Saturday 7 January 2023

From Martin 139 To Kızılelma: 85 Years Of Turkish Bombers

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

İstikbal göklerdedir. Göklerini koruyamayan uluslar, yarınlarından asla emin olamazlar. - The future is in the skies. Because nations that cannot protect their skies, can never be sure of their future. (By Mustafa Kemal Atatürk)
December 14th, 2022. The Bayraktar Kızılelma unmanned combat aircraft conducts its maiden flight from Tekirdağ-Çorlu-Atatürk Airport. Fast rewind 85 years to September 1937, when the first of 20 Martin 139WT bombers purchased from the U.S. lands at Tekirdağ-Çorlu-Atatürk Airport to begin its service with the Turkish Air Force. From receiving its first true bomber aircraft from the U.S. at Çorlu in 1937 to the test flight of its first indigenously-designed unmanned combat aircraft from Çorlu 85 years later, Türkiye has made great strides in becoming a defence giant.

Another situation radically different from 85 years ago is Türkiye's ability (or rather lack thereof) to acquire military aircraft from the United States. Under a de-facto arms embargo from a number of Western countries since years, in 2019 Türkiye was also expelled from the F-35 programme for its decision to procure the S-400 surface-to-air missile (SAM) system from Russia. The Turkish Air Force had planned the acquisition of up to 100 F-35As to replace its aging F-4E Terminator 2020s while the Turkish Navy eyed the acquisition of the F-35B for use from the TCG Anadolu LHD.

Türkiye's expulsion from the F-35 programme and the current impasse to procure F-16Vs means that the Turkish Air Force will be pitted against a Hellenic Air Force whose inventory of fighter aircraft will be far more modern and capable than that of Türkiye throughout the 2020s and early 2030s, at least until the introduction of the TF-X stealth fighter throughout the same decade. However, it is precisely this environment in which Türkiye's weapons industry has managed to flourish: when all odds appear stacked against it and ingenuity is required to make up for deficits.
After earlier designing the TB2 and Akıncı, Baykar has sought to address Türkiye's aerial deficits through developing the Kızılelma unmanned combat aircraft. Baykar will produce one subsonic version of the design – the Kizilelma-A1 – equipped with one AI-25TLT engine, and two transonic variants – the Kızılelma-A2 and Kızılelma-B1 – equipped with two AI-25TLTs and one AI-322TF engine respectively. The supersonic Kizilelma-B2 will receive two AI-322TFs. The Kızılelma can operate from the Anadolu LHD along with the TB3, replacing the F-35B previously eyed for this role.
The Kızılelma will have to go through several iterations before reaching its true potential, but there's little doubt that with each iteration the Kızılelma can increasingly replicate the capabilities of legacy aerial assets, at least partially mending the gap left now that Turkey has been excluded from the F-35 project as a result of its decision to purchase the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile (SAM) system. This includes the ability to launch 275+km-ranged cruise missiles and beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile (BVRAAMs) at targets as far as 100km away.

The first prototype of the Bayraktar Kızılelma-A1.

In the 1930s Türkiye was facing an entirely different security challenge, namely the rise of expansionist Fascist Italy. Ill-equipped to meet the threat of a rapidly modernising Italy in the Mediterranean, the Turkish Armed Forces began to acquire aircraft from just about any country that proved willing to deliver these in an effort to build up a realistic deterrence against any future threats on Turkish territory. Consequently, the Turkish Air Force was strengthened through the acquisition of 66 PZL P.24 fighters from Poland and 20 Martin 139WT bombers from the U.S.
The purchase of these aircraft presented the first capital investment into the Turkish Air Force since years, and would eventually pave the way for far more significant aircraft orders as the prospect of another World War on the European contingent drawed closer. Several years before, President Mustafa Kemal Atatürk ordered the Turkish Air Force to procure its first bombers. After careful consideration, the Martin B-10 was selected and a Turkish delegation was sent to the United States to purchase 20 aircraft with uprated engines, which became known as the Martin 139WT. [1]
After their delivery in September 1937, the Martin 139WTs were based at Çorlu air base with the 55th and 56th Tayyare Bölüğü (Aviation Squadron) part of the 9th Tayyare Taburu (Aviation Battalion). Despite being obsolescent within two years of their delivery, the aircraft were used extensively in the reconnaissance role over the Black Sea during the Second World War. After their replacement by British Blenheims and Beauforts in 1944, the Martin 139WTs soldiered on as second-line aircraft until 1946, when twelve of the sixteen aircraft that remained were still operational. [1]

A row of Martin 139WT bombers at Tekirdağ-Çorlu-Atatürk Airport.

Because of advances in aircraft designs – especially in power plants – the size of payloads carried by fighter and bomber aircraft has increased at rates greater than increases in the size of their airframes, and this is no different for the Martin 139WT and Kızılelma. The 1930s-era Martin 139WT could carry a payload of 1025kg of bombs carried in an internal bomb bay, while the Kızılelma-A1 can carry a payload of 1500kg and the Kızılelma-B2 an estimated 3000kg. The armament carried by these aircraft has also greatly evolved, from dumb bombs to cruise missiles and BVRAAMs.

Whilst the Martin 139WT was capable of carrying only 1025kg of bombs, the Kızılelma-B2 will carry nearly triple that payload.

Yet despite the differences brought on by close to a century of technological progress, modern Turkish UAVs still share some DNA with the aircraft that started off Türkiye's bomber operations. Like the Martin 139WT the Bayraktar Akıncı is a two-engined propeller-driven design, and although in the Akıncı's case, the engines are much more efficient turboprops, the total power produced is a close match. Even in external dimensions the two aircraft are surprisingly similar, though the Akıncı utilises its sleek airframe to carry impressive weapon loads of up to 1350kg.

The Martin 139 and Kızılelma allow for an interesting examination not only of how much aircraft design has evolved over the past 80 decades, but also of how Türkiye has evolved from addressing its security challenges by looking to other countries for the acquisition of armament from the 1930s right up until the 2010s, to sourcing nearly all of it from its own domestic industry itself in the 2020s. Türkiye's progress to achieve this has moved blisteringly fast, and perhaps rightly so. For as it, as well as other nations across the world, are increasingly discovering in the modern age: "...nations that cannot protect their skies, can never be sure of their future."