How Turkey's Bayraktar Kizilelma could revolutionise aerial warfare

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5 min read
09 May, 2022
Analysis: Turkey's Bayraktar TB2s cemented the country as a global power in the drone industry. Now, the newly announced unmanned combat aircraft Kizilelma could reshape aerial warfare.

Over fifteen years ago, one of the three masterminds behind Turkey's drone success, engineer and businessman Selcuk Bayraktar, showed a tiny, homemade indigenous drone to a group of Turkish state officials during a presentation as a PhD student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). 

Bayraktar understood the immense potential of these unmanned flying objects and foresaw that such technology could make his country among the most prolific users of drones. Trusting his gut, he asked the Turkish government for help in further improving his family's invention. 

"Boeing, Lockheed, these are big companies, right?" he asked Turkish officials during his presentation in 2005.

"We are making those same systems. So if Turkey supports this project, these drones, in five years Turkey can be at the forefront of the world, easily," Bayraktar added.  

"Kizilelma is a jet-powered, single-engine, low-observable, supersonic, carrier-capable unmanned fighter aircraft currently in development by Turkish defence company Baykar, owned by Bayraktar's family"

In order to prioritise his drone production dreams, Bayraktar left his PhD at MIT and returned to Turkey. Immediately afterwards, he launched one of his signature products, the Bayraktar TB2 drone, convincing the Turkish defence ministry that there was no longer a need to import US-made drones as the TB2s were qualified enough for Ankara’s national interests. 

In the years since, from Syria, Libya, and Nagorno-Karabakh to Ukraine, Turkish Bayraktar drones have become a game-changer on various fronts. Nineteen countries, including Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Qatar, Morocco, and Pakistan, as well as NATO member Poland, own Bayraktar TB2 drones. 

Echoing his now-iconic presentation in 2005, Bayraktar made a similar speech just a few weeks ago in which he announced another groundbreaking project: Turkey's unmanned combat aircraft, Kizilelma. 

Kizilelma is a jet-powered, single-engine, low-observable, supersonic, carrier-capable unmanned fighter aircraft currently in development by Turkish defence company Baykar, owned by Bayraktar's family. 

Baykar's new unmanned combat aerial system Kizilelma alongside a T2B drone in Istanbul, Turkey on March 28, 2022. [Getty]
Baykar's new unmanned combat aerial system Kizilelma alongside a TB2 drone in Istanbul, Turkey on 28 March 2022. [Getty]

 "With the development of these new combat aircraft, there will be a revolution in warfare," Bayraktar said of his newest project. "Bayraktar Kizilelma will be the first unmanned combat aircraft of our country. Since the development of our first drone, it has been a dream of ours," he added.

So, what kind of revolution is he referring to? 

"Bayraktar Kizilelma compared to its equivalents comes into prominence with its high artificial intelligence capacity and air-to-air combat feature," said defence industry expert Yusuf Akbaba speaking to The New Arab.

According to Akbaba, the debut of Bayraktar Kizilelma will mean that "the costs can be reduced" and therefore "this can expand the air force inventory of many countries".  

"The countries that are not capable of acquiring fighter jets from the west because of financial matters will prefer products like Kizilelma, which can conduct air-to-air combat. If you own an unmanned and low-cost fighter jet, it will make other countries reconsider entering into conflict as the loss of such combat aircraft can not impact you like the manned ones,” he continued, explaining the competitive advantage that Kizilelma provides.

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Akbaba, commenting on Bayraktar's claim of the potential to revolutionise warfare, admits that, "although many at first believed that it was an exaggerated claim, recently everybody is talking about it". 

"During Russia's war on Ukraine, it has been seen on the ground that with the use of Bayraktar TB2 drones, electronic combat, and anti-ship missiles, the Russian navy cruiser Moskva was sunk," Akbaba added. 

"When you consider the fact that the Bayraktar TB2 platform was used in this operation, the unprecedented impact of unmanned drone warfare on modern combat can be clearly seen and predicted. Turkey is ranked among the top three when it comes to the drone industry and, with the help of such new developments, it will strengthen its position globally.” 

Giving another example, Akbaba points to a military operation conducted by Turkey in Syria in 2020 using a drone fleet to attack the Assad regime's forces that attracted the entire world's attention, particularly that of the US and the UK. 

"After considering the achievements of Bayraktar TB2s, Bayraktar Kizilelma will definitely change the whole war doctrine"

"Since then, the most important military powers of the world like the US and the UK have added a new training to their military curriculum about what to do about drone fleet operations," he explained.

"Turkey was not able to keep up with the tank and aircraft industry in the past, however, thanks to the lessons it has learned, it has become among the best in manufacturing combat drones,” Muhammed Unalmis, a Turkish journalist with a specific interest in the defence industry, told The New Arab.

"Now, no matter if the war is regular or irregular, Turkey can deal with any kind of war as it has proven in Libya, Syria, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Ukraine," he added.

Unalmis, while referring to Russia's war on Ukraine, argues that Bayraktar TB2 drones have already proven their capability against regular armies as they were able to infiltrate Moscow's air defence systems and strengthen Ukraine's hand on the ground.  

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"After considering the achievements of Bayraktar TB2s, Bayraktar Kizilelma will definitely change the whole war doctrine," Unalmis predicted. 

"Firstly, it will help Turkey reduce its dependence on fighter jet imports and come into prominence with its financial aspect. Secondly, it will open a gate in the skies to un-crewed, zero human loss warfare. Moreover, it will put an end to tank warfare which has been taking place since 1916,” he added.

The first prototype of the Bayraktar Kizilelma is currently in the integration stage. Once launched, it will have six tons of take-off weight and a functional load-carrying capacity of 1,500 kilograms. As per the plans, it will have a capacity to be airborne for five hours with a 500-nautical mile mission radius.

Akbaba concurs with Unalmis’ prediction that the Kizilelma will be a game-changer in the world of aerial combat. 

"When you own something crewless and much cheaper compared to other models and if the chance of visibility on radars is much lower, the ones who want to take hostile actions against you are obliged to reconsider their enmity. That is why Kizilelma will have such importance when it's launched.”

Ufuk Necat Tasci is a political analyst, journalist, and PhD Candidate in International Relations at Istanbul Medeniyet University. His research focuses on Libya, proxy wars, surrogate warfare, and new forms of conflict.

Follow him on Twitter: @UfukNecat