Propelled by the mounting sales of the Bayraktar TB2 drone globally, Turkey’s drone industry has now bagged what is being hailed as the “biggest ever” order for its new and more advanced Akinci drone with an agreement finally sealed with Saudi Arabia.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan reaped the rewards of his diplomatic campaign to mend relations with Gulf nations and support Ankara’s faltering economy on July 18 when Saudi Arabia agreed to purchase Turkish Akinci drones in the largest defense contract in Turkey’s history.
Erdogan and Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, were present at the signing ceremony between the Turkish defense company Baykar and the Saudi Defense Ministry. The deal comes against the heel of Erdogan’s tour of the Gulf region that began on July 17.
The Akinci, Turkish for “Raider,” is a high-altitude, long-endurance UAV capable of performing air-to-ground and air-to-air attack missions.
The excitement was palpable for Baykar as the CEO of the company, Haluk Bayraktar, tweeted: “We signed Bayraktar #AKINCI TİHA export and cooperation agreement with the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Defense.”
He wished the company good luck with what he calls the “biggest defense and aviation export contract” in history.
The Baykar statement read, “With the comprehensive agreement, cooperation will be made on technology transfer and joint production to advance the high technology development capability of the two countries in the upcoming period.”
In addition, Haluk Bayraktar told Turkish media that a separate “massive” agreement will be signed to purchase smart munitions and other payloads from Turkey, and local production will be involved.
Erdogan’s son-in-law Selcuk Bayraktar serves as chairman of the drone manufacturer Baykar. In recent years, Baykar has gained recognition globally for its battle-proven armed drones, such as the Bayraktar TB2, especially owing to its performance in Azerbaijan and Ukraine.
Turkey’s drone manufacturing capabilities and technological advancements have seen a massive uptick in recent years. According to Baykar’s account, the company’s exports totaled $1.18 billion, and its revenue was $1.4 billion last year.
The recent contract could be considered a big win for Turkey because as far back as August 2021, Turkish President Recep Erdogan had vowed to make his country a world leader in drone technology while inducting the first Akinci Unmanned Aerial Combat Vehicle (UCAV) into service.
As evidenced by the continuing conflict between Russia and Ukraine, drone warfare is becoming integral to modern battlefields. Saudi Arabia seems aware of it, especially as it inhabits a volatile region.
Turkey has established itself as a leader in advanced drone technology and has promoted its combat UAVs to partners worldwide. After TB2’s combat success, attention has switched to the more sophisticated and combat-ready Akinci.
Turkey’s Akinci Drone
The military drone Akinci is 12.2 meters long, 4.1 meters high, and 20 meters wide. With a takeoff weight of 5,500 kilograms and a maximum payload of 1,350 kilograms, it can fly to a height of 40,000 feet (12,192 meters).
Compared to the Bayraktar TB2, which it aims to replace, the Akinci has a bigger combat payload capacity, which some military analysts suggest will enable it to deploy more potent weapons and adaptable concepts of operations (CONOPS). Still, the drone performed better than expected.
Late last year, the Akinci drone successfully test-fired Turkey’s first air-to-ground supersonic missile, TRG-230, after hitting a target at a distance of over 100 kilometers (62 miles). Akinci is the only UAV to accomplish the feat – launching a ballistic supersonic missile from the air to the ground.
The Akinci underwent a firing test with a new-generation guidance kit a few days after reaching this milestone. A 1,000-pound or 455-kilogram MK-83 bomb fitted with the Gökçe guidance system was dropped by the drone with pinpoint accuracy on the intended target.
Since then, Akinci has also participated in a test using an Aselsan laser guidance kit, successfully hitting the target with absolute precision. The laser guiding package was used with an MK-82 bomb made by Aselsan during the test shooting.
The UCAV can be used as a mother ship for drone-swarming strikes in addition to sophisticated radar and precision munition. For instance, in 2019, Prof. Ismail Demir, the director of Turkey’s Presidency of Defense Industries (SSB), published a simulation of the homegrown ‘Alpagu’ kamikaze drones released by the Akinci drone on his Twitter feed.
Earlier this year, EurAsian Times also reported that the drone was speculated to become the first in the world with an AESA radar.
At the time, a Turkish Twitter account that regularly posts Turkish military updates recently said in a tweet: “AKINCI will be the first UAV in the world to carry AESA radar and beyond-sight air-to-air missiles. In the test shot from AKINCI, the target over 100 kilometers was hit with Turkey’s first supersonic missile TRG-230-iHA.”
The UCAV was also purchased by seasoned Turkish defense ally Pakistan earlier this year.
Affordability and combat successes have long been regarded as the selling point for Turkish drones, and the purchase by Saudi Arabia might also lead to the drone’s popularity soaring in the wealthy but volatile Gulf region.