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Turkish Company Reveals Carrier UCAV Concept

In July 2021, the Turkish drone manufacturer Baykar Makina revealed the MIUS, its concept for a carrier-capable unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV).[1] One of the MIUS UCAV’s marque features is that it will be able to take-off and land from Turkey’s landing helicopter dock (LHD), TCG Anadolu, without the need for a catapult.[2] Currently, Turkey is exploring the MIUS as an alternative jet-powered, fixed-wing solution for the TCG Anadolu’s combat aircraft group. Turkey originally intended to deploy the Lockheed Martin F-35B from the LHD, but the Lightning II is no longer option due to a chill in relations between Ankara and Washington (following Turkey’s procurement of S-400 air defence systems from Russia).

The MIUS will reportedly offer a payload of 1,500 kg and flight endurance of five hours. Baykar Makina is designing the MIUS to reach a top speed of Mach 0.64.[3] Turkey intends to equip the MIUS with air-to-air missiles (AAM), air-to-surface munitions, and, reportedly, air-launched cruise missiles (ALCM). According to Selçuk Bayraktar, Baykar Makina’s CTO, the MIUS will also draw on artificial intelligence (AI) and other automation technologies so that MIUS UCAVs can operate autonomously.[4] The MIUS may use the Motor Sich AI-25 turbofan engine.[5]

The current target date for the MIUS’ maiden test flight is reportedly in 2023.[6] In its concept illustrations of the MIUS, Baykar Makina also revealed the Bayraktar TB-3, which will be an enlarged variant of the TB-2 medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). Though Turkey is studying the idea of developing a manned fixed-wing carrier-borne fighter (potentially based on the Hürjet trainer), its initial vision for the LHD’s aviation wing centers on deploying drones.[7]

Drones would be a unique start to fixed-wing naval air operations. However, naval drone usage builds on Turkey’s operational experience – and, arguably, success – using UAVs for combat missions. By designing a UCAV that can operate on the TCG Anadolu without a catapult, Turkey is aiming to cut the time and cost to deployment by minimizing the modifications on its LHD. Turkey may not deploy autonomous UCAVs in the next few years, but remotely-operated vehicles could become a reality by 2030, if not earlier.

One of the purposes of a carrier-capability is to project power. Countries with aircraft carriers could deploy combat aircraft from the sea, thus negating the need for air bases on land near the mission area. This is a helpful capability gain in contested or hostile regions. With this context in mind, the MIUS UCAV can allow Turkey to deploy a genuine fighter-like capability. In contrast to the TB-series of UAVs, the MIUS can carry a heavier munition load suitable for air strikes, including stand-off range and anti-ship attacks.

However, by virtue of being a drone, Turkey can employ the MIUS in high-risk scenarios without worrying about the loss of its aircraft. Not only is the MIUS unmanned, but its upfront and support costs would be lower than many large carrier-borne aircraft, such as the F-35B. Even if Turkey deploys a manned carrier-borne fighter, the MIUS can still serve as an attritable solution, e.g., decoy or loyal wingman. In fact, the MIUS design seems to mirror the specifications of current loyal wingman drones, such as the Valkyrie. The Turkish Air Force may be interested in adopting the MIUS as the basis for its own loyal wingman to operate alongside the forthcoming Milli Muharip Uçak (MMU) next-generation fighter aircraft (NGFA).

The MIUS might open the door to a new scenario: The commoditization of carrier-capabilities. By design, the MIUS negates the need for expensive and restricted technologies, such as catapult solutions, required for carrier-based aircraft. Basically, a navy would need a sufficiently large LHD, which could be had at an upfront cost of $1-2 billion U.S. It is still an expensive solution, but still relatively accessible to a purpose-built aircraft carrier. Moreover, a navy can use an LHD to drive amphibious operations, such as freighting armoured vehicles and troops. LHDs are versatile, so the cost could pay off in multiple ways.

