-borne drone capabilities, Turkey is the lead power pursuing “drone motherships” equipped with long-range armed drones as the ship’s primary aviation element.
This novelty constitutes one more in a growing list of tools with which Turkey can pursue its increasingly ambitious regional policies. However, because Turkey’s drones remain vulnerable to modern air defenses, we argue that drone carriers have a place in low-intensity wars like the proxy wars in Libya and Syria. The drone carriers will help Ankara, for example, project power across long distances with less reliance on land basing. They would thus support Ankara’s interests competing for regional influence in the Middle East, Africa, and beyond. Drone carriers like Turkey’s, however, have clear capability limitations and should not be considered contenders in high-intensity, contested air environments.
However, that is not how Ankara intends to use this future capability. Turkey should be expected to deploy its amphibious-landing capable carriers to littoral battlefields like Libya or Somalia for intelligence and surveillance purposes and counter-insurgency and close air support missions, creating a niche capability for air operations in lightly defended areas. This development is part of a broader trend of countries developing carriers for unmanned systems, and drone “motherships” to augment manned carrier aviation, or for middle income countries to side-step the costly development of aircraft carriers.
Turkey’s “Drone Carrier” By Default
The development of drone carriers is tied to Ankara’s regional aspirations, which are manifested in an ambitious military modernization and development of some ubiquitous defense products of its own, like Baykar’s TB2. Built on President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s mantra that Turkey does not play the game but upends and resets it, Turkey’s naval modernization includes new submarines, surface combatants, unmanned patrol craft, and the two, light drone carriers. The first, TCG Anadolu, a landing helicopter dock ship, was first launched in May 2019 and continued to undergo substantial refurbishment and testing at Turkey’s Tuzla shipyards near Istanbul. The ship is projected to be delivered by the end of 2022. Work on a sister ship, TCG Trakya, has yet to begin. Both ships will operate unmanned aviation elements.
Turkey’s plan to turn the TCG Anadolu into a drone carrier should therefore be understood as one more step in Ankara’s long quest for a carrier. Erdoğan, as prime minister back in 2017, indicated Turkey’s interest to build light aircraft carriers. He has since repeated his vision of Turkey’s navy operating multiple carriers on several occasions.
The Anadolu is based on the Spanish Navantia-built Juan Carlos I amphibious assault ship. This class of ship displaces some 27,000 tons and has a limited ability to effectively operate the F-35B short take-off and landing aircraft, the ubiquitous combat aircraft equipping “Lightning carriers” of the United States and its allies. The ship’s design restricts it to carrying only a handful of aircraft with insufficient deck space at 231x32m and aircraft elevator positioning restricting effective aircraft operations. Moreover, two existing operators of the ship design, Spain and Australia, have both either refuted the idea or delayed the final decision of refitting their respective ships to operate the F-35B aircraft due to these constraints.
Turkey invested heavily on the F-35 program, became a development partner early on, and placed orders for at least 100 examples, which could have included an additional order F-35B short take off and vertical landing aircraft to equip “Lightning carriers” of its own. Turkey’s 2017 deal to acquire the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile system led the United States to remove Ankara from the F-35 program over concerns about co-locating a Russian radar and the fifth generation aircraft in the same airspace. Losing access to the F-35 left Turkey scrambling to find alternative solutions to fulfill its carrier aviation ambitions.
As such, the transformation of Anadolu into a drone carrier received strong political backing for lack of better options. But several other ideas were also floated, to include modifying the Turkish Aerospace Industry’s indigenous Hürjet advanced jet trainer, with light attack capability, to operate from the Anadolu. This, however, seems untenable because the planned unmanned vehicles will enjoy significantly longer combat radius and loitering time than Hürjet while posing less risk. Moreover, the aircraft would require significant additional modifications to the Anadolu to accommodate the type, including arrester wires and likely a different assisted takeoff method, increasing the cost of the program substantially. It is also questionable whether a manned conventional take-off and landing platform would help Turkey achieve its longer-term aspiration of operating the F-35B aircraft from carriers.
Therefore, the missions envisioned for the carrier seem arguably better suited to the TB3 and, in the future, Baykar’s jet-powered Kızılelma, a low-observable, carrier-capable, and supersonic unmanned combat aerial vehicle currently under development. Turkey’s fixed-wing carrier aviation will likely be formed around advanced unmanned systems rather than manned aircraft. Nevertheless, a Turkish defense official recently stated that design studies are ongoing to allow both Kızılelma and Hürjet to land and take off from Turkey’s future carriers.
Turkey’s Carrier Drone: The Bayraktar TB3
To equip carriers, Baykar is developing the purpose-built Bayraktar TB3, which is projected to make its inaugural flight and begin integration with Anadolu by the end of 2022. Based on publicly available information, the TB3 would have a longer wingspan, folded wings for carrier operations, and an almost two times larger payload capacity than the TB2. The TB3 will have to incorporate a reinforced airframe and landing gear to cope with the forces associated with carrier landing, especially in adverse weather conditions. For launch and recovery, Anadolu and its sister ship, Trakya, will be fitted with a bow-mounted reel for assisted take-off and a safety net across the deck for emergency recovery.
