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Converting LHD Anadolu to a Drone Carrier

Issue 106

It’s no secret that Turkey intends to operate an aircraft carrier, and this desire was made public by President Recep Tayyip ERDOĞAN during his speech at the launching ceremony of the Istanbul-Class Frigate.

The interest of Turkey to operate aircraft from a large ship with a big flight deck is nothing new. This is a lesson learned from the large humanitarian assistance operation conducted in Libya. Between 19 February and 4 March 2011, Turkey evacuated 23,127 people from Libya fleeing from the fighting in the country. 8,351 evacuees were transported by sea. The need for a large amphibious ship with a large flight deck and a dock become very apparent during this Non-Combatant Evacuation Operation. During the evacuation, a few times F-16 fighter aircraft of the Turkish Air Force had to be flown from Turkey to Libya to provide air power, an operation requiring multiple in-flight refueling. Despite all the hardship and the cost of flying land-based F-16 fighters from Turkey to Libya their time on target was not adequate and they were not available on short notice.  These operations demonstrated the necessity of having an organic air force for the Turkish Navy.  

In 2015 the Turkish defense procurement agency the SSB (Savunma Sanayi Başkanlığı) announced that Spanish Navantia’s solution for a large amphibious assault ship was chosen after a long tendering process. The ship is based on Navatia’s Juan Carlos LHD design and is very similar to SPS Juan Carlos 1 in Spanish and, HMAS Canberra, HMAS Adelaide in RAN service. The construction of the ship dubbed as LHD Anadolu started in 2016.  

When finished, the LHD Anadolu will be the largest ship in the Turkish Navy’s inventory and the first Turkish Naval platform where multiple helicopters can launch and land at once and fixed-winged air vehicles can operate. The LHD Anadolu will provide a unique experience and platform for the Turkish Armed Forces. 

The removal of Turkey from the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter Program has forced Turkey to change its plans.  Turkey was a main partner of the F-35II Lightning Fighter Program from the outset and was willing to purchase around 100 Land-Based F-35A configurations for the Turkish Air Force. Later a decision was made to buy a modest number of vertical and/or short take-off and landing (V/STOL) variants F-35B to be used onboard the LHD Anadolu. 6 to 8 aircraft deployed on board would provide air cover and perform strike missions during amphibious operations. Since the ship was designed to accommodate and operate Harrier in Spanish service it would be F-35 compatible with little changes. However, the removal of Turkey from the F-35 Lighting II program made all these plans redundant. 

Necessity is the mother of invention. Thus, alternatives for the F-35B are under consideration. There are two realistic options available for the Turkish Government and the Navy. The first is to convert the LHD Anadolu, to accommodate Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles.  

Bird's eyes-view of LHD Anadolu (photo credit by Sedefshipyard)

In March 2021, the President of the SSB, Prof. İsmail DEMİR stated that work was done to deploy Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles from LHD Anadolu. Both the Sedef Shipyard where the ship is constructed and Baykar, one of the leading Unmanned Aerial Vehicle manufacturers, are conducting studies to this end.

Selcuk BAYRAKTAR, the CTO of Baykar has announced that they are working on a new unmanned combat aerial vehicle TB-3 which will be able to be operated from the Anadolu.

The TB-3 is expected to be launched test flights in 12 months. It will have a maximum take-off weight of 1200 kg and will carry heavier ammunition compared to the contemporary UCAV, Bayraktar TB-2. 

To withstand the rigors of landing on a noticeably short and constantly moving flight deck the TB-3 will have a reinforced airframe and landing gear. The TB-3 is believed to have foldable wings to make it easier to move on the flight deck and inside the hangar. 

TB3 UAV is seen this computer generated image to take-off from LHD Anadolu

Currently it is not clear whether the LHD Anadolu can accommodate the future UCAV in its current design or if changes are needed. If structural changes are needed, these may further postpone the delivery of the ship. And if any changes are needed the re-designing of the ship will be performed by Sedef Shipyard, as Navantia which developed the original ship design, has finished its contractual obligations.

While operating a UCAV will be easier and probably safer than operating a manned system, nevertheless, it will be a novel concept and will be a unique experience with its own challenges. 

The Bayraktar TB-3 UCAV will enhance the air-to-ground mission capabilities. However, air defense and air-to-air operations missions will still need land-based manned fighters or ground-to-air weapons and good sensors on escorting ships.  

Another option to deploy planes on board the LHD Anadolu is to re-design the HürJet Advanced Jet Trainer and Light Attack Craft for carrier operations.  The HürJet is a single-engine, tandem seat aircraft under development by Turkish Aerospace (TUSAŞ). During the above-mentioned interview Prof. İsmail DEMİR mentioned that discussions between the SSB and TUSAŞ were held whether the HürJet can be used on the LHD Anadolu. He also shared that some design changes were carried out, some simulations were made, and it has been concluded that the design can be modified to make the HürJet operate from a ship such as the LHD Anadolu.  

