Monday, 9 January 2023

A Gap In The Aegean: The KARA ATMACA GLCM

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
A number of military projects currently pursued by Türkiye have the potential to alter the military balance in the Aegean Sea from the late 2020s onwards, to the point where Greece is unlikely to ever subside the difference in quality and quantity. This includes the Bayraktar Akıncı and Kızılelma unmanned combat aircraft, the TF-2000 destroyers, a fleet of indigenous armed unmanned surface vessels, six Type-214TN Reis-class submarines with air-independent propulsion and the prospective introduction of small attack submarines. All of these weapons systems are to strengthen Türkiye's fleet of some 170 armed drones already conducting regular patrols over the Aegean.
Greece for its part is yet to field any armed drones, with its inventory of MALE UAVs currently consisting of just four leased IAI Heron TPs. [1] While the Hellenic Air Force's inventory of fighter aircraft will be more modern and capable than that of Türkiye throughout the 2020s and early 2030s, the oft-repeated claim that Greece is set to enjoy air superiority over the Aegean likely holds little ground in reality. In the (unlikely) event of a full-scale war, a significant portion of Greece's combat aircraft would have to be dedicated to air-to-ground tasks to compensate for the country's lack of UCAVs, its small fleet of attack helicopters and the short range of most of its artillery and MRLs.
In contrast, the Turkish Air Force can dedicate a much larger portion of its 240-strong F-16 fleet to air defence sorties, with some 170 UCAVs and around 70 attack helicopters available to provide fire-support to ground and naval forces. Of these, the Bayraktar Akıncı and Kızılelma are increasingly capable of replicating the capabilities of manned combat arcraft, and essentially constitute the world's first operational multi-role unmanned combat aircraft. Their capabilities will not only include deploying an extensive arsenal of domestically-produced cruise missiles and standoff munitions, but also firing beyond-visual-range air-to-air missiles (BVRAAMs) at air targets flying as far as 100km away. [2] [3]

This is not to say that Greece is left defenceless, with an extensive network of MIM-104 Patriot, S-300PMU-1, MIM-23 Hawk, Crotale-NG, Skyguard, 9K33 Osa and Tor-M1 SAM systems poised to make enemy air operations over the Aegean a nightmare. Be that as it may, a vast portion of the munitions that are set to arm Türkiye's UCAVs, F-16s and future TF-X fighters outrange virtually all Greek air defence systems. Even when disregarding Türkiye's fleet of UCAVs, the country possesses several more systems that could be used to neutralise Greek SAM sites and systems. This includes the KORAL and REDET-II electronic warfare systems, J-600T Yıldırım and Bora short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) and soon the Tayfun SRBM and KARA Atmaca ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM).

The KARA Atmaca was unveiled in August 2021 as a ground-attack derivative of the Atmaca anti-ship missile (AShM). Developed by Roketsan to meet a Turkish Army requirement for a high-precision GLCM, the KARA Atmaca features a range of 280+km. Although by this virtue it constitutes the shortest-ranged surface-to-surface cruise missile in the world, its range is still enough to hit most Greek SAM sites when launched from sites along the Turkish coast. While the KARA Atmaca is technically also capable of being launched from submarines (like the Atmaca AShM), Türkiye is already developing the 1000+km-ranged Gezgin land-attack cruise missile (LACM) specifically for this purpose. [4]

The red circles depict the range of the KARA Atmaca when fired from launch sites along the Turkish coast.

The KARA Atmaca missile carries a 250kg HE warhead to a range of at least 280km, making it ideally suited for targeting enemy command posts, radar stations and SAM sites located in the enemy's rear. [5] Incorporating not only inertial, but also satellite and passive homing guidance, the GLCM boasts increased effectiveness over guided artillery rockets and SRBMs. [5] This is mainly achieved through the KARA Atmaca's imaging infrared (IIR) homing seeker that allows the missile to accurately identify or even change its target during the terminal stage and hit it with high precision.

The terrain-hugging and low observable features inherent to cruise missile designs also makes the KARA Atmaca exceedingly difficult to intercept. SRBMs like the Bora are more susceptible to interception by SAM systems like the MIM-104 Patriot due to their high flight trajectory. By contrast, the KARA Atmaca will prove a much harder target to intercept because of its terrain-hugging trajectory. The topography of the Aegean will also work in favour of the missile, which flies low enough to make use of natural features such as mountains and canyons to escape detection before impacting its target at long range. Its ability to conduct advanced strike profiles by making use of waypoints and by using features of its surroundings to orient itself means even well-defended targets can be taken off-guard or overwhelmed in a simultaneous attack.

Mockups of the KARA Atmaca GLCM (left) and the Atmaca AShM (right). Note that the KARA Atmaca mockup does not feature the IIR seeker associated with the missile.

With the proposed introduction of KARA Atmaca in 2025, the Turkish Land Forces will for the first time possess a cruise missile capability. [6] The launching vehicle for the KARA Atmaca is modular, meaning the same launcher can also be used to launch TRLG-122 and TRLG-230 laser-guided rockets and TRG-300 GPS/INS guided rockets. The TRG-300 is a guided artillery rocket based on the Chinese WS-1B rocket system, and currently fulfills some of the tasks the KARA Atmaca is set to take over in 2025. Compared to the TRG-300, the KARA Atmaca features an increased range (280+km vs 120+km), a heavier warhead (250kg vs 190 or 105kg) and higher precision achieved through the IIR-seeker.

The TRG-300 has already found commercial success with Azerbaijan, Bangladesh and the UAE, and it's not unlikely that the KARA Atmaca might one day achieve similar success on the foreign market. The system's 280km range is low enough for Türkiye to market it abroad while respecting arms treaties such as the missile technology control regime (MTCR) at the same time. Potential customers include Azerbaijan, Pakistan, Poland, Qatar, the UAE and Indonesia, which all already operate guided rocket systems or have neighbours armed with cruise missiles and SRBMs.

It is easy to be blindsided by the success of Turkish UCAVs, in the process failing to recognise a host of other projects that have the potential to alter the current status quo in the Aegean Sea. Through the development of the KARA Atmaca GLCM, the Gezgin LACM and the Tayfun SRBM, Türkiye will soon be in the possession of a variety of long-range high-precision weapons systems for use in this theater and beyond. The recurring trend with each of these developments is not only that Greece is currently lagging behind in military developments compared to Türkiye, but also that Türkiye's efforts to expand on its military capabilities continue to outpace Greece to the point that it is unlikely to ever bridge the gap.

The Gezgin SLCM currently under development.

[1] Israel will lease IAI Heron UAV's to Greece
[2] Endless Possibilities - The Bayraktar Akıncı’s Multi-Role Weapons Loadout
[3] Deadly Advanced: A Complete Overview Of Turkish Designed Air-Launched Munitions
[4] Turkey one step closer to develop indigenous cruise missile
[6] Karadan Karaya Seyir Füzesi Projesi’nde (Kara ATMACA) İmzalar Atıldı

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