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Bayraktar Akıncı: Turkey’s Next Statement Drone Shows its Potential

Through June and July, Baykar Makina test-fired several guided air-to-ground munitions from its Bayraktar Akıncı high-altitude long-endurance (HALE) unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).

For example, on June 15, Baykar Makina test-fired the KGK-SIHA-82 gliding precision-guided bomb (PGB). The company followed up by test firing the TEBER-82 laser-guided bomb (LGB) on June 22, and then the LGK-82 LGB on July 02, from the Bayraktar Akıncı.

The test firings indicate that Baykar Makina is actively working to configure the Akıncı with stand-off range weapons (SOW). Baykar Makina’s goal is to eventually arm the Akıncı with heavyweight munitions, such as air-launched cruise missiles (ALCM), and even air-to-air missiles (AAM).

The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) inducted the Bayraktar Akıncı in August 2021. Baykar Makina is marketing the Akıncı to potential overseas customers. In January 2022, Baykar Makina announced that it signed its first export contract for the Bayraktar Akıncı.

While a twin-engine design, the Bayraktar Akıncı is in the size-class of the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper.

This fact makes the Akıncı an intriguing system as it offers countries a non-American and, presumably an ITAR-free, HALE UAV that can potentially compare to the MQ-9.

In turn, there are indications that the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and, potentially, the Pakistan Navy (PN) are both acquiring the Bayraktar Akıncı. Neither Pakistani service arm nor Baykar Makina have confirmed this deal. However, the PAF showcased the Akıncı in one of its promotional videos (alongside other drones).

Thus, a potential Akıncı order would be a major development for the Pakistani military. By adding a long-range, high-altitude UAV, the PAF and PN could open up many new capabilities. This can involve long-haul ‘hunter-killer’ operations for counterinsurgency (COIN), around-the-clock electronic intelligence (ELINT), and naval operations (analogous to the MQ-9B SeaGuardian).

Drones Signify Turkey’s Rise as a Defence Supplier

It is worth highlighting that the Akıncı is another example of Turkey’s growing prowess as a developer and supplier of defence technologies. For those seeking ITAR-free drones at least, Turkey has arguably become a neck-and-neck competitor with China. In some markets (e.g., Central Europe), Turkey is the top vendor.

Thus, the availability of the Akıncı on the market is significant. Now, and more so in the near future, many countries can build significant drone-based capabilities outside of the traditional ‘East versus West’ split.

In fact, with Turkey, drones are simply one aspect of its potential. The country is continually improving its data-link and radio communications technology, including satellite communications (SATCOM). It has also entered the realm of space development through satellite design and manufacturing. Ankara is aiming to one day launch its own satellite launch vehicle (SLV).

Thus, Turkey has a vision to own the complete, end-to-end stack of a robust UAV capability. Today, it can sell the drone aircraft with some of the communications stack. But in the future, it could potentially supply satellites (and even launch them) that can let end-users operate drones far more flexibly than land-based, line-of-sight (LoS)-restricted set ups today. This does not even include the fact that Turkey (notably Baykar Makina) is also working on a loyal wingman UAV system (which requires considerable work in automation, artificial intelligence, and machine learning). Turkey is poised to become a global drone player.

How the Akinci Would Impact Pakistan

Simply put, the Akıncı would give Pakistan a drone with significantly more range, endurance, and payload than any of its smaller UAVs, such as the Shahpar-2.

According to Baykar Makina, the Akıncı has a service ceiling of up to 40,000 ft. However, the company also revealed that the Akıncı broke its top altitude record by reaching 45,118 ft. The Akıncı has a top speed of 150-195 knots, and a payload of 1,500 kg. It has an endurance of 24 hours.

To highlight some of its practical performance capabilities, Baykar Makina said that it had flown the Akıncı from western Turkey to Georgia non-stop. From a range standpoint, this could be up to 1,000 km.

In terms of payload, Baykar Makina wants to configure the Akıncı with a diverse line-up of munitions, such as the SOM-A ALCM as well as the Gokdogan and Bozdogan AAMs.

While one could have expected the Akıncı to carry weapons like the Roketsan UMTAS (analogous to how the MQ-9 Reaper carries the AGM-114 Hellfire), the Akıncı’s SOW capability is unique. Not only is Baykar Makina focusing on long-range weapons, but heavyweight – e.g., MK-83-class – munitions. Thus, the aim of the company is to equip the Akıncı such that it can carry out heavy air strikes.

Whether there will be a practical implementation of this capability is unclear. Perhaps, at some level, the Akıncı might be less costly to operate than a manned fast jet. Thus, it could emerge as an option to carry certain SOWs (which it can launch from a safe distance). The Akıncı could also be the go-to vehicle for air strikes against low-intensity threats, hence negating the need to use a costlier manned fast jet.