LHD Anadolu (photo credit by Sedefshipyard)

Adapting the ship and the HürJet Jet Aircraft for each other will be more challenging than developing new armed drones for shipborne operations. An important factor to be considered is the shape of the flight deck of the Anadolu. 

The shape of the LHD Anadolu flight deck is rectangular with a large island structure on the starboard side and a 12- degree ski jump at the front. There is a large aircraft elevator at the very aft of the flight deck. In its current form the flight deck resembles the flight decks of old aircraft carriers from World War II.  Although it was not without its hazards, the arrangement was acceptable as long as the aircraft using it had a low landing speed and were light.  However, when aircraft became faster and heavier due to jet engines a rectangular flight deck arrangement was not safe or sufficient to sustain operations. Thus, in the early 1950’s the Royal Navy devised the angled flight deck. In this configuration the flight deck has an angle of 6-degrees. This allowed the landing aircraft to roll away from the planes on the catapult waiting for launching. Ever since, all modern aircraft carriers of all nations -with the exception of carriers specially designed for the Harrier S/VTOL aircraft- have an angled flight deck.

HMS Canberra- Ski Jump (photo credit by Australia MoD)

The LHD Anadolu does not have an angled flight deck. Thus, in its current form it is only suitable for aircraft that can launch using a ski jump and land vertically or land in a very short distance. If the HürJet aircraft are to be configured to be used on board the LHD Anadolu, these aircraft need to be redesigned radically. This will take cost time and money, and the end result may not be satisfactory as it is very risky engineering work. A more realistic approach would be while modifying the HürJet for naval operations, to design a new ship with suitable launch and recover facilities that are suitable for the navalized HürJet. From an engineering point of view, this scenario is far more likely to be successful. But then again, it will cost time and money and the aircraft will not be compatible with the LHD Anadolu. 

The infografic of Brazilian A140 drone carrier concept is taken from https://www.defesaaereanaval.com.br/

Of course, one can always suggest buying a second-hand ship as an alternative. However, I believe that this road is a dead end though Turkey has been looking at this option.  Even when the construction of the LHD Anadolu was progressing, in 2017, Turkey showed interest in the ex-Royal Navy helicopter carrier the HMS Ocean when it was decommissioned from service in the Royal Navy. The ship was not new and had an extensive service life in the Royal Navy but nevertheless someone thought the purchase of the HMS Ocean would have increased the strength of the amphibious capabilities of the Turkish Navy and as well as adding new capabilities.

Head of Bahçeşehir University, Maritime and Global Strategies Center, Retired admiral Cihat YAYCI, stated in March 2021 that the Turkish Navy should convert the decommissioned aircraft carrier ex Foch, ex São Paulo back into active service. The ship was bought by a Turkish scrapyard in March 2021 and will be towed from Brazil to Turkey. 

The ship started its life as a French aircraft carrier Foch in 1963 and served in the French Naval Forces until 2000. After years of arduous service under the French flag, it was sold to the Brazilian Naval Forces and was renamed the NAe São Paulo. This seasoned vessel served 20 years in Brazil. After a major fire killing 3 crew members, the ship was extensively overhauled between 2005 and 2010. São Paulo was expected to rejoin the fleet in late 2013 but, suffered another major fire in 2012. As of September 2016, the ship continued to undergo repairs, the commander of the Brazilian Navy, Admiral Eduardo Leal FERREIRA, said plans were in place to renew the carrier's propulsion system. The ship's catapult was also reported to have problems. 

Mr. YAYCI believes that the Turkish Navy should acquire the ship. After refurbishing it back into working condition, the ship can be used for training and system familiarization purposes.

The old carrier operates like US Navy carriers catapult to launch aircraft and arrester wires to slow landing aircraft. Neither Turkish Naval Aviation nor the Turkish Air Force operates aircraft that are suitable for operations from a carrier and Turkey’s prospects to obtain such aircraft from abroad seems to be almost nonexistent. The idea of refurbishing this old and worn-out ship back to active service is absurd, time consuming and very costly. Time and money are two luxuries Turkey cannot afford to misspend. 

Warships like any ship is a living system consisting of crew, equipment, systems, and subsystems on board. Learning of the working of an organism is best done when one observes a living one and through autopsies. Thus, posting Turkish naval officers as liaisons on board of the aircraft carriers of our NATO partners is a better way to learn about the multiple aspect of operations on board, rather than dissecting the cadavers of decommissioned aircraft carriers sent to ship breaking yards in Aliağa.