Turkish drone warfare capabilities have made a significant impression in operations against Russian-supported Syrian forces in Idlib, Syria in February and March, 2020, and more recently through the ongoing Azerbaijan-Armenia conflict in Karabakh. Recently, Turkey has unveiled a new unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) system that could play a critical role in anti-submarine warfare, potentially bolstering Ankara’s influence in a volatile region.
The Aksungur unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), from TUSAS—the makers of the ANKA drone—will carry a 750-kilogram combat payload in the maritime patrol and strike package configuration, and 150-kilogram in signals intelligence (SIGINT) and electronic intelligence (ELINT) equipment (TUSAŞ, October 9). The drone will have satellite communications (SATCOM) features, which will make it more resilient in jammed environments, as well as advanced sensors such as synthetic aperture radar/ground-moving target indicator (SAR/GMTI), which enables it to strike mobile surface targets—like convoys and road-mobile launchers—in large spaces and under any weather condition (TUSAŞ, October 9).
TUSAŞ’ Aksungur has showcased promising signs in recent tests. In September 2020, the UAV flew continuously for more than a day—28 hours to be precise—with a payload of 12 Roketsan-manufactured MAM-L smart munitions loaded (Anadolu Ajansı, September 17). Prior to the armed test-flight, the platform even scored an impressive 49-hour non-stop flying capability (Anadolu Ajansı, September 2).
The 750-kilogram combat payload will enable Aksungur to carry a broad-array of missiles. These include TEBER-82 bombs, which are modernized MK-82-class bombs with joint direct attack munitions standards by GPS/INS additions, and Roketsan’s UMTAS anti-tank missiles with tandem warhead against reactive explosive armor (Roketsan, October 9).
Nevertheless, the real ‘beauty’ of Turkey’s new UAV is something different. Of the Aksungur UAV’s payload configuration, sonobuoy pod and magnetic anomaly detector (MAD) boom features are critical (TUSAŞ, October 9). Equipped with these systems, Aksungur would make an important anti-submarine warfare asset. The Turkish press already nicknamed the drone as ‘the submarine hunter’ (TRT Haber, September 4). With the anti-submarine warfare characteristics, it is likely that the Turkish Navy will be the Aksungur’s first customer.
The Turkish Navy is also a part of the Turkish military’s ‘dronization’ trend. As of August 2020, the navy operates at least four ANKA-variant UAVs with synthetic aperture radar (SAR)/inverse synthetic aperture radar (ISAR) sensors and electro-optical/infra-red cameras. The Turkish Navy primarily uses its TUSAS-made ANKA drones for intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance (ISTAR) missions. In this respect, the latest Otomatik Tanımlama Sistemi (Automatic Identification System, or AIS) upgrade enables the UAVs to identify surface vessels within hundreds of miles and share the findings with command and control hubs. Aksungur can be networked with the ANKA baseline through data-links and can use the same control stations (Anadolu Agency, August 24; TUSAŞ, October 9). The Turkish Navy also operates Baykar’s combat-proven Bayraktar TB-2 drones, which were delivered last year (Milliyet, April 16, 2019).
The navy’s drone warfare identity brings about new horizons to Turkey’s unmanned military systems capabilities and concepts of operations. Back in April 2018, for example, the Turkish Navy’s ANKA flights, close to the island of Rhodes, alarmed Greece and led to the scramble of F-16s by Athens (Milliyet, April 6, 2018). With Aksungur, Turkey’s under-sea warfare capabilities will have an additional robotic angle. From a military planning standpoint, delegating some anti-submarine warfare tasks to unmanned systems will bring defense economics benefits due to lower operational costs. Unmanned systems will be able to relieve surface combatants and maritime patrol aircraft of added burdens, especially in high-risk areas (Defense News, April 13).
The new Aksungur line will be a force-multiplier to the Turkish naval deterrent in Ankara’s chosen frontier. Turkey, a critical NATO nation, can employ its ASW drones to track Russian submarine activity in the Black Sea or the Mediterranean. Alternatively, they can take part in the recent Turkish-Greek confrontation in the Aegean and track Greece’s 11-piece submarine fleet (The Greek Navy, October 12).
A geopolitical game-changer, and a political-military signal that would deeply undermine Turkey’s already troubled relations with the European Union, would be forward-deploying a few Aksungur UAVs to the Gecitkale military airport in Cyprus. Turkey already deployed unarmed variants of Baykar’s famous Bayraktar TB-2 drones to Gecitkale, back in late 2019 (Baykar, December 16, 2019).
Another critical deployment alternative would be Libya. Open-source intelligence assessments suggest heated submarine activity in the Mediterranean, with approximately 20 to 30 pieces operating in the area at the time of writing (Defense News, June 22). Furthermore, Aksungur’s potential deployment in Libya would not only change the naval calculus, but also the land warfare parameters of that conflict. Compared to Turkey’s current combat drones, Aksungur will have a much larger payload that would allow for greater robust fire-power at a time and a higher operational tempo.
In any case, the Turkish Navy’s dronization trend will gain a new edge with Aksungur, and wherever it is deployed, the new UAV will pose some trouble to a potential adversary’s under-sea platforms.
Finally, one should note that Aksungur can make a lucrative export asset. For a long time, Turkey has eyed the Asian weapons market (Nikkei, October 7). Notably, drone warfare, submarine activity, and unmanned capabilities in sea warfare settings remain of high interest in that part of the world.
All in all, Turkey’s drone proliferation has entered a new stage involving more advanced systems with higher payloads. The progress strategically translates into concepts of operations. While Baykar’s Akinci is set to make a deep-strike asset, by carrying indigenous SOM air-launched cruise missiles with an approximately 250-kilometer range, Aksungur is readying to ‘dronize’ Turkey’s anti-submarine warfare capabilities (Baykar, October 9). Turkey’s la belle époque in unmanned systems is yet to come.