Finally, the AAM integration work is also difficult to decipher. While it can theoretically be useful (e.g., as a supporting beyond-visual-range AAM carrier), the newer Kızılelma loyal wingman drone will eventually take over this work. Thus, it is unclear if there is a long-term need to make the Akıncı AAM-capable.

Arguably, for both the PAF and the PN, the more interesting aspect of the Akıncı would be its capacity to carry high-powered sensors. Baykar Makina says that the Akıncı will be able to carry a multi-mission active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar as well as electro-optical and infrared (EO/IR) equipment.

For Pakistan, this element would open the Akıncı for use as a supporting ISR asset, one that can augment the country’s fleet of airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) and long-range maritime patrol aircraft (LRMPA). The Akıncı can also emerge as a relatively low-cost way to build a dense electronic warfare (EW) presence, especially in terms of around-the-clock, far-reaching ELINT.

In these respects, the Akıncı could be a more cost-effective way to build ISR than buying large numbers of manned aircraft. In fact, it is not just an issue of acquiring manned aircraft, but also effectively using them. Real-world factors like operator fatigue could dampen the potential of a large ISR aircraft fleet. Thus, the availability of many Akıncı-type drones to close coverage gaps, create redundancy, and support manned aircraft could be a strategic gamechanger.

One other aspect worth noting is the Akıncı’s automation. Baykar Makina says that the Akıncı can take-off and land on its own without the need for ground-control. This could enable the PAF and PN to flexibly the Akıncı where (thanks to SATCOM) the drone can take-off and land at any functional airfield but enter the control of mission-specific groups or stations once in the air. These remote-operators could pass the control of the drone to different teams, even if the teams are in different parts of the country.

Pakistan Air Force

For the PAF, a major goal of its long-term development strategy is to vastly expand its ISTAR (intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance) capability.

To this end, the PAF is working to introduce SATCOM and use it to operate its drones. This is apparent in the fact that the domestically-built Shahpar-II is SATCOM-capable, for example. However, the PAF seems to be working on building its vast fleet by inducting various off-the-shelf solutions, notably the Akıncı, TB2, and Chinese Wing Loong II. Other systems, like the TAI-NESCOM Anka project, may be on the roadmap.

In addition, the PAF is also setting up its own Space Command to manage the operation and sensor feeds of its drones (plus feeds from imaging satellites and other ISTAR assets, like AEW&C).

Within this framework, the PAF could use the Akıncı to carry sensors like ground-facing synthetic aperture radars (SAR), EO/IR equipment, ELINT systems, and more. Basically, the PAF’s goal is to build its situational awareness across visual, radar, and electromagnetic modes. In other words, build a complete picture.

Moreover, pervasive and persistent ELINT coverage would give the PAF a scalable ability to build its own electronic threat library, at least in peacetime. The Akıncı could make that process more cost-effective.

Pakistan Navy

If it is acquiring the Akıncı, the PN will likely employ it in a similar role as the MQ-9B SeaGuardian. Basically, the PN could use the Akıncı as a supplementing maritime ISTAR and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) asset to operate alongside its RAS-27 Sea Eagle MPAs and forthcoming Sea Sultan LRMPAs.

One can expect the PN to seek to equip the Akıncı with a multi-mission AESA radar, especially Leonardo’s Seaspray-series. Doing so would enable the Akıncı to expand the PN’s surface surveillance and targeting, and do so without having to heavily increase its LRMPA or MPA fleets (or overuse those aircraft).

That said, it would be interesting to see if the PN would leverage the Akıncı’s armament payload for ASW and/or anti-ship warfare (AShW). In theory, the PN could arm the Akıncı with anti-ship missiles (AShM) or lightweight ASW torpedoes. In this respect, the Akıncı could operate alongside the MPAs and LRMPAs in the AShW and ASW roles. In fact, the Akıncı might even be able to carry out AShW independently (at least if its main AESA radar has enough range). The PN could even look at equipping the Akıncı with sonobuoys so as to build an independent ASW capability out of the UAV.

Industrial Tie-Ins

It is unfortunate that Pakistan’s drone industry did not evolve as far as Turkey. Currently, Pakistan has to depend on foreign suppliers for HALE UAVs akin to the Akıncı.

However, if Pakistan’s apparent Akıncı acquisitions reach a large enough number, there may be a chance to advance Pakistan’s drone industry through genuine industrial tie-ins.

While its limited leverage will cap how much it can gain, Pakistan should still seek offsets. It could channel those offsets to the Pakistani private sector and connect those companies to the Pakistani Akıncı program.

This can start with getting maintenance and support contracts for the Akıncı UAVs. If Pakistan acquires enough of these drones, the private sector could potentially supply key inputs, like aerostructures.

Granted, this approach would mean taking a “step back” in the macro sense. Pakistan can already produce its own drones, but through its state-owned enterprises. But by investing in the private sector and helping it grow, Pakistan could propel its drone industry as a whole many steps forward.

 

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