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Türkiye Commissions First Drone Carrier – TCG Anadolu

On April 10, the Turkish Navy commissioned its first landing helicopter dock (LHD), the TCG Anadolu (L-400). The commissioning ceremony took place at Sedef Shipyard in Tuzla, Istanbul.

The TCG Anadolu is based on the Juan Carlos I-Class landing platform dock (LPD) designed and built by Spain’s Navantia. Türkiye selected the design in design, with construction beginning in 2016. The Turkish Navy is planning to procure a second ship of this type, i.e., TCG Trakya.

For Türkiye, the TCG Anadolu is a significant capability addition. By design, an LHD is a strategic asset meant for projecting power through long-range amphibious and expeditionary operations.

During the ceremony, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said, “This vessel will allow us to conduct military and humanitarian operations in every corner of the world, when needed.”

The TCG Anadolu has a total displacement of over 27,000 tons and a length of 232 m. When it is configured for amphibious assault operations, the ship can carry four landing craft mechanized (LCM) or, alternatively, two landing craft air cushions (LCAC) or two landing craft vehicle personnel (LCVP). Internally, the ship can also carry main battle tanks (MBT), armoured amphibious vehicles, and troops.

In its ‘aircraft carrier’ configuration, the Anadolu would operate as a vertical and/or conventional take-off and landing (V/STOL) platform. It could carry up to 10 Lockheed Martin F-35Bs and 12 helicopters. In this configuration, the latter could comprise of transportation/utility and/or attack helicopter gunships.

Originally, Türkiye had planned to procure and deploy F-35Bs from the Anadolu. However, due to the fallout of procuring the S-400 air defence system from Russia, the United States blocked the sale of the F-35A and F-35B to Türkiye (i.e., through the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act).

In response, Türkiye reworked the Anadolu to carry an assortment of drones, including stealth unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV), like the Baykar Bayraktar Kızılelma or Turkish Aerospace (TUSAŞ) Anka-3. Thus, at some level, the Anadolu will retain a fixed-wing combat aircraft capability in lieu of the F-35B.

In fact, Türkiye is the first country to deploy a naval platform dedicated to deploying drones as primary or go-to fixed-wing combat assets. This ‘fighter wing’ will be a mix of assets comprising of jet-powered UCAVs and slower-speed medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) drones, like the Bayraktar TB3.

Türkiye has used MALE drones (notably the Bayraktar TB2) in operations over Syria and Libya against both non-state actors and conventional threats (such as air defence systems). Pairing drones to an LHD enables Türkiye to flexibly deploy its drones – and air-to-surface strike capability – to distant, overseas territories.

While not as premier in range, payload, or technological sophistication as the F-35B, Türkiye still retains a measure of air warfare capability at sea. However, Türkiye aims to elevate its naval air warfare capabilities such that it closely mirrors some of the capabilities on offer by the F-35B.

The leading projects for this initiative are the Bayraktar Kızılelma and TUSAŞ Anka-3 UCAVs. The Kızılelma and Anka-3 are jet-powered designs with an emphasis on stealth via low observability (LO) on radar. They leverage internal payload bays large enough to carry precision-guided munitions (PGM) as well as stand-off range weapons (SOW), like glide bombs and cruise missiles.

Türkiye is aiming to one day deploy both the Kızılelma and Anka-3 from the Anadolu, thus giving the Turkish Navy a genuine long-range, high-payload strike capability at sea. However, given that both UCAV designs are envisaged for ‘loyal wingman’ roles, they could potentially be air-to-air assets as well.

Overall, Türkiye’s strategy of reworking the Anadolu for drones could potentially make naval air warfare a much more accessible avenue for other countries. Compared to a full-fledged aircraft carrier with complex catapult and recovery systems, larger hangar and maintenance bays, and other features, using an LHD as a basis for a carrier is a markedly lower cost alternative. Indeed, the ability to use the F-35B from LHDs is what opened the door for more countries to pursue naval fighter wings once again, like Japan.

However, be it due to cost or regulatory restrictions, the majority of countries cannot access the F-35B. In effect, Türkiye’s Kızılelma and Anka-3 could offer an alternative solution. The barrier-to-entry for acquiring a compatible LHD and UCAVs is substantially lower from both a cost and regulatory standpoint compared a conventional aircraft carrier and/or a solution centered on the F-35B.

A UCAV-centered approach will generate more interest as drones improve in terms of autonomous flight and operations. In this context, some navies might see the value of having UCAVs provide both air defence to the fleet as well as carry out long-range air-to-air and/or air-to-surface operations.

Türkiye’s naval air ambitions will not stop at drones. The country still seems to be interested in deploying a manned fighter from sea, though how that could happen is currently unclear. In 2021, the top official of Türkiye’s Presidency of Defense Industries (SSB), Dr. Ismail Demir, reportedly said that work was underway to develop a shipborne variant or evolution of the TUSAŞ Hürjet.

The Hürjet is a single-engine lead-in fighter-trainer (LIFT). It is broadly similar in size and capability to the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) Tejas and Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) T-50. While developing a naval variant of the Hürjet may be technically possible, Türkiye may run into the same issues as India did with its Naval Tejas project. Basically, the Hürjet as-is may be too short-legged for carrier operations from a range and/or payload standpoint. Likewise, the aircraft itself may require certain design changes in order for it to feasibly operate from an aircraft carrier, especially a small one like the Anadolu.

Thus, while it is possible that a naval Hürjet could emerge, that design could potentially be a demonstrator and steppingstone for a clean-sheet manned naval fighter. This could either be a naval version of the twin-engine MMU or, potentially, a clean-sheet design. However, it would be economically difficult to develop and build another major fighter program; Türkiye would likely prefer leveraging existing work.

The likeliest option could be a naval variant of the MMU. However, in this scenario, Türkiye would have to design and build a full-fledged aircraft carrier. There had been reports of Türkiye engaging Britain about possibly procuring a Queen Elizabeth-class aircraft carrier in 2021. Türkiye was apparently rebuffed and, in turn, decided to one day design and build its own large-scale, conventional aircraft carrier.

 

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