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.

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Alexander E. Gale is an analyst specialising in security and international relations. In 2020, he co-founded SDAFA, an online strategy and defense journal. A graduate of the University of Exeter, he holds a Master of Arts in Applied Security and strategy.
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Jon
Jon (@guest_761604)
7 months ago

I think the characterisation of the Turkish program for the Anadolu, that they plan to use TB3s instead of F-35s, is misleading. Of the three fixed-wing aircraft Turkey has announced as expected to fly from Anadolu: TB3, Kizilelma and the manned Hurjet, TB3 has the least capacity to take the role of the F-35. The latter two will be supersonic jet fighters in the 6 ton class, while the TB3s are slow, relatively lightweight at around 1.5 tons, and carry a reported payload of less than 300kg. Even referring to Anadolu as a drone carrier in this context doesn’t paint… Read more »

George
George (@guest_761676)
7 months ago
Reply to  Jon

It’s a fascinating subject. I can’t wait to see what is developed next. The little countries are pushing ahead with all manner of small drones. The Turks look as if they are catching up with the Israelis.

James
James (@guest_761723)
7 months ago
Reply to  George

I think they have surpassed Israel in drone tech and development! Turkey has sold more drones than China recently surpassing which is extraordinary. The variety they are offering like the TB2 TB3 and Akinci are a class of their own . They are making things like Kizilelma and Anka 3 which Israel fields not. They cleverly are creating things that are not on the menu of others that fill an important gap.

George
George (@guest_761798)
7 months ago
Reply to  James

I think the Israeli drone development is akin to their armoured vehicle programmes. Tailored to their own unique requirements. It is also very unlikely that we know exactly what they have developed. The tunnel exploring drones, for example. I can’t imagine other militaries needing such things.

James
James (@guest_761721)
7 months ago
Reply to  Jon

The TB3 the Turks plan to use for low intensity war through swarm and surveillance . The Kizilelma stealth drone by Baykar is the one to watch out for that will be supersonic with ASEA radar and with air to air missiles! They are more suited to the HMS Queen Elizabeth than any other carrier I can think of and could save cost and fill a gap. Turkey has used the development of its 5th generation TFX fighter jet program now renamed as Kaan to advance it’s drone tech. The Kizilelma is designed to be a multirole fighter jet type… Read more »

Jon
Jon (@guest_761744)
7 months ago
Reply to  James

Britain and Turkey should be natural partners on a loyal wingman drone. They are strong where we are weak: mass production, will, continuity of development and a sense of urgency. Now you tell me they will be strong on finance too. We are strong where they are weak: engines, cooling, sensors and fusion. Although Britain already has air-to-air missiles, Turkey has a strong development program for that. Similarly both countries are working on autonomy software. I think we could come to terms on exports; however Turkey may insist that it’s built in Turkey and maybe even that it owns all… Read more »

George
George (@guest_761804)
7 months ago
Reply to  Jon

Given Turkeys islamic nature, I don’t think “natural partners” is the correct term given our Judaeo-Christian nature. They may be NATO members but can they be trusted. The old saying: “Never trust a Turk.” Was coined for good reasons. My grandfather would turn in his grave at the very thought! Buying a few Kizilema for use and “testing” on our carriers would be an option. Subsequently pulling them apart could prove an interesting exercise. I’m sure the knowledge gained if any, could be added to our own UCAV programmes. The unmanned Aeralis modular trainer team, for example. Something I hope… Read more »

Jon
Jon (@guest_761894)
7 months ago
Reply to  George

Or “Perfidious Albion” as the Italians used to repeat in your grandad’s time. Just as well no Italian’s grandad was deciding if they wanted to partner up with us on GCAP.

I don’t think naval Typhoon got anywhere. BAe proposed and the government ruled it out more than a decade back. Did anything happen since?

George
George (@guest_761897)
7 months ago
Reply to  Jon

They were just repeating what the jealous French used to say. Not exactly note worthy. Those were the good old days when leaders of Great Britain placed the needs of the country and Empire first. As it should be.

Typhoon if it ever flies, could easily end up as another Tornado. If too many divergent requirements are demanded of it. Let’s hope not.

George
George (@guest_762185)
7 months ago
Reply to  George

Exactly, they were jealous european nations. Incidentally, they still hold a grudge against us for it. Strangely in my experience, the frogs more than the box heads.

Thank the gods we left the EU behind us.

George
George (@guest_762192)
7 months ago
Reply to  George

Agreed. Perfidious is the perfect term for the EU. Treacherous, secretive, manipulative, quango etc etc.
“Don’t worry, you can trust us.” They said. “It’s only a common market and no threat to your sovereignty. We do not want a single european superstate.”

