Turkey prepares for world’s first aircraft carrier with drones

The government in Ankara wants to become the fourth naval power in the Mediterranean, and after being kicked out of the „F35“ programme, the navy is turning to drones. Russia, however, could attack key production facilities.

The Turkish defence company Baykar Makina has begun manufacturing the first prototype of an unmanned combat aircraft, which is due to make its maiden flight next year. The announcement on Twitter comes from the company’s head Selçuk Bayraktar and refers to the „National Unmanned Combat Aircraft System“ (MIUS), which Baykar Makina has been developing for almost four years as the „Kızılelma“ („red apple“). The aircraft is said to have a take-off weight of over five tonnes and to be able to carry a payload of 1.5 tonnes. Baykar Makina claims endurance of five hours, with the prototype reaching speeds of up to 800 km/h. Later models are expected to fly at supersonic speeds.

The jet-powered „Kızılelma“ has stealth capability and is controlled via a satellite link. It is supposed to be able to carry out a variety of military actions, including attacks on enemy units on the ground, taking out air defence positions and flying in a swarm in „manned-unmanned-teaming“ with manned fighter jets. Arming with cruise missiles with a range of more than 250 kilometres will also be possible, according to Baykar Makina, and for aerial combat the unmanned aircraft would be equipped with domestic air-to-air missiles.

Up to 80 drones on board

Simulation of the „Kızılelma“ (Baykar Makina).

The unmanned „Kızılelma“ is to be able to take off and land from the Turkish aircraft carrier „TCG Anadolu“. The drone would thus replace the F35 fighter aircraft, which was actually to be procured for the air force. However, Turkey was excluded from the programme by the government in Washington three years ago after President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced the purchase of anti-aircraft missiles from Russia.

With the US decision, the future of the „Anadolu“, where the jets were to be stationed on a mobile basis, was also in question. As an alternative, the Turkish defence ministry considered replacing it with the light fighter jet „TAI Hürjet“, which the air force is currently developing. Fully fueled and loaded with weapons, however, the aircraft would probably be too heavy for the short runway. That is why the military decided to equip the ship, already built under Spanish license in a Turkish shipyard, with up to 80 drones instead.

First test runs in the Sea of Marmara

A model of the „Kızılelma“ in the production hall of the „TB2“ (Baykar Makina).

The „Anadolu“ is a copy of the Spanish „Juan Carlos“, a lightweight aircraft carrier. The ship is 232 metres long and displaces about 27,000 tons. It is to become the flagship and command ship of the Turkish Navy. Last week, the navy began the ship’s first test runs in the Sea of Marmara.

Turkey will thus become the fourth maritime power in the Mediterranean with an aircraft carrier, after France, Italy and Spain. In addition to the unmanned combat aircraft, the „Anadolu“ will also carry up to 50 „Bayraktar“.The „TB2“ version of the combat drone, also built by Baykar Makina, has become an export hit for the Turkish arms industry. After being deployed by its own troops in Kurdistan, Syria, Libya and off Nagorno-Karabakh, Baykar Makina currently reports sales to 16 countries. Around 20 „Baryaktar TB2“ are also currently in service in Ukraine, inflicting heavy losses on Russian ground forces. According to flight tracking websites, Turkey has even provided additional supplies, which was also confirmed by the Ukrainian defence minister on Facebook.

Company founder sees no future for manned combat aircraft

First test run of the „Anadolu“ started in the Sea of Marmara (MoD Turkey).

For deployment on the aircraft carrier, however, the fixed-wing drone must be modified. Baykar Makina has developed the „TB3“ version for this purpose, which can be parked on the helicopter dock of the „Anadolu“ with foldable wings. Individual components and connections of the drones must also have higher strength to absorb the increased thrust of the short runway. Modified in this way, it would be possible, according to the chairman of the Turkish Defence Industry, to guide up to ten „Bayraktar TB3“ simultaneously in the field from a command centre located on board. Several Asian countries „close to China“ are therefore said to be interested in buying the new drone, according to the CEO of Baykar Makina.

In addition to the „Kızılelma“ and the „Bayraktar“, the company has also developed the „Akıncı“, which has a significantly larger payload than the „TB2“ and completed a test flight with even larger engines a fortnight ago. Its series production has already begun, and two governments have reportedly already signalled an interest in buying it. With his drones apparently successful, Baykar Makina now sees the end of manned military aviation looming. „No more new manned combat aircraft will be developed,“ the company founder and chief developer Bayraktar writes in a press release. Unmanned systems would in „increasingly become the strongest elements on the battlefield in the future“.

Production of engines in Ukraine

Baykar and Ivchenko at the signing of the contract (Batumahone, Baykar ve Ivchenko-Progress, CC BY-SA 4.0).

The announcement that the „Kızılelma“ is now being produced as a prototype came regardless of the Ukraine war, in which Russia is increasingly flying attacks also on the Ukrainian defence industry. This could also affect the Turkish drone industry, as the foreign ministry in Kiev had agreed with Turkey to set up a factory for the production of the „TB2“ in Ukraine. The joint production of engines for the new unmanned combat aircraft was also planned; as recently as November, Baykar Makina signed a contract for this in Istanbul with Ivchenko-Progress, one of the leading Ukrainian defence companies. For the „Akıncı“, the Turkish manufacturer has reached a similar agreement with the Ukrainian company Motor Sich for the replication of their propeller engines.

It is therefore unclear whether the „Kızılelma“ can be equipped with engines from Ukraine as planned. If the Ivchenko-Progress factories were destroyed, Turkey would have to import engines from other manufacturers such as Rolls Royce instead, because the domestic industry is considered to be underdeveloped in terms of jet engines. A Russian attack on the engine factories would therefore have a serious impact on the Turkish drone programme. This may also be a goal of the government in Moscow, which wants to market its „Orion“ combat drone worldwide as a competitor to the „TB2“.

Image: Simulation of the „Anadolu“ with „TB3“ on deck (Baykar Makina).

Autor: Matthias Monroy

Knowledge worker, activist, editor of the German civil rights journal Bürgerrechte & Polizei/CILIP.