Will The Turkish Navy’s Upcoming Flagship Become A Drone Carrier?
Turkey’s upcoming flagship, the TCG Anadolu (L-400), is an amphibious assault ship that can also function as a light aircraft carrier. Turkey’s only problem is that it won’t have any warplanes suitable for this ship for the foreseeable future. As a result, Ankara may ultimately decide to outfit the ship with more armed drones.
Since construction started, Turkey has envisaged the Anadolu, which is heavily based on Spain’s flagship the Juan Carlos I, carrying out a variety of missions and tasks for the Turkish Navy. It also envisaged the ship carrying a variety of aircraft and helicopters.
One early assessment anticipated that the Anadolu would be capable of carrying six F-35B Lightning II aircraft, the short take-off and vertical landing (STOVL) variant of the stealthy fifth-generation warplane, along with four of Turkey’s T129 ATAK attack helicopters, 2 S70B Seahawk helicopters, and two drones.
Ankara contemplated buying 19-20 F-35Bs in addition to the large fleet of F-35A variants it ordered for its air force. However, Turkey was suspended from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program in 2019 for purchasing and taking delivery of Russian S-400 air defense missiles. None of the F-35s it ordered were delivered.
With F-35Bs no longer an option, the only other STOVL fighter that could conceivably be bought for the Anadolu is the AV-8B Harrier jump-jet. Before being suspended from the F-35 program, Turkey expressed interest in buying Harriers for the Anadolu to serve as stopgap fighters until it could eventually acquire F-35Bs.
The U.S. bought all the remaining Harriers from the United Kingdom’s inventory a decade ago.
While Harriers are certainly much older and far less advanced than the F-35B, the U.S. Congress would likely block any potential sale of the aircraft as it has secretly blocked the vast majority of U.S. arms sales to Turkey since 2018. The only other operators of the Harrier left in the world are Italy and Spain, which have long used them for their own navies and would not likely be willing to sell them to Turkey.
As a result, the Anadolu will most likely enter service without any fighters. Ankara could well opt to have the flagship function solely as a helicopter carrier and transport for ground forces. It might also decide to use the space previously allotted for F-35Bs or Harriers for more drones.
Turkey has made serious headway in developing drones in recent years. These pilotless aircraft could well play a significant role in Turkey’s navy, especially as Ankara increasingly uses it to project power across the Mediterranean and its so-called Blue Homeland — a term Turks use to refer to the country’s various maritime claims across the Eastern Mediterranean.
Turkish Bayraktar TB2 and Anka-S armed drones have already seen combat in Syria and Libya, where they’ve played decisive roles in turning the tables against Turkey’s adversaries.
Turkey will also soon begin mass production of its new Bayraktar Akinci drone, which can carry many weapons and is also expected to become the country’s primary intelligence-surveillance-target acquisition (ISTAR) and command-control-communication (C3) aircraft for the next decade according to Turkish military expert Metin Gurcan.
Ankara may soon seek to modify or make new naval variants of these drones to make them more suitable for operating off the deck of its new flagship.
A combination of these three drones on the Anadolu would hardly be a complete substitute for fighters. But they could, nevertheless, help make that assault ship a more formidable foe.
Akinci’s operating from the Anadolu could fly at high altitudes, out of range of low to medium-altitude air defenses, and effectively coordinate attacks carried out by Anka-S and Bayraktars.
Also, the Akinci’s long-range, coupled with its ability to carry long-range Turkish air-launched SOM cruise missiles, could enable the Anadolu to strike targets from hundreds of miles away. Drones launched from her deck could also give air support for any landing operations carried out by the amphibious assault ship since they are more expendable than ATAK or other helicopters.
Unlike fighters, however, the drones have almost no real air-to-air capabilities. The Akinci will reportedly have the capability of carrying Turkish-built air-to-air missiles. However, given that turboprop drone’s relatively slow speed and lack of maneuverability, it will most likely be used predominantly as a platform for various air-to-surface weapons and munitions.
For protection against aerial threats, the Anadolu will likely rely on supporting warships like Turkey’s Ada-class corvettes, some of which specialize in air defense roles, or its older Gabya-class, ex-U.S. Navy Oliver Hazard Perry-class, frigates rather than drones carrying air-to-air missiles.
Given their clear potential, however, it wouldn’t be all that surprising if the Anadolu becomes a major platform for armed drones to project Turkey’s naval power in the not-too-distant future.
I am a journalist/columnist based in Iraqi Kurdistan from where I’ve been writing about regional affairs for five years now.