TCG Anadolu: Turkey’s New Flagship Will Carry Unique Aircraft
As Turkey prepares to launch its new flagship, the amphibious assault ship TCG Anadolu (L-400), two concurrent developments have shone a light on the types of aircraft it will eventually carry. It goes without saying that they are quite different than what was initially envisaged and anticipated when construction began on the vessel in 2016.
On Nov. 20, the Bayraktar Kizilelma (“Red Apple”) jet-powered drone, Turkey’s first unmanned fighter jet, completed its first taxi and takeoff trials.
Analysts have noted the canard-delta configuration of the Kizilelma resembles China’s fifth-generation J-10 Mighty Dragon stealth fighter. While the prototype will only have a non-afterburner engine, later versions will feature an afterburner one, enabling the Kizilelma to reach supersonic speeds, which would undoubtedly give this ambitious unmanned combat aerial vehicle far greater survivability in contested airspace than its turboprop predecessors.
Baykar Defense, the manufacturer of the Kizilelma, claims the supersonic unmanned aircraft can operate off the Anadolu. However, analysts are skeptical since the landing gear on the Kizilelma prototype that flew on Nov. 20 appears too lightweight to sustain the pressures required for short takeoffs and arrested landings on the Anadolu’s short deck. On the other hand, that prototype could have been a land version of the Kizilelma, with a specialized naval version yet to be unveiled or fully developed.
Baykar has also been working on the Bayraktar TB3, a specialized naval version of the well-known and widely-exported TB2 developed for maritime operations from the Anadolu that features folding wings. The Anadolu will be able to carry an estimated 30-50 TB3s thanks to their relatively compact size.
The other development occurred on Nov. 18 when a Turkish AH-1W Super Cobra attack helicopter and an S-70 Seahawk landed on the flagship’s deck for the first time. Turkish AH-1Ws will operate from the Anadolu as an interim solution until they are replaced by locally-produced TAI T929 ATAK attack helicopters, the successor to the Turkish-built T129 ATAK, itself a license-built variant of Italy’s Agusta A129 Mangusta.
A naval version of the ATAK and Turkey’s existing SuperCobras and Seahawks were always the most likely type of helicopters to operate off the Anadolu, so that’s not at all surprising. What was surprising was that the vessel is ultimately expected to end up becoming a drone carrier.
The Turkish Navy was supposed to take delivery of the amphibious assault ship in 2020. However, that delivery was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the additional requirements the ship needed to make it more suitable for operating drones.
Based on Spain’s flagship, the Juan Carlos I, the Anadolu was originally intended to operate like similar amphibious assault ships and carry a fleet of helicopters and short takeoff and vertical landing (STOVL) fighters such as the F-35B variant of the fifth-generation stealth aircraft or the older AV-8B Harrier.
In 2017, Turkey was reportedly interested in purchasing surplus Harriers from the U.S. to serve as interim fighters on the Anadolu until it eventually acquired F-35Bs. Any prospect of the flagship operating F-35Bs was ultimately dashed when the United States banned Turkey from buying any F-35 after Ankara took delivery of advanced Russian S-400 air defense missile systems in 2019.
Given these restrictions, Ankara decided to take an altogether different approach and develop the Anadolu into the unique carrier of drones and unmanned fighters we see taking shape today.
The flagship’s unique arsenal of aircraft could well serve as a model for other navies considering acquiring drone carriers. Nevertheless, it has significant limitations compared with a more traditional arsenal that includes manned STOVL fighter jets.
For example, Turkey touts the low radar signature of the Kizilelma, its locally-made active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, and its capability to carry air-to-air missiles. While these features are undoubtedly impressive and highly ambitious for any drone, analysts remain highly skeptical that they could serve as an adequate substitution for an F-35 flown by a well-trained pilot, especially for air-to-air combat.
Therefore, while unique, innovative, and resourceful in many ways, Turkey’s new flagship will have some substantial limitations thanks in no small part to Ankara’s prior policy and procurement choices.
By: Paul Iddon