Turkey's powerhouse drone industry is on the verge of another milestone: a stealthy unmanned fighter jet for its new aircraft carrier

•Over the past decade, Turkish firms have become a major designers and manufacturers of drones.

•One firm, Baykar, is rapidly developing its newest and potentially most promising drone, the Kızılelma.

•Turkey's Navy plans to make Kızılelma the primary aircraft on its first aircraft carrier.

In less than a decade, Turkey has become a drone powerhouse. Unmanned aerial vehicles were its defense industry's single largest export last year, totaling $871.5 million — an 80% increase over 2021.

Much of that market is served by the firm Baykar, which produces the TB2 model widely known for its use in recent conflicts, including in Ukraine. Baykar has built more than 400 TB2s for 24 countries.

But the TB2 is just one of Baykar's models. On January 23, the company announced that the Kızılelma, its newest and potentially most promising product, had successfully conducted its second flight test.

The test is another step forward for what may become the company's crown jewel and the high point of Turkey's burgeoning drone industry.

The Kızılelma

The Kizilelma drone during its first flight test, in Istanbul on December 14.
Baykar/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A jet-powered unmanned combat aerial vehicle, the Kızılelma — "Red Apple" in Turkish — is marketed as a "fighter UAV" and is part of Baykar's Combatant Unmanned Aircraft System project.

The Kızılelma is 48 feet long and has a 32-foot wingspan. It has a range of 500 nautical miles, an operational altitude of 35,000 feet, and a top speed of about 460 mph. Baykar says it has a maximum takeoff weight of roughly 13,200 pounds and can carry a payload up to 3,300 pounds and fly for five hours.

Baykar also claims the Kızılelma will have features that make it stealthy. These include an angular design that gives it a low radar cross-section and an internal weapons bay. Other advanced features include an active electronically scanned array, an antenna enabling both line-of-sight and beyond line-of-sight control, and the ability to take off and land fully autonomously.

The two prototypes that Baykar has in development are powered by the subsonic AL-25TLT engine made by the Ukrainian firm Ivchenko-Progress, which continues to fill orders despite Russia's ongoing attack. Future Kızılelmas will have the more advanced AI-322F engine, allowing them to reach supersonic speeds. At least one planned future variant will feature a twin-engine design.

The Kizilelma during its first flight test on December 14. Baykar/Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The Kızılelma is expected to carry a range of weapons, including precision-guided munitions, air-to-air missiles, and cruise missiles produced by Turkish manufacturers, a reflection of Ankara's focus on developing its domestic defense industry.

Kızılelma has been in development in some form since 2013, but it has progressed quickly in recent years.

It was first unveiled to the public in July 2021 and first spotted on Baykar's production line in March 2022. Its first engine integration test was in September, followed by taxi and takeoff roll tests beginning on November 20. Its first jump test, in which the drone lifted off the ground for several seconds, came on December 3.

The Kızılelma's first flight was originally planned for 2023, but on December 14, Baykar announced the aircraft's successful maiden flight, during which it took off and flew for 18 minutes before landing safely.

On January 23, Baykar announced that the Kızılelma had completed its second test flight. Turkish media has reported that Baykar expects to conduct tests for a full year before beginning mass production.

Grand ambitions

TCG Anadolu, Turkey's largest warship, in Istanbul in September. Isa Terli/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Turkey's Air Force will not be the only one buying the Kızılelma.

Turkey's Navy plans on making it the primary aircraft on its first aircraft carrier, TCG Anadolu, which could soon be the first carrier with an air wing mostly composed of drones.

Baykar claims the Kızılelma will be able to take off and land on short-runway aircraft carriers like TCG Anadolu. The ship is built with a ski-jump ramp at its bow and is being modified to include a hook arresting system to ensure the Kızılelma can land safely.

TCG Anadolu-based Kızılelmas will operate alongside the naval variant of the TB2, which is currently in development.

TCG Anadolu in Istanbul in September. Isa Terli/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The naval variant, known as the TB3, will have longer wings that can be folded for ship-board storage, a higher takeoff weight than its predecessor, and a total payload nearly double that of the TB2.

Turkish media has claimed that, in addition to air-to-air combat, the Kızılelma will be able to conduct offensive operations, provide close air support, and attack enemy air defenses. The TB3 will likely be used in a limited strike role and for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance operations.

Despite rapid progress, the Kızılelma still faces hurdles. It may still need upgrades in order to conduct carrier operations, and TCG Anadolu still needs modifications in order to operate the drone safely, which could take years to complete.

Nonetheless, Turkey remains ambitious, and it plans to introduce the Kızılelma into service by 2025.

Source: Business Insider