Turkey is reportedly in the final stages of talks with one of the Arab Gulf states over the sale of an amphibious assault ship capable of operating drones. This could make that state the third operator of such a ship in the wider Middle East.
If the deal is finalized, Turkey will be contracted to construct a landing helicopter dock similar to its new flagship, the TCG Anadolu (LHD-400), Haluk Gorgun, the president of Turkey’s Defense Industry Agency (SSB), announced in late July.
The reason this undisclosed Arab Gulf country chose Turkey to build such a ship is due to Ankara’s unique experience modifying the Anadolu to carry military drones and uncrewed fighter jets, Gorgun added.
Turkey has repeatedly boasted that its new flagship is the first drone carrier in the world.
Heavily based on Spain’s Juan Carlos I, the Anadolu was initially meant to carry helicopters and short take-off, vertical landing (STOVL) fighter jets like the F-35B. However, Turkey decided to retrofit the Anadolu as a drone carrier after it was banned from buying F-35s in 2019 for purchasing advanced Russian S-400 missiles.
Turkey has developed a specialized naval version of its well-known Bayraktar TB2 drone. The TB3 has folding wings and other modifications so it can smoothly operate from the Anadolu. Turkey hopes the uncrewed fighter jet it is developing, the Bayraktar Kizilelma, will also fly from the Anadolu in the near future.
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Ankara plans to export the TB3 and has already suggested the naval drone would suit Japan’s Izumo-class warships. A sizable order of TB3s for this new drone ship would undoubtedly give a boost to this new drone.
Amphibious assault ships are a recent addition to navies in the Middle East and North Africa. Egypt was the first to acquire this type when it bought two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships from France, which were initially built for Russia. Egypt took delivery of the vessels in 2016, naming them ENS Gamal Abdel Nasser (L1010) and ENS Anwar El Sadat (L1020) after two late former presidents.
These warships can carry 16 helicopters, four landing craft, and 13 tanks. They have significantly enhanced Egypt’s heavy lift capability and enabled Cairo to project significant force beyond its shores.
While the ships are French, their helicopters are not. In 2017, Egypt ordered 46 Ka-52 Alligator attack helicopters from Russia.
In December 2019, the Gamal Abdel Nasser participated in Egypt’s large-scale Friendship Bridge 2019 military exercise. During that exercise, Cairo’s newly-acquired Ka-52s and its American AH-64 Apache attack helicopters took off from the warship’s deck.
Egypt’s two Mistral-class vessels serve as more traditional amphibious assault ships than Turkey’s retrofitted Anadolu and the type of warship it will likely build for that undisclosed Arab Gulf state.
Nevertheless, the Anadolu will still serve in its original role as a helicopter carrier. Last November, Turkey landed American-made AH-1W SuperCobra attack and S-70 Seahawk utility helicopters on the Anadolu‘s deck for the first time. The former helicopter will serve as a stopgap solution for the flagship until Turkey’s locally-built T929 ATAK attack helicopters enter service.
According to one analyst’s estimation, it is most likely that either Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates are in talks to buy the future Turkish-built drone carrier. That makes sense. After all, Riyadh made a record order for Turkish Bayraktar Akinci drones, which includes a deal for technology transfers and local production, in July. Abu Dhabi ordered an estimated 120 Bayraktar TB2s last year, the largest single foreign order for that popular drone to date.
The UAE may prove the more likely of the two to seek the vessel. Its order for such a sizable number of TB2s could include TB3s down the road to outfit its new warship.
More generally, the UAE has long sought to expand its modest navy.
“Recognizing that its current fleet is inadequate to its potential missions, Abu Dhabi is trying to acquire four larger French Gowind-class frigates,” wrote Middle East analyst Kenneth Pollack in a 2020 paper on the Emirati armed forces. “Likewise, it does have some amphibs and intends to buy more to enhance its power projection capability, but that is about it.”
A single drone carrier the size of the Anadolu and Gowind frigates would markedly improve Abu Dhabi’s navy.
Qatar may also be the Arab Gulf state seeking an Anadolu-type warship. After all, Doha has been a close ally of Ankara throughout the last decade, when both were at odds with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi. It is also the only country in the Persian Gulf to host a Turkish military base.
And Turkey has already built naval vessels for Qatar, including two cadet training ships. In July 2022, the Qatari navy held a ceremony marking the delivery of a new landing ship and three landing crafts Turkey built for it.
Regardless of whichever state is negotiating this order, one thing is already abundantly clear: more and more Middle East countries are developing or buying larger warships to expand their logistical capabilities and naval firepower.