Whether Turkey would serve that market segment is unclear. Thus far, Ankara has been open to exporting its MALE UAVs, but the MIUS would be a significant capability jump. The U.S. could work to limit the sale of MIUS-type drones. Moreover, Turkey itself may have an interest in keeping the technology close to its chest so as to avoid rivals or competitors from directly learning from the MIUS. However, the concept – i.e., a LHD-capable UCAV – could spread across the world as an affordable naval aviation solution. Others could employ similar types of aircraft to improve – or initiate – their naval aviation wings.

On the other hand, the accessibility of the MIUS might reflect making power-projection easier and lower cost. In other words, countries with a mainly anti-access and area-denial (A2/AD) focus, such as Pakistan, might not find LHD-borne UCAVs useful. The Pakistan Navy’s (PN) conventional warfare goal is to prevent the Indian Navy (IN) from interdicting Pakistan’s sea lanes and/or blockading Pakistani ports. Thus, A2/AD interests would lean more towards longer-ranged missiles and submarines.

However, naval UCAVs could pose a challenge to Pakistan and other A2/AD-focused countries. One of the benefits of a strong A2/AD focus is the ability to escalate risk for the imposing country. Those seeking to blockade a country with A2/AD capabilities would have to deal with enemy submarines, ballistic missiles, and anti-ship cruising missiles (ASCM). These threats could escalate the risk of loss to the point where the blockade or interdiction loses feasibility. Naval UCAVs could potentially alter that equation.

Returning to the South Asia example, the IN could potentially use carrier-borne UCAVs as decoys and/or electronic countermeasure (ECM) assets. These aircraft could interfere with Pakistani radars and, possibly, carry out various strikes against high-value targets belonging to Pakistan’s A2/AD element. To mitigate or lessen this threat, Pakistan would have to push the IN’s focus area farther out, ideally away from any sea lane and maritime asset of interest. This would likely lead the PN to focus more on submarines and drones (aerial plus other types) to expand its surveillance, targeting and attack capabilities.

That said, some countries could benefit from an LHD-based UCAV capability even if they do not intend to project power. For example, Indonesia and Malaysia control tens of thousands of islands, and possessing a mobile naval force that combines marine/amphibious assault and air combat could help in securing such territory. With Japan and South Korea both moving towards fixed-wing naval fighter arms, one could see Southeast Asian states follow suit by employing UCAVs instead of (or in addition to) manned aircraft.

For now, it seems that UCAVs are only one component of Turkey’s naval combat aviation ambitions. The country is still interested in acquiring a manned aircraft, but since the F-35B is not available, it will look to develop its own solution. However, besides suggesting that the Hürjet could form the basis for that design, it is unclear how Turkey will approach a manned fighter. In fact, its design direction could depend on the availability of sensitive aircraft carrier technology, and where Turkey is acquiring that technology.

[1] Baykar Makina via Twitter. 20 July 2021. URL: https://twitter.com/Baykar_Savunma/status/1417378870064525330

[2] Tayfun Ozberk. “Turkey To Deploy MIUS Unmanned Combat Aircraft From LHD Anadolu.” Naval News. 22 July 2021. URL: https://www.navalnews.com/naval-news/2021/07/turkey-to-deploy-mius-unmanned-combat-aircraft-from-lhd-anadolu/

[3] “Turkey reveals details of unmanned fighter jet project.” Daily Sabah. 04 August 2021. URL: https://www.dailysabah.com/business/defense/turkey-reveals-details-of-unmanned-fighter-jet-project

[4] Cem Devrim Yaylali. “Baykar Makina unveils MIUS UCAV concept.” Jane’s Defence Weekly. 26 July 2021. URL: https://www.janes.com/defence-news/news-detail/baykar-makina-unveils-mius-ucav-concept

[5] Tayfun Ozberk. “Baykar eyes first flight for MIUS in 2023.” Shephard Media. 23 July 2021. URL: https://www.shephardmedia.com/news/air-warfare/baykar-eyes-first-flight-mius-2023/

[6] Ibid.

[7] “Aircraft carrier version of the HÜRJET fighter jet may come.” Railly News. 30 March 2021. URL: https://www.raillynews.com/2021/03/Aircraft-version-of-the-hurjet-warplane-may-arrive/

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