As drones are becoming an increasingly important element of modern warfare, militaries across the world are experimenting with new ways to integrate unmanned systems into their arsenals.
One way of projecting unmanned airpower is to deploy drones at sea on dedicated carrier vessels.
The appeal of this, especially to middle powers with less economic heft, is that drone carriers could offer many of the same advantages that conventional aircraft carriers do at a far lower cost.
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The drawback is that unmanned aircraft generally do not possess the same capabilities as manned aircraft to operate in highly contested environments or establish air superiority.
Development and Acquisition
A number of states are currently developing their own drone carriers. Following Turkey’s ejection from the F-35 program, Ankara set out to repurpose the TCG Anodolu to carry drones instead of manned aircraft.
In place of the F-35B, the Anodulu will carry Baykar Bayraktar TB3 drones which will be capable of conducting intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance missions as well as assault operations with smart munitions.
The Anodolu was commissioned in April 2023, although development of the TB3 is still in progress. The TB3 is essentially the maritime equivalent of the TB2, which has seen combat in Nagorno-Karabakh, Ukraine, Iraq, Libya, and Syria.
Iran is likewise seeking to augment its fleet with drone carriers by converting two merchant container ships. The first of the two vessels, the Shahid Mahdavi was reportedly received by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN) earlier this year, with the second vessel, the Shahid Badheri, still in development.
The vessels will likely carry Iranian-designed Shahed-136 explosive-tipped kamikaze drones, which like the Turkish TB2 drones, have seen usage in Ukraine, Syria, and Iraq.
Although militaries who already have conventional aircraft carriers possess capabilities far in excess of what cheaper drone carriers can currently offer, unmanned systems are set to play a greater role in carrier strike groups.
For example, in 2021, Rear Admiral Gregory Harris (Ret.) said that the US Navy was looking to transition to a 40-60 unmanned-manned split, eventually aiming to achieve a 60-40 unmanned-manned split. Manned aircraft would still be the most important assets onboard a vessel, but drones would increasingly act as force multipliers and complete non-offensive tasks such as surveillance and aerial refuelling.
Similarly, the Royal Navy has been experimenting with the implementation of drones on one of its carriers, HMS Prince of Wales.
Advantages and Limitations
The main advantage of deploying drones on seaborne vessels is the same as conventional aircraft carriers – power projection over longer distances. The acquisition of drone carriers will enable states to conduct unmanned aerial operations at greater distances outside of their own territory, increasing the array of available tactical, operational, and strategic options.
There are several tactical and operational benefits to be gained through the operation of drone carriers or the introduction of drones to conventional aircraft carriers. One key advantage of unmanned systems is that the lives of pilots are not risked during operations. Unmanned aircraft are also far cheaper to produce and run than their manned equivalents.
This means that drones are more expendable than manned aircraft, making them suitable for tasks that might otherwise be deemed too dangerous. This gives commanders at sea greater flexibility to conduct a wider variety of missions without risking the lives of personnel or costly military hardware.
Depending on their configuration, drones launched from carriers will be capable of conducting intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions, as well as light attack operations against small surface vessels at sea or various targets on land.
At the strategic level, middle-income states stand to benefit the most from the acquisition of drone carriers. For states unable to afford traditional aircraft carriers, drone carriers offer a cheaper and viable alternative that will allow them to project airpower at greater distances without the necessity of land basing. Actors like Turkey or Iran could conceivably extend the use of unmanned aerial capabilities over low-intensity conflict zones with littoral access. This could provide new options to assist allies militarily and undermine opponents with little or no viable air defences.
However, until unmanned aircraft are capable of establishing air superiority, drone carriers will not constitute a revolutionary moment in military affairs. As the conflict in Ukraine has demonstrated, the operational freedom of drones is severely curtailed in environments where adversaries possess capable air defence systems and electronic warfare capabilities.
Drones simply do not yet have the offensive and defensive capabilities of advanced manned aircraft like the F-35. For this reason, aircraft carriers will continue to reign supreme in terms of long-range power projection in at least the short to medium-term future.