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[ANALYSIS] Turkey’s air force dilemma: fighter jets or drones?

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Fatih Yurtsever*

The Turkish Air Force (TAF) is currently facing a big problem: its F-16 and F-4 fleets are nearing the end of their useful lives. In 2007 the TAF announced plans to procure F-35 Joint Strike Fighters as a replacement for the F-4s, which will soon be retired. Furthermore, the US’s cancellation of an agreement to deliver F-35 stealth fighter jets to Turkey in response to its purchase of Russian air defense systems last year necessitated a shift in planning. The TAF dismissed some 300 F-16 pilots because of a coup attempt in July 2016, most of whom had years of experience. As a result, the cockpit-to-pilot ratio decreased from nearly 1.25 to 0.8. TAF faces significant losses due to its inability to operate the F-16s effectively.

Turkey’s indigenous aircraft under the TF-X program to replace its F-16 fleet has been beset by financial and technical setbacks. As a result, even if the project proceeds as planned, the TAF will not receive the jets until the early 2030s.

As a result F-16s are still the backbone of the TAF, and they need to be modernized accordingly. The Özgür project has begun to increase the flight life of the F-16 aircraft. However, these projects will be completed in the foreseeable future. Therefore, Turkey has turned to drone technology to fill the gap in jets and has made tremendous progress in this field in recent years.

Turkish drones such as the Anka-S were created by Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI). In contrast, the Bayraktar TB2 was produced by defense contractor Baykar Makina, led by Selçuk Bayraktar, son-in-law of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The motivation for developing a domestically produced drone stemmed from a US military embargo in 1975 and Washington’s reluctance to sell its advanced Predator and Reaper drones. As a result, Turkey purchased Heron drones from Israel, but the relationship made it much more complicated.

The effectiveness of these weapons was first demonstrated beyond Turkey’s borders in Syria in March 2020, when Ankara launched a devastating attack on Syrian armored forces moving into Idlib province along the Turkish border in retaliation for a Russian-backed Syrian attack that killed 36 Turkish soldiers. As a result the Syrian offensive has been halted, and Idlib province has been secured. In May Turkish drones attacked a Libyan airbase used by the UAE-backed Libyan National Army (LNA) of General Khalifa Haftar, effectively destroying the LNA’s offensive against Tripoli. Finally, during the September conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh, Turkish drones intervening for Azerbaijan against Armenia destroyed tanks and other armored vehicles.

Selçuk Bayraktar announced another milestone in the Turkish drone journey on Aug. 14. The second prototype of the high-altitude, long-endurance variant of the Akıncı drone had completed test flights and was ready for production.

Akıncı has a wingspan of 20 meters and is capable of flying to an altitude of 12,200 meters; 4,500 kilograms is the maximum takeoff weight. Up to 24 hours is expected for the flight, with a top speed of 360 km/h and a 240 km/h cruise speed as well as a payload capacity of 1,350 kilograms. The Akıncı considerably outperforms its Bayraktar TB2 predecessor in terms of flight performance and size. The Akıncı is equivalent to the American MQ-9 Reaper surveillance and assault UAV in terms of size. Nonetheless, it exceeds the American vehicle’s maximum takeoff weight.

Akıncı’s arsenal of weapons includes Mk-81, Mk-82 and Mk-83 free-fall bombs, with the option of converting them into high-precision ammunition with JDAM (Joint Direct Attack Munition) guidance kits, and the MAM smart munitions family, including the MAM-L, MAM-C and MAM-T variants. The main armament for the Bayraktar TB2 UCAV is the ROKETSAN-produced laser-guided CIRIT and L-UMTAS missiles, which have a range of 8 kilometers.

The Akıncı can be equipped with air-to-air guided missiles such as the Gökdoğan and Bozdoğan, which were created in Turkey to replace the American AMRAAM and AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, allowing it to attack air targets as well. In addition, the Akıncı UAV can also carry the SOM-J cruise missile, having a firing range over 250 kilometers, which provides deep strike capability and attacking surface units far beyond their stand-off ranges.

The drone will be equipped with indigenously developed systems, including a multi-role active electronically scanned array radar, the SAR/GMTI, a wide-area surveillance system, an electronic and signal intelligence suite and beyond-line-of-sight satellite communications systems. This combination of advanced radars and the multitude of weapons could be quite effective in detecting and destroying individual land targets or special equipment like electronic warfare (EW) stations.

Additionally, because of its unique artificial intelligence system, Akıncı will be more intelligent and aware of environmental conditions and provide improved flying and diagnostic features to its users.

The most interesting thing about Akıncı is the engines. It has two AI-450T two-rotor turboshaft engines developed by the Zaporizhzhia Machine-Building Design Bureau Progress named after academic A.G. Ivchenko in 1988. The AI-450 engine is designed for light helicopters and airplanes in the 1,500-4,000 kilogram weight takeoff class and can be used in both twin-engine and single-engine power plants of aircraft.

Initially, the plan was to power Akıncı with the PD-222, a new turbodiesel engine specifically developed for Akıncı by Tusaş Engine Industries (TEI), a subsidiary of TAI. Still, the Ukrainian engines turned out to be more reliable. Therefore, the contract to supply 20 engines for $640,000-$660,000 per pair was signed as part of an offset package to the agreement on purchasing a batch of Bayraktar TB2 drones by Ukraine. Thus, the Ukrainians contributed to implementing the Akıncı project by supplying engines and composite materials.

By building the Akıncı Ankara hopes to compensate for the loss of the F-35 new-generation jets. However, Akıncı  is not a stealthy, turbofan-engine fighter like the Kratos XQ-58 Valkyrie or Boeing Loyal Wingman that the US has recently produced. Air defense systems, surface-to-air missiles, air-to-air missiles, small arms and cannon fire planes and attack helicopters can easily hit it. At the same time, drones are effective against irregular armed formations that do not have a developed air defense system.

To survive in the skies of modern high-tech warfare, drones must have a low radar signature, high speed and maneuverability and an impressive set of electronic warfare equipment. But in this case, the output is already an unmanned fighter. And this is not yet the Akıncı. Therefore, Akıncı is no substitute for Turkey acquiring a fifth-generation fighter jet. Given the aging F-16 fleet, Turkey is at risk of losing air superiority over the next five to 10 years. Drones will never be able to eliminate this risk.

*Fatih Yurtsever is a former naval officer in the Turkish Armed Forces. He is using a pseudonym out of security concerns.

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