Tuesday, 8 November 2022

The Carrier Candidate: Bayraktar TB3s For Indonesia?

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
Indonesia's stated desire to procure Bayraktar unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) from Türkiye could one day also see an interest in the Bayraktar TB3, which was designed as a heavier version of the TB2 that can operate from aircraft carriers and landing helicopter docks (LHDs). [1] The Indonesian Navy has already experimented with deploying the indigenous LSU-02 UAV from the helicopter deck of one of its Diponegoro-class corvettes. Although the LSU-02 could only take-off from the vessel and in no way represents an operational capability, the test appears to indicate that Indonesia is interested in operating shipborne fixed-wing UAVs in addition to VTOL examples.

The Indonesian Navy currently operates a fleet of six landing platform docks (LPDs), two of which are outfitted as hospital ships. Three of the LPDs were constructed by state-owned shipbuilder PT PAL Indonesia, which acquired the license to construct the Makassar-class from Dae Sun Shipyard in South Korea. In June 2014 PT PAL signed a $92 million contract for the delivery of two LPDs to the Philippine Navy. [3] Although delivered without many of the systems considered standard on contemporary ships in Western navies, the low unit price of roughly $45m means that these ships are now actually financially attainable for countries like Indonesia and the Philippines.
It is currently believed that the Indonesian Navy intends to procure several landing platform helicopter vessels (LPHs) in the coming decade. In 2018 PT PAL unveiled a 244-metres long LPH design that will likely form the basis of the design that will be offered to the Indonesian Navy. [4] Similar to the Turkish 232-metres long TCG Anadolu LHD, the LPH design features a large aft elevator that can move helicopters and large U(C)AVs to the flight deck or hangar. Designed to be deployed from LHDs and LPHs from the onset, the Bayraktar TB3 could operate from Indonesia's LPHs without any design modifications required. Due to their small size and foldable wings, numerous TB3s could be deployed on the ships along with ASW helicopters and other drones to provide Indonesia with its first (unmanned) aircraft carrier.

A rendering of Indonesia's 244-metres long LPH design.

The TB3 can stay in the air for up to 24 hours while boasting a 280kg payload capacity. [5] This could either consist of up to six MAM munitions, including the MAM-T with a 30+km range, SUNGUR air-to-air missiles to target enemy drones and helicopters, a maritime surveillance radar or a combination of these. This enables the TB3 to engage enemy naval vessels, support amphibious landings and carry out maritime surveillance. The expected low unit price of Indonesia's LPHs (similar to its LPDs) in combination with the acquisition of TB3s could open up up entirely new possibilities for the Indonesian Navy. In that sense, the mere takeoff of a UAV from a helicopter deck represents a far cry from a true UCAV deployment capability from a dedicated LPH, which offers vastly increased force projection abilities.

A LSU-02 UAV takes off from the helicopter deck of the Diponegoro-class corvette.

Previous attempts to introduce an aircraft carrier capability in the region by Thailand through the HTMS Chakri Naruebet resulted in a 183m long white elephant after the vessel's AV-8S Harriers were retired with no replacement due to a lack of funding. Currently operating in the role as helicopter and drone carrier without the Thai Navy actually having (enough) suitable helicopters and drones to operate from the ship, the HTMS Chakri Naruebet is an example over ambition getting the best of reality, with the platform being acquired without the assets that require it being available.

In this light, the possible acquisition of cheap dual-use LPHs along with cheap Bayraktar TB3s presents both a more cost-effective and less risky way of introducing a fixed-wing sea-based reconnaissance and armed capability. If proven successful, a future expansion of capabilities through the introduction of the jet-powered Bayraktar Kızılelma UCAV could ensure Indonesia stays at the forefront of modern maritime abilities in exchange for the lowest possible investment.

[1] Indo Defence 2022: Baykar in talks with Indonesian government on Bayraktar TB2, Akinci UAVs https://www.janes.com/defence-news/news-detail/indo-defence-2022-baykar-in-talks-with-indonesian-government-on-bayraktar-tb2-akinci-uavs
[3] Philippine Navy Commissions New Ships in 118th Anniversary Celebration https://thediplomat.com/2016/06/philippine-navy-commissions-new-ships-in-118th-anniversary-celebration/