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Bayraktar Kızılelma: Türkiye’s Homegrown Jet UCAV Takes Flight

On 14 December 2022, Baykar Technology (BaykarTech) announced that it carried out the maiden test flight of its unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV), the Bayraktar Kızılelma.

BaykarTech’s CEO, Haluk Bayraktar, said that the company lifted the Bayraktar Kızılelma from the drawing board and into the skies in a record time of just one year. The company’s CTO, Selçuk Bayraktar, said that with the Kızılelma, Türkiye “has stepped into the domain of unmanned fighter aircraft, which is ushering in the future of air combat. It has opened the doors to this new world.”

Undoubtedly, the Kızılelma’s flight signifies a key breakthrough for BaykarTech, Türkiye’s wider aerospace industry, and, not least, Türkiye’s airpower growth.

Background on the Bayraktar Kızılelma

The origins of the Kızılelma date back to at least 2015, if not earlier. Türkiye’s government set a goal for the country’s defence industry to design and develop a robust ecosystem of drones.

One of these drones was to be a jet-powered platform designed for high-risk missions, such as suppression and/or destruction of enemy air defence systems (i.e., SEAD and DEAD).

BaykarTech had committed itself to developing such a drone.

The early design proposals had centered on a jet-powered platform called Muharip İnsansız Uçak Sistemi (MİUS). The MİUS had a maximum take-off weight (MTOW) of 3,000 kg to 4,000 kg, a payload of 1,000 kg, an endurance of 4 to 5 hours, a flight ceiling of 40,000 ft, and cruising speed of Mach 0.8.

However, Türkiye’s exit from the Lockheed Martin F-35 program and the subsequent need for an alternate combat aircraft platform for the Turkish Navy’s landing helicopter dock (LHD), TCG Anadolu, added a new dimension to the MİUS project. Basically, Türkiye needed this new UCAV to be able operate from the LHD, thus making it an all-rounded naval combat aircraft asset.

In July 2021, BaykarTech revealed the finalized design of the MİUS, i.e., the Bayraktar Kızılelma. Generally, in line with the original MİUS specifications, the Kızılelma has a MTOW of 6 tons, payload of 1,500 kg, an endurance of 5 hours, an operational altitude of 35,000 ft, and cruising speed of Mach 0.6.

The Kızılelma prototype is powered by a single Motor Sich AI-25TLT turbofan engine. BaykarTech is aiming to design a Kızılelma variant in the future that uses the AI-322F afterburning engine, which could give that future UCAV the ability to potentially operate at supersonic speed.

In parallel, the Turkish industry, namely TUSAŞ Engine Industries (TEI), is developing a homegrown engine that could potentially power the Kızılelma. This project is called the TEI TF-6000, and it would offer more thrust than the AI-25TLT. Thus, at least for the initial Kızılelma variant, it seems that Türkiye is working to build an indigenous industry ecosystem to manufacture these drones with minimal-to-no dependence on foreign suppliers. Or, at the very least, have a readily deployable indigenous alternative should its current foreign suppliers fall through for any reason.

Türkiye is Cementing Conventional Drone Use

The Bayraktar Kızılelma’s specifications suggest that it is a credible asset for a wide range of missions, such as strike missions, loyal wingman or manned-unmanned teaming operations, and (being one of the clearly defined goals of the project) naval air operations.

There is a caveat to the naval air operations requirement. When Türkiye’s original plans had centered on the F-35B (i.e., a full-out manned strike fighter), it is unlikely that its future naval air requirements would stop at just the Kızılelma. It is likely that Türkiye has a broader vision for naval air operations that will likely center on a new manned combat aircraft, be it a navalized variant of its MMU/TFX next-generation fighter or something else entirely. Thus, the Kızılelma is a starting point, likely meant to provide a serviceable and baseline capable attack asset for the TCG Anadolu LHD.

Generally speaking, one of the signature aspects of Türkiye’s military operations in recent years had been its use of drones. It arguably was among the first countries, if not the first, to aggressively push drones as a conventional warfare asset. Türkiye went beyond using drones for targeted strikes against an individual, a tactic in counterinsurgency (COIN) operations, to deploying them for close air support (CAS), SEAD and DEAD, and anti-armour operations. Remarkably, it had done so using drone designs that were likely meant for Predator or Reaper-style COIN-focused strikes, not full-out conventional support missions.

Arguably, the Kızılelma marks a pivot to double-down on conventional drone use while, at the same time, return the Bayraktar TB2/TB3 and Akıncı-series to more traditional focus areas, like intelligence gathering and COIN operations. The reason for this shift is that the Kızılelma is designed from the ground-up to both operate and survive within a conventional warfare environment more so than the TB/Akıncı drones.

For example, the Kızılelma is turbofan-powered system that can fly much faster than the Akıncı (i.e., 800 km/h to the Akıncı’s 361 km/h). The Kızılelma also seems to have a greater emphasis on low-observability or detectability on radar thanks to an internal weapons bay.

These qualities make the Kızılelma more survivable in contested environments, especially those involving surface-to-air missiles (SAM) and enemy combat aircraft armed with air-to-air missiles (AAM). Yes, drones like the Akıncı can deploy heavy precision-guided bombs (PGB). However, the end-user would likely utilize that capability at stand-off range, i.e., away from enemy air defence threats, rather than within those hot areas. In contrast, Kızılelma could operate in that environment, especially if it has support from unmanned electronic attack, jamming, and decoy assets.

Thus, the future of Türkiye’s SEAD/DEAD, CAS, anti-armour, anti-infantry, and naval air operations, and all other conventional missions using drones center on the Kızılelma. Another sign of this shift is BaykarTech’s plans to develop larger and more capable variants of the Kızılelma in the future. In other words, a growing long-term investment indicates plans for significant production and use.

It will be interesting to see if this emphasis on the Kızılelma is borne from the Turkish Air Force’s approach with the MMU/TFX. The latter is a large twin-engine fighter. Thus, it will likely be much costlier to procure and maintain than the medium-weight, single-engine F-16, which is the mainstay of the Turkish Air Force.

It is possible that the long-term Kızılelma development is a move to create a complementary, lightweight asset to operate alongside the MMU. This would go beyond simply a loyal wingman role, but potentially, a full-out “hi/lo” pairing where in some cases the Kızılelma and MMU carry out different missions. So, for example, the ‘go-to’ asset for Türkiye’s CAS missions, for example, could be the Kızılelma.

Finally, the other interesting question about the Kızılelma’s development track is if it can potentially lead to a manned fighter. There are reports of BaykarTech designing a variant of the Kızılelma that would utilize two AI-322F-class engines. This aircraft would basically have the size of an advanced jet trainer, like the L-15 or M-346. However, at that point, BaykarTech would raise development and production infrastructure that can support light-to-medium-weight manned fighters.

In other words, if Türkiye desires a lower cost, single-engine manned fighter to complement the MMU, it could one day task BaykarTech to develop it. This would be a genuine option if Turkey’s indigenous engine program for the MMU/TFX materializes. It can derive more use out of that engine if it makes it available for other applications, like large UCAVs or medium-weight manned fighters.

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