People like myself call Ukraine and Russia oligarchies and the most corrupt nations in europe. It must be a close run thing when everything is taken into consideration. What say you?

James
James (@guest_762286)
7 months ago
Reply to  George

You are bringing religion to some industry business trade which is insane! The UK itself is no longer majority Christian in the last census, so I’m not sure where this crusades mentality comes from 😄 It’s nothing personal just business and shared interest.

George
George (@guest_762295)
7 months ago
Reply to  James

James, with all due respect my friend. I’m not bringing religion into it. That happened a long time ago and it’s influence is now deeply ingrained in every aspect of our British culture and very nature. Our monarch is supreme head/governor of our church and defender of the protestant faith. We have bishops in the H of L. Parish councils influence our daily lives at a local level. The majority of us still have Saturday and Sundays off etc. It is our Judeo-Christian heritage and it’s continuing influence on society, reflected in our traditions, our very nature and every aspect… Read more »

James
James (@guest_762285)
7 months ago
Reply to  Jon

Yes both are on the edges of Europe. Turkey may have good relationship with Russia but it wants not the black sea to be become a Russian lake! Meanwhile it has expanded into Caucuses right at Russia backyard which the US even has not managed to, which in any conflict could be another NATO front . The Turks are working on their own fighter jet engine.. it would take them time but the UK could help them speed up that process. Just like we saw with the recent drone done in partnership with the UK both countries can reach far… Read more »

George
George (@guest_761805)
7 months ago

I didn’t realise that the Turkish navy was so heavily geared up for amphibious warfare. Now the old USSR has gone, POOF! Who are they thinking of invading, Israel?

DanielMorgan
DanielMorgan (@guest_761977)
7 months ago
Reply to  George

Greece.

George
George (@guest_762186)
7 months ago
Reply to  DanielMorgan

Yes, of course. Silly me.

George
George (@guest_762189)
7 months ago
Reply to  DanielMorgan

The Turks have invaded Greece with immigrants and never fired a shot in anger. Mostly military aged muslim men.

Peter S
Peter S (@guest_761858)
7 months ago

Unless you have ambition to be a true blue water navy, I don’t see why a country would need to spend large sums on building drone carriers. It would be far cheaper to concentrate on developing long range UCAVs that can operate from land. All the drone carrier does is extend range, something that can be achieved by the design of the UCAV itself.
Deploying rotary UAVs at sea, especially in the ASW role, makes more sense because the UAV will depend on ship borne sensors.

George
George (@guest_762191)
7 months ago
Reply to  Peter S

Well, the Turkish navy seems to be heavy on amphibious assault vessels. Perhaps they intend to have the various UCAV/UAVs directly slaved to the amphibs, to shorten command and control lines. It makes me wonder if there is the same disconnect or bitter rivalry between the Turkish Navy, Army and Air Force As there is with their fellow muslim arab and persian neighbours.

James
James (@guest_762284)
7 months ago
Reply to  George

The Turkish Air Force fields enough drones and soon will get Anka 3 a Taranis like stealth bomber and Kizilelma a supersonic stealth drone fighter and bomber drone with different variants . They also have Akinci in service. Now they are focusing on the naval aspects with TB3 and have other naval Anka drones that hunt subs and have anti ship missiles. Turkey went from importing 80 percent of its defence needs to producing 80 percent of it with a 100 percent goal to be fully self reliant under Erdogan leadership which is impressive as the time span has been… Read more »

George
George (@guest_762298)
7 months ago
Reply to  James

Those Turks sure are bolstering their military with new technology. I’ve spent a while catching up on their recent acquisitions and advances. Always being suspicious of muslim Turkey, I’m not sure of Erdogan’s intentions. Who do they intend to invade or with whom do they intend to use amphibious vessels to dispute ocean bed resources?

They border the Black Sea and the Med.so the choices are varied. They should have been booted off Cyprus a long time ago. In my opinion.

DJ
DJ (@guest_762942)
7 months ago
Reply to  George

North Africa comes to mind. If Turkey wishes to have greater influence in the area, perhaps including military support to their chosen “governments”, then they need a way to get there to offer such support. That includes HADR support as well of course. Turkey has an awful lot of armour but next to no oil. North Africa has next to no armour, but plenty of oil.

George
George (@guest_762959)
7 months ago
Reply to  DJ

I can’t argue with that. Wars and conquests for resources are not new. However, as the population rises and natural resources run out. They will inevitably become more prevalent.

Last edited 7 months ago by George