Turkey has been building up an impressive range of combat drones over the past few years. The Turkish Bayraktar TB2 aerial drone is the most famous of these drones, as it has received a lot of media attention for achieving battlefield successes in the Ukraine conflict. Ukrainian forces have been able to use the TB2 to find and destroy Russian tanks and military hardware with guided bombs and missiles slung under its light frame. The TB2 has also been used very effectively by Azerbaijan against Armenian forces during the recent 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh War.
The TB2 is impressive because it is relatively effective and at $5 million it is a lot less expensive than other single-engine propeller-powered combat drones like the U.S.’ MQ-9 Reaper and Russia’s Orion. Turkey is currently in the final stages of developing a slightly larger version of the TB2. The in-development TB3 will be able to carry more weapons and will have folding wings and a strengthened undercarriage for landing on aircraft carriers in rough seas.
Turkey is planning to make the TB3 its temporary main strike aircraft for a future fleet of drone carriers. The first carrier in this planned fleet is a converted amphibious assault ship called the TCG Anadolu, a light carrier with a flat deck that was originally designed to deploy landing craft, helicopters and a small number of “short take-off and vertical landing” (STOVL) fighter jets like the Harrier and F-35B. The ship was originally intended to deploy Turkey’s F-35B fighter jets, but the U.S. removed Turkey from the F-35 program when Ankara bought Russian S-400 air-defense systems. The U.S. said it had concerns about putting a Russian radar and its new stealth fighter in the same airspace.
The result is that Turkey now has to improvise to come up with an alternative airplane to take the place of the F-35B on the TCG Anadolu and its other planned light carriers. The TB3 drone is supposed to be that stopgap until Turkey can develop a jet capable of taking off from a short carrier with no steam catapult (Turkey is developing a winch-type of catapult system) and landing on a bucking ship with almost no roll-out room (Turkey is planning to use an arrestor net to stop its TB3 drones on landing).
The big problem with Turkey’s TB2 and TB3, and the U.S.’ Reaper, is that they are great at engaging insurgents in the mountains of Afghanistan, but not so great against great powers like China, that are fielding more and more sophisticated jets and anti-aircraft systems that can sense them and shoot them down. These propeller-driven planes are also slow, so they would struggle to cover the huge distances required when patrolling against anti-ship missiles and jets, in order to safeguard their home carriers.
Meanwhile, the U.S. has been doing its own research into carrier-based drone airplanes. In December 2018 the U.S.’ Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments published its findings after researching “trends in U.S. strategy, capabilities, and threats between now and 2040 to describe the operational concepts the carrier aircraft will likely need to use in the future, and the implications for how carrier air wings should evolve during the next 20 years.” The center found that the F/A-18 variants that make up the bulk of current U.S. carrier air wings do not have the range and survivability (read “stealth”) that would be required against great powers in the next few decades.
The center calculated that emerging anti-ship threats require carrier combat air patrol aircraft to go much further out than ever before — with future air patrols expected to patrol 800 to 1,000 nautical miles (1,852 kilometers) from the base carrier. If such patrols were to be attempted by F/A-18 crews, the amount of time to reach the patrol area alone would put massive pressure on the wakefulness of the crew and fuel load of the airplane. For these reasons it is imperative that future carrier air wings have a large number of unmanned and stealthy combat aircraft that can loiter much longer while remaining hidden from enemy detection systems.
Currently, the only unmanned drone that the U.S. Navy is integrating into its carrier operations is the relatively stealthy MQ-25 refueling drone. The center believes a similar carrier-capable jet drone should be developed into combat variants that can carry the brunt of combat air patrol, anti-submarine warfare and strike missions. The MQ-25 refueling drones would then be able to work with the combat drones to enact longer patrols stretching over multiple days.
The U.S. is currently working on a range of relatively stealthy combat and “loyal wingman” jet drones, but the most capable of these was the Northrop Grumman X-47B carrier-based combat drone. The X-47B looked very similar to the much bigger B-2 Spirit stealth bomber and the brand new B-21 Raider stealth bomber — both of which are also Northrop Grumman products. While the new B-21 is a large bomber that will be able to fly with or without pilots, the X-47B was a test bed for future unmanned fighters and reportedly came equipped with two weapons bays that could carry around 2 tons of weaponry while flying almost 4,000 kilometers at a speed of between Mach 1 and Mach 1,5.
During their short lifetime, the two working models of the X-47B proved that they can take off and land on carriers on the open ocean, while also showing they can be refueled by conventional air tankers. Analysts were puzzled when the Pentagon stopped developing the platform in 2015, and have now ordered them to be retired to museums.
It is unclear if the X-47B will ever be developed into a mature carrier-based stealth strike drone in the future. At the moment it seems the program is either canceled or so top secret that no one knows about it. In the meantime, the larger but less stealthy MQ-25 refueling drone is maturing into a dependable carrier-based tanker that can refuel up to four planes per flight.
It seems that carrier-based drone development is currently limited to the MQ-25, even though the U.S. Navy’s aviation boss told journalists in March 2021 that U.S. carriers will deploy large numbers of drones in the near future. Rear Admiral Gregory Harris told reporters at that event that the new F/A-XX program is aimed at creating a long-range stealth replacement for the F/A-18 that “may or may not be manned,” he also said it will “most likely be manned.”
So, at the moment it looks like the X-47B has been mothballed in favor of a more traditional stealth jet, as embodied in the still embryonic F/A-XX program.
In other words, it looks like Turkey’s dreams of fielding “drone carriers” will for the foreseeable future be limited to light carriers deploying slow-flying propeller-driven drones against unsophisticated opponents. In the same timeframe, it seems that U.S. efforts to develop “drone carriers” would be temporarily limited to traditional supercarriers fielding conventional F/A-18s next to an increasing number of MQ-25 refueling drones.
The plan is to systematically replace all F/A-18s on U.S. nuclear-fueled supercarriers with yet-to-be-revealed replacements that would be more stealthy and have longer ranges, but would still “most likely be manned.” So, it looks like the X-47B might have been a few generations before its time.
But who knows, we might in a few years see something that looks like a mature form of the X-47B after all — a dependable carrier-based stealth fighter that can engage enemy missiles and airplanes far away from its home carrier. Such an unmanned stealth attack drone would solve many problems. It would have the ability to hide from enemy radars while detecting and attacking aerial, surface and submarine threats. It would also be able to fly beyond its combat air patrol station, penetrate enemy air space, and strike targets deep inside enemy territory before returning to its carrier. All this without putting any U.S. pilots at risk, while at the same time being able to fly much farther and stay in the air much longer than a manned fighter.