How can drones operate from Turkey’s upcoming Anadolu flagship?

Turkey has announced that its navy’s upcoming flagship, the TCG Anadolu amphibious assault ship, also known as a Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD), will carry drones instead of unavailable fighter jets.

Experts outlined to Ahval News how difficult Ankara will likely find developing naval drones and how such drones are not adequate substitutes for fighter jets.

Haluk Bayraktar, CEO of the Turkish drone manufacturer, announced his company plans “to develop a new UCAV (unmanned combat aerial vehicle) that will successfully land and take off on LHD Anadolu in one year”.

James Rogers of the Centre for War Studies, SDU, said that “landing on an aircraft carrier is far more complex and straining on the structure of an aircraft than it is to land at an airport, so Turkey will need to use all its growing drone manufacturing knowhow to remedy these issues”.

Measures Turkey may take include advanced upgrades to the Bayraktar TB2 or the more advanced Akıncı PT-2.

“Turkey has also stated that a so-called Bayraktar TB3 is under construction for this role,” Rogers said.

The Anadolu is completely based on the Spanish Navy’s flagship Juan Carlos I. It is designed for carrying helicopters and fighters with short-takeoff vertical landing (STOVL) capabilities such as the AV-8 Harrier and the F-35B variant.

Analysts at BlueMelange, an independent research group in Ankara, pointed out that Turkey cannot procure any of these fighters.

“There is no fixed-wing fighter jet option for the Anadolu after the rejection of the F-35B by the U.S. and non-availability of second-hand procurement of non-feasible, non-affordable, and diminished old Harrier fighters from the West,” the analysts said.

Given the Anadolu’s design, Turkey would likely require STOVL or VTOL (vertical take-off and landing)-capable drones.

Rogers pointed out that Russia has been developing VTOL drones for its forthcoming Project 22350 Admiral Gorshkov-class frigate and drones that can land or crash into pre-constructed nets.

“Turkey may be inspired by this route to fulfil some of the roles it requires,” he said.

Shashank Joshi, defence editor at the Economist, pointed out that whatever drones Turkey chooses for its flagship would need to be quite small “with a correspondingly smaller payload because the Anadolu does not have catapults, instead relying on its ski jump”.

“The U.S. Predator and Reaper, to give two well-known examples, cannot take off from carriers,” Joshi said. “The Turkish Bayraktar TB2, in its standard form, is not all that much smaller.”

The BlueMelange analysts predict that, in the absence of any classified drone projects such as a VTOL-capable medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) drones, “Baykar Makina Bayraktar TB3 and MALE Aksungur are the front runners for the Anadolu”.

“It is rumoured that both are already designed for the naval applications,” they said. “But it is not so easy.”

Turkish UCAVs are invariably powered by simple turbodiesel piston and turboprop engines which may not be suitable for launching off the Anadolu’s ski-jump, even if they are reengineered to do so.

And even in that case, “their already limited payload and fuel (due to jumping restrictions) would diminish their range and role”, the analysts said.

The main features of marinised aircraft are protection against corrosion caused by saltwater, advanced arresting gears, strong landing gears, special tires, and a tail-hook for arrested STOBAR or CATOBAR landings. Short Take-Off Arrested Recovery/Barrier Arrested Recovery (STOBAR) systems are common on carriers with ski-jumps, such as Russia, China, and India’s aircraft carriers which lack catapults. Catapult Assisted Take-Off But Arrested Recovery (CATOBAR), on the other hand, are used by U.S. supercarriers and France’s flagship.

“Therefore, Turkey must develop an indigenous Turkish-type power-assisted STOBAR system to launch these underpowered UCAVs with optimum speed and payload via the ski-jump platform and arrest them with tail-hooks on landing,” the BlueMelange analysts said. “In parallel, Turkish UCAVs (TB3s, Aksungur, a naval Akıncı, or other new surprises) need to be marinised, equipped with folded wings and new strong gears”.

“We don’t know how the SSB (Presidency of Defence Industries) and the company engineers can fix all these issues in time.”

The analysts questioned if such an endeavour is even worth the cost given the limited capabilities and effectiveness of naval drones.

Unlike fighter jets, drones have extremely limited capabilities required to carry out combat air patrols (CAP), achieve air superiority, launch deep strike missions, or provide close air support.

“LHDs give you these kinds of strategical outputs only with F-35Bs,” the analysts said.

Consequently, they went on to suggest that the “cost of research and development for these marinized UCAVs shall be cancelled and instead allocated for marinized S70B28D+, MH60R, CH53K, CV22, marine ATAK or refurbished AH1W helicopters”.

If Turkey pushes ahead with its naval drones, the question of how the Anadolu can adequately defend itself from air attacks becomes a salient one. Ankara claims that its upcoming Akıncı drone can fire Turkish-built Bozdoğan (Merlin) and Gökdoğan (Peregrine) within visual range and beyond visual range air-to-air missiles.

However, these would not make them nearly as effective as a fighter jet.

“Akıncı lacks the speed, power, agility, acceleration, avionics, self-protection, view, and air-to-air load to counter any fast fighter jets,” the BlueMelange analysts said.

As a result, the Anadolu will likely need to be escorted by other warships with significant air defence capabilities. Here too, Ankara has a problem.

“Unfortunately, the Turkish Navy lacks dedicated 100-kilometre Regional Area Defence/Anti-Air Warfare ships,” the analysts said. “The TF2000, now TF2035, anti-air warfare frigate program has been continuously delayed and shelved since the late 1990s.”

Given the lack of budget and the advanced technology required, they doubt Turkey can afford to field seven TF2035 destroyers until at least the mid-2030s or even the 2040s.

In the meantime, the air defence capability of the Turkish Navy will be secured by Local Area Defence frigates such as the G-class warships currently in service, which are modernised ex-U.S. Navy

Oliver Hazard Perry-class guided-missile frigates, along with smaller German designed Meko-class warships.

“These frigates are capable of covering and defending TCG Anadolu only locally with advanced electronics and RIM-162 ESSEM surface-to-air missiles,” the analysts said. “But the Anadolu needs CAP cover from the air force’s F-16 fighter jets for long-range interdiction of enemy jets and missiles.”

In conclusion, they reiterated that a Turkish-built power-assisted STOBAR for the Anadolu and new marinized drones such as the TB3, Aksungur, and Akıncı naval “are very challenging ideas that need additional funds, time and effort”.

“If Turkey decided to continue to field these UCAVs, it will bring no additional capability and roles for Anadolu as in the case of F-35Bs,” they said.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.