AUSA: If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc. and Abraham Karem, inventor of the world-changing Predator drone, should feel praised to the skies.
The latest of at least three Predator knockoffs is Turkey’s new Anka, Turkish for phoenix. It’s an unarmed but camera-carrying MALE (Medium Altitude Long Endurance) Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) scheduled to go into service with Turkey’s armed forces next year. A model of the Anka has been on display this week here at the Turkish Aerospace Industries booth – located, ironically, within eyesight of Karem Aircraft Inc.’s booth, where Abe Karem himself has been talking to potential customers about his latest project, a manned tiltrotor transport plane called the TR75 that would be larger than a C-130J.
The phenomenal flight time offered by Karem’s ingenious Predator design is the essential building-block its imitators seek. Besides Turkey, that list now includes Israel Aerospace Industries, whose Heron family of MALE drones includes a new diesel Super Heron HF unveiled early this year at the Singapore Air Show, and China with its Wing Loong, also known as the Pterodactyl. Israel has sold the unarmed Heron, which the Israel Air Force introduced in May 2006, to several nations, including Turkey.
China revealed in 2010 that it was developing the Pterodactyl, which looks like a virtual clone of the Predator, except that the Pterodactyl’s V-shaped vertical stabilizers point up instead of down. The vertical stabilizers on the General Atomics MQ-9 Reaper also point up. The Reaper,a larger Predator derivative that can carry four instead of two Hellfire missiles and two 500-lb. GBU-12 bombs as well, preceded both the Heron and the Pterodactyl. A planned satellite communications version of Turkey’s Anka looks very similar to the Predator as well, featuring the RQ-1/MQ-1’s prominent bulbous nose, a feature added to house a satellite dish.
“Predator has its vertical stabilizers downward and we have them upwards,” said Berk Öztürk, a TAI marketer at the company’s AUSA show booth. “It’s pretty much the same idea.” Like the Pterodactyl, the Anka’s wingspan of just under 56 feet and a fuselage length of just over 26 feet also make it almost precisely the size of the Predator, whose comparable measurements are 55 feet and 27 feet. The Turkish military wants the Anka, which has a 2.0 liter diesel engine, to fly as high as 30,000 feet and stay airborne as long as 24 hours. So far, TAI has flown Anka prototypes just above 25,000 feet and for 20 hours.
In media interviews I’ve given and lectures I’ve done since the Sept. 16 release of my new book Predator: The Secret Origins of the Drone Revolution, I’ve often been asked how long it will be before other nations have the capability to fly armed drones over other countries, as the United States has done for 13 years now, and to use them in ways Americans may not like. The answer clearly is, soon.
The Chinese are known to have armed the Pterodactyl with ground attack missiles and to have conducted live fire demonstrations for potential foreign customers, according to an industry source who has talked with those customers. According to Chinese reports, manufacturer Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group has already sold unarmed Pterodactyls to four other nations and in February took an order from Saudi Arabia for an unspecified number of Pterodactyls that could be armed. Turkey’s new Anka could be armed as well, though that isn’t part of the current plan. “MALE class UAVs usually do get armed,” Öztürk said. “If our government wants us to do a product like that, it will be no problem because we have the capabilities of arming pretty much everything.”
The Anka, however, illustrates why no one should get too worked up about the idea of hostile drone strikes on U.S. soil, at least not for a while. For one thing, the United States has mostly flown Predators and Reapers against enemies who lack the weaponry necessary to shoot them down or in permissive air space; U.S. air defenses should be more than up to the task of downing any hostile drone the size of a Predator that should cross America’s borders.
But more importantly, the secret sauce that lets the Air Force attack targets with armed drones flying over the other side of the planet from ground control stations in the United States is a communications architecture called “remote split operations” that relies on two things other nations will find hard to imitate, especially if they aim to attack targets on U.S. soil.
First, a Launch and Recovery Element, as the Air Force calls it, has to deploy forward with the drone to handle takeoffs, landings and maintenance from a base within range of the target area – about 500 miles for a Predator to get maximum mission time. Second, signals to and from the drone sent by the mission crew in the United States have to travel not only by satellite, as popularly understood, but also through a special fiber optic cable under the Atlantic. The fiber optic cable allows the signals to reach an earth terminal in Europe located within range of a satellite whose footprint includes the area where the drone is to fly, enabling the signals to travel without delays that could make it hard to fly the aircraft correctly or accurately launch its weapons.
Turkey has been flying UAVs since the 1990s, from its own Turna target drone and Gnat 750s designed by Karem and bought from General Atomics in the mid-1990s to 10 Herons bought from Israel, six of which are still in operation.
“Everything that our forces have encountered while using these platforms, we improved it and used it in Anka,” Öztürk said. “So Anka has all the capabilities plus more and is much more user-friendly.” TAI, though, has yet to produce the planned version of the Anka that will carry a satellite dish, extending the drone’s range dramatically. For now, the Anka’s nose is flat and Turkey’s military will have to fly its new MALE UAV using a line-of-sight data link whose range is limited to 200 kilometers, or about 124 miles.
Öztürk said the aircraft can fly in fully automated mode for ferry flights or to shoot still photos, but to keep its video and other data streaming, it has to be within range of its ground station. This is why the Turkish armed forces, who have an increasingly hostile border with Syria to watch, will buy 12 ground control stations to handle the 10 Anka drones the government is buying. TAI is also talking to potential foreign customers about the Anka, yet another Predator-like entry in a market largely denied to American companies by U.S. export restrictions and where the rule of thumb seems to be: “If you can’t buy them, copy them.”