Thursday, 21 October 2021

How Turkey Is Laying The Ground For The Future Of Unmanned Aerial Warfare

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
''Listen son – you're all great and well-educated kids, but accept the fact that foreign producers are at a level unreachable.'' (Address to Selçuk and Haluk Bayraktar by a bureaucrat at the Presidency of Defense Industries, mid-2000s) [1]

Whenever the future of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) is discussed, the ability to engage and shoot down other aircraft is frequently mentioned as a development that could one day make conventional fighter aircraft obsolete. Nonetheless, actual progress towards achieving such a future has been painstakingly slow. In popular discourse, capabilities of combat UAVs are frequently thought to be way ahead of their real-world abilities, with even a global armament powerhouse such as Russia still struggling to produce its own fleet of unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), let alone turning these systems into agile unmanned dogfighters in the near future.
The United States and China have both experimented with arming their UCAVs with short-range air-to-air missiles (AAMs), the U.S. even going as far as successfully using these to shoot down another drone during an exercise in 2017. [2] However, the MQ-9 Reaper that was used as the launch platform during that exercise is comparatively slow and lacks the maneuverability of the agile combat fighter everyone perhaps pictures in their minds. Projects that seek to produce such a fighter type are still firmly plastered to the drawing board, with most designs unlikely to ever be put into production. 
Still, it is undeniable that unmanned combat aircraft will one day take over the skies from their manned brethrens. Apart from the world's superpowers that are expected to be at the forefront of this development, there is one other nation that currently is making great strides towards fielding such technology in the near future: Turkey. Its MİUS unmanned fighter project is slated to make its first test flight by 2023. This supersonic combat drone is designed to carry out precision bombings, dogfights and suppression of enemy air defences. Set to provide the Turkish Armed Forces with novel capabilities, its development represents a fierce rebuttal to the quotee from the introductory text of this article.
In addition to developing unmanned fighter aircraft like the Akıncı and MİUS, Turkey is also taking care to secure a skilled workforce that could one day be responsible for designing the successor to the MİUS, or work in any other field that features advanced technologies. Turkey attempts to achieve this goal by generating public interest among children and young adults into anything in the technology sphere on a scale that is unseen anywhere else in the world. One of the ways it seeks to accomplish this is through yearly-held technology festivals such as Teknofest. 
Although you'd be forgiven to mistake Teknofest for purely an airshow or an event with an exclusively military character, it in fact is a technology festival that features more than 30 technology competitions that include anything from using artificial intelligence in agricultural projects to designing electric cars. Amongst a great many such enthusiastically attended contests one sticks out in particular: a combat UAV competition for fixed-wing and rotary UAVs. The combat UAV competition sees different types of UAVs battling it out for control of the sky in air combat scenarios, performing dogfights all the while attempting to prevent being targeted by 'enemy' UAVs.

An unmanned dogfight takes place in the skies over Istanbul during Teknofest.

Naturally, the combat UAV competition does not feature any live armament fired from UAVs at other UAVs. Instead, each UAV attempts to achieve a lock-on on its competitor using a camera system installed on their fuselage. The camera used to achieve the lock-on is fixed in a forward-looking position and angle on the UAV. The actual shooting down is thus performed virtually rather than physically. The winner of the competition is the one who manages to lock on to the opponent UAVs the most whilst avoiding being locked on to in return as much as possible. 
Though the rules are simple, and the game is only a rudimentary simulation of actual aerial combat, competitions like these are precisely what's required to ignite the flame of enthusiasm amongst the nation's talented youth. In the meantime, it provides contestants with the first building blocks of knowledge that will be necessary to one day enter relevant high tech fields that enable the production of advanced UAVs. [3] Participants in these contests include high school students and university students.
Had the Bayraktar brothers and their father Özdemir listened to the advice given by the bureaucrat at the Presidency of Defense Industries, there would be no MİUS project in the works, or a Bayraktar Akıncı in the air. Initiating development at a time when the slow poison of defeatism had firmly nestled itself in Turkey's defence infustry, their struggles have paved the way for new generations to one day take over their work. The fact that new generations are now given a chance to advance their skills and interests through prize money, sponsorships and chances to enroll in universities is likely to pay off immensely in the future.

The cliché that a nation's wealth is in its children is a cliché because it's true. Though some visitors to Teknofest will surely long remember the event for its military aviation displays and stunning airshows, the truly important advances could be found firmly rooted to the ground, in the minds of those it inspired.

Baykar Savunma has proved that a country doesn't need to be a superpower with an unlimited R&D budget to accomplish impressive feats in the design of advanced technology. The passing of Özdemir Bayraktar may sadden those he inspired, yet it is certain that this work will not stop and that his legacy and stories will continue to live on in the minds of new generations, providing an impetus that will one day bear the fruit of the first true unmanned Turkish fighter aircraft.

''Our work will continue incessantly with every fiber of our being until our country reaches the goal of being a fully independent leader of UAV technology.'' (By Özdemir Bayraktar 1949 - ∞)

[2] Heat-Seeking Missile-Armed MQ-9 Reaper Shot Down Target Drone During Exercise
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