The Anadolu will be fitted with satellite terminals for beyond line-of-sight control, giving the TB3 a significant boost in operational radius, well beyond its land-based sibling’s roughly 300km line-of-sight range. TB3s can reportedly stay in the air for over 24 hours with a 280-kilogram payload, which could include up to eight semi-active laser guided munitions with ranges up to 18 kilometers. However, prior to entering service, the TB3 will need to go through a host of technical and operational integration tests, much of which is trial and error, before the type will see operational service aboard the Anadolu, including operational testing for command and control, and autonomous take-off and landing, and deck operations. According to İsmail Demir, president of the Defence Industry Agency, Anadolu would be able to house up to 80 drones and control between 10 and 15 armed drones simultaneously.
Utility of the “Drone Carrier” for Turkey
With long range and loitering time, the TB3 could operate at significant distances inland with a carrier operating outside an adversarial country’s territorial waters. Like their land-based brethren, carrier drones should find utility in non-contested or lightly contested environments as effective and persistent intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and targeting assets, with light attack capability employing small precision-guided direct attack munitions against targets in all weather conditions. With the ability to take out stationary and moving targets, the TB3, should arguably be a useful platform for counter-insurgency and close air support missions over land — like its more famous counterpart, the TB2 — and can (demonstrably) destroy small surface vessels at sea. Importantly, both Andaolu and Trakya retain their built-in amphibious landing capability, a mission that greatly benefits from the over-the-horizon surveillance and strike capabilities of the TB3.
For these reasons, Turkey’s drone carrier should enable Ankara to project power regardless of access to basing on land. This could augment Turkish power projection capabilities in places such as parts of littoral Africa — Libya, Somalia, and Egypt’s Sinai, for example — characterized by volatile, low-intensity conflicts, and where combat forces lack adequate defenses, such as counter unmanned systems. Nevertheless, we recognize the proliferation of and access to increasingly capable ground-based air-defense systems by various non-state actors. Still, Turkey’s indigenous TB2, despite the perhaps misplaced hype, has proved itself capable in a variety of environments, and the rapid evolution of armed drones is advancing with the advent of low-observable and increasingly complex capabilities becoming available, such as Turkey’s Kızılelma. The current TB2 or planned TB3 remotely piloted systems would, however, fare poorly against a serious state adversary possessing layered and integrated air defenses and a viable air force.
This is due to operational, command and control, and design constraints, and has been clearly demonstrated in Ukraine where concentration of Russian air defenses and heavy electronic warfare have denied Bayraktars operational freedom, which they enjoyed, for example, in Syria, Libya, or in the Caucasus. This is because their design omits most air-to-air sensory and weaponry, as well as aerodynamic characteristics required for the type to contest air superiority.
Drone carriers will not allow Turkey to replace its F-35 aspirations in terms of capability. Nor can Turkey’s drone carriers hope to compete with F-35B-equipped “Lightning carriers” like the Japanese Izumo– or the Italian Cavour–classes, let alone the much larger “super carriers” of the U.S. Navy. Moreover, any and all fleet air defense tasks associated with a drone carrier and supporting ships would require layered fleet air defenses. Anadolu itself is fitted with only close-in weapon systems for last-ditch defense against missiles and aircraft. Similarly, the lack of carrier-borne combat aircraft to contest air superiority puts the air defense burden on the ships protecting the carrier. As such, in their current or near-future observable guise, carrier-borne drones remain a light offensive capability in primarily non-contested environments where they can extend the surveillance and targeting range for light precision strike at over-the-horizon ranges. Ankara can therefore be expected to deploy its drone carriers for expeditionary or offshore operations in the future.
Turkey’s interest to be at the forefront of global drone development and deployment bodes well for Ankara. Impressed with its price, capabilities, few export restrictions, and reputation honed on the battlefield, at least 24 countries have placed orders for Turkey’s TB2. No doubt some states will also be interested in the TB3 and Turkey’s drone carrier concept. But Turkey’s ambitious carrier program is more than its drones. While many states have developed armed and unarmed drones, few have performed across so many environments so relatively well in such a short amount of time. Turkey’s ambitious leaders — the same cadre led by Erdoğan that backed indigenous drone development nearly 20 years ago — may now be exploring what Ankara can accomplish with its TB3s and drone motherships in dormant but potentially white-hot disputes. Tensions with Greece and Cyprus have crescendoed in recent months, and both territorial disputes comprise precisely the type of littoral battlefield that should best suit Turkey’s drone carriers.
Beyond the Mediterranean, the Red Sea and the Horn of Africa have become the poster children of Turkey’s enterprising new foreign policies, with Mogadishu, in Somalia, hosting a large overseas base. However, Anadolu-class drone carriers may have the ultimate aim of projecting Turkish power not just in its “Mavi Vatan” (Blue Homeland) backyard, but as far afield as the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. This would begin to fulfil a cherished dream of Turks who wish, once again, to become the dominant power at the meeting point of Europe, Asia, and Africa. Despite their clear limits and the fact that Ankara decided to put unmanned combat aerial vehicles on its carrier under duress, drone carriers should help expand the interests and power of Turkey and future drone carrier-operating states in lightly or non-contested spaces.
Olli Pekka Suorsa is an assistant professor at Rabdan Academy in the United Arab Emirates. His research interests revolve around maritime security, modern navies, airpower, defense technology, and smaller powers’ role in international relations and security. Before his academic career, Soursa worked in the defense and aerospace industry in Finland.
Brendon J. Cannon is an assistant professor at Khalifa University in the United Arab Emirates. His research is at the nexus of international relations, geopolitics, and the defense industry, to include defense-related developments in Japan, India, and Turkey.