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

With the impending 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 Navy and what roles the ship can play in the near future. Based partly on the effectiveness 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 an aft dry dock in the usual Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) design.

However, the Turkish Navy changed the specifications of the Anadolu at the start of construction so that the ship would be able to operate with F-35B fighters. At the time, Turkey was an important partner in the development of the F-35 and anticipated that around 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 ensured 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. Ultimately, in the long run, Russia would have had the ability to compile the F-35’s radar profiles at some point, but Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 brought that possibility both into absolute reality and into the foreseeable future.

Because Turkey no longer had access to the F-35, it was decided to convert the Anadolu into a full-fledged aircraft carrier to operate unmanned aircraft. Although modest attempts have already been made to deploy unmanned aircraft on aircraft carriers, Turkey is the first country to equip a full-fledged ship with this and will actively deploy it as such. Recently, Turkey’s launch and landing plans 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 are developed for aircraft carrier operations, unlike the more famous Bayraktar TB2, which was developed for land-based deployment.
Bayraktar Kizilelma is a jet-powered drone 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 weapons hatches. The drone is very similar to an F-35 fighter and probably heavily influenced by Turkish experience in the development of the F-35.

Simulation of a drone launch from the deck of the carrier. (Image: Baykar)

Landing and departure
Deck operations of Kizilelma will be carried out in a conventional manner along the lines of a STOBAR (short take off but arrested recovery), where the unmanned aircraft takes off via the ski ramp on the foredeck. Landings are then done again by equipping the drone with a hook so that it can grab hold of the brake cables when landing. To be on the safe side, some sort of safety net or guard rail will also be installed to contain the unmanned aircraft. It is the usual concept that we also see in jets such as 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 using a roller or catapult system that would give the drone the necessary speed to get over the ski ramp. Landings of the TB3 could then return to normal without an arrester hook, because the propeller at the back of the drone makes fitting such a hook impossible. The safety nets or guard rails are not normally necessary, but are fitted to be on the safe side.

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 ultimately 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 the lead 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, in which it has already intervened actively in the past. Turkish drones were then particularly effective in neutralizing anti-aircraft defense systems and launching attacks on key targets.

The limitations Turkey had at the time was that it could only deploy its drones from its own airports (Syria) or with the approval of the local factions (Libya). 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, Anadolu is also an amphibious landing ship, which enables the landing of amphibious forces, supported by drones, to carry out independent interventions and operations.

Maritime role
In addition to conducting land operations, Bayraktar drones are also suitable for playing an active attack role in a maritime conflict. Ukraine is currently proving that the unmanned aerial vehicle, and in particular the Bayraktar TB2, is highly suitable 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 in the sinking of the Russian cruiser Moskva.

Here again, if we look at Turkey’s maritime ambitions for the coming decades, we see that equipping Anadolu with unmanned aerial vehicles is a perfect added value for Turkey. As mentioned before, the country is active in the Libyan and Syrian civil wars, but the country also has interests in Somali, with which Turkey trains the Somali army.

Friendly relations with Somali could be the gateway for Turkey to support maritime operations in the Arabian Sea, Gulf of Aden and Red Sea. Currently, most navies try to support their operations from Djibouti. Maritime operations in this part of the world, combined with support for the Somali government, could mean the deployment of Turkish drones to attack Al Shabaab, combat piracy and curb arms smuggling by sea in this region. There is a good chance that the Turkish Navy, through the latter type of operations, may come into conflict with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard 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 carrier. In terms of dimensions, the ship is broadly similar to amphibious helicopter carriers 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 transport and light aircraft carriers to increase their maritime flexibility.

Staffed uncertainly
Finally, it should be noted that there is currently no certainty that the Turkish Hrjet, a light attack aircraft currently under development, will also receive a maritime variant to serve on board the Anadolu in the near future. Operating unmanned aerial vehicles offers the advantage that the operator’s life is not at risk during combat operations or risky landings. In any case, the deployment of the Hrjet seems to be in jeopardy, as the jet-powered Kizilelma is a worthy alternative.

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