The Turkish aircraft carrier Anadolu becomes a drone ship; what is the impact and more countries are following suit?

With the forthcoming commissioning and the growing Turkish drone market, a clear picture is beginning to emerge of how the new Turkish ‘aircraft carrier’ TCG Anadolu represents an added value for the Turkish fleet and what roles the ship can play in the near future. Based partly on the efficiency of Bayraktar’s unmanned aerial vehicles in recent conflicts and partly on Turkish geopolitical ambitions, it is clear that TCG Anadolu will play a leading role in projecting Turkish power into the region.

Animation of TCG Anadolu with drones. (Photo: SSB)

TCG Anadolu was originally built as an amphibious vessel, equipped with a deck for helicopter operations and a stern dry dock in the usual Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) design.

However, the Turkish Navy changed the specifications for the Anadolu at the start of construction so that the ship would be able to operate F-35B fighter jets. At that time, Turkey was an important partner in the development of the F-35 and predicted that about ten F-35s would operate from Anadolu along with various helicopters such as the Chinook transport helicopter and the ATAK attack helicopter.

The purchase of Russian S-400 air defense systems meant that Turkey was excluded from the F-35 program and would not receive any aircraft. The fear was that Russia could actively access the F-35’s radar profile via the S-400 system and adapt its air defense systems. In the end, in the long run, Russia would have had the opportunity to compile the F-35’s radar profiles at some point, but Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 brought that opportunity both to absolute reality and for the foreseeable future.

Because Turkey no longer had the F-35 at its disposal, it was decided to convert Anadolu into a fully-fledged aircraft carrier to operate unmanned aerial vehicles. Although modest attempts have already been made to deploy unmanned aircraft on aircraft carriers, Turkey is the first country to equip a full-fledged vessel with this and will actively deploy it as such. Recently, Turkish plans for launch and landing aboard TCG Anadolu were revealed.

Drone type
Turkey will operate from Anadolu with two different types of drones, Bayraktar TB3 and Bayraktar Kizilelma (also known as Mius). Both drones have been developed for aircraft carrier operations, in contrast to the more famous Bayraktar TB2, which was developed for land-based deployment.
Bayraktar Kizilelma is a jet-powered drone that is capable of flying at subsonic speeds and has a certain stealth quality. The drone has a maximum flight time of five hours and can carry up to 1,500 kilos in internal weapon hatches. The drone is very similar to an F-35 fighter jet and probably strongly influenced by Turkish experience in the development of the F-35.

Simulation of a drone launch from the carrier’s deck. (Photo: Baykar)

Landing and departure
Deck operations by Kizilelma will be carried out in a conventional manner in line with a STOBAR (short take off but arrested recovery), where the unmanned aircraft takes off via the ski ramp on the front deck. Landings are then made again by equipping the drone with a hook so that it can grab the brake cables on landing. To be on the safe side, some form of safety net or crash barrier will also be installed to accommodate the unmanned aircraft. This is the usual concept that we also see in jets like the Mig-31K on Russia’s Kuznetsov as well as the J-15 on the Chinese aircraft carriers Liaoning and Shandong.

The TB3, on the other hand, would take off with the help of a roller or catapult system, which would give the drone the necessary speed to get over the ski ramp. Landings of TB3 could then return to normal without an arresting hook because the propeller behind the drone makes mounting such a hook impossible. The safety nets or guardrails are usually not necessary, but are fitted for safety reasons.

TCG Anadolu could carry a total of about 80 drones, of which 10 to 15 can be deployed simultaneously. Probably 80 will be the absolute maximum as previous presentations of the TB3 Bayraktar drone talked about a range of 30 to 50 drones that would be deployed. It is not yet known how many Kizilelma will eventually be taken on board.

Future operations: more freedoms
Given the success of the Bayraktar TB2 drone in regional conflicts in Syria and Libya, as well as in the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it is clear that unmanned aerial vehicles play an important role even in areas where relatively modern air defense systems are deployed. When active, Anadolu will play a key role in Turkey’s regional ambitions to project power and influence. For example, Turkey is already involved in both the Syrian and Libyan civil wars, which it has already actively intervened in. Turkish unmanned aircraft were then particularly effective in neutralizing anti-aircraft defense systems and launching attacks on key targets.

The restrictions that Turkey had at the time were that it could only deploy its drones from its own airports (Syri) or with the approval of the local factions (Libi). With TCG Anadolu, Ankara has a mobile airport that can operate freely outside the territorial waters of Syria and Libya. Thanks to this independence, Turkey has more operational freedoms in future interventions in these regions. In addition, the Anadolu is also an amphibious landing craft, which makes it possible to land amphibious forces, supported by drones, to perform independent interventions and operations.

Maritime role
In addition to performing land operations, Bayraktar drones are also well-suited to play an active attacking role in a maritime conflict. Ukraine is currently proving that the unmanned aerial vehicle, in particular the Bayraktar TB2, is extremely well-suited for detecting and neutralizing mainly smaller attack boats. At the same time, drones play an important role in detecting and collecting target data from larger warships, as we saw at the sinking of the Russian cruiser Moscow.

Here again, if we look at the Turkish maritime ambitions for the coming decades, we see that it is a perfect added value for Turkey to equip Anadolu with unmanned aircraft. As mentioned earlier, the country is active in the Libyan and Syrian civil war, but the country also has interests in Somali, with which Turkey trains the Somali army.

Friendly relations with Somali can be the gateway for Turkey to support maritime operations in the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea. Currently, most fleets are trying to support their operations from Djibouti. Maritime operations in this part of the world, combined with support for the Somali government, could mean deploying Turkish drones to attack Al Shabaab, combat piracy and curb arms smuggling at sea in this region. There is a good chance that the Turkish navy, through the latter type of operations, could come into conflict with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, which supports this type of operations in this region.

In addition, Turkey also presents itself as an opponent of Israel, which operates a small but modern navy. TCG Anadolu brings an extra layer of naval warfare, because now the air element must also be taken into account. It is therefore possible that Turkey, provided with the capabilities available to TCG Anadolu, will take a more active role against Israel, including by escorting supply convoys to the Gaza Strip.

TCG Anadolu is also a variant of the Spanish Juan Carlos I-Class helicopter ship. In terms of dimensions, the ship is largely similar to amphibious helicopter ships or light aircraft carriers currently operating, such as the French Mistrals and the Italian aircraft carriers Cavour and Garibaldi. Successful deployment of Anadolu in future conflicts could potentially allow other countries to more quickly operate their own drones on their amphibious transports and light aircraft carriers to increase their maritime flexibility.

Manned insecurely
Finally, it should be noted that there is currently no guarantee that the Turkish Hrjet, a light attack aircraft currently under development, will also receive a maritime variant to serve aboard the Anadolu in the near future. Operation of unmanned aircraft provides the advantage that the operator’s life is not in danger during combat operations or risky landings. In any case, the deployment of Hrjet appears to be in jeopardy as the jet-powered Kizilelma is a worthy alternative.

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