The second half of February saw an escalation of hostilities in Idlib in northwest Syria. It followed a mass deployment of Turkish armed forces (TSK) to the rebel-held part of the province and led to airstrike exchanges with the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) of incumbent president Bashar Al-Assad. On February 27, the TSK’s official death toll doubled, to over 60, when a Syrian Su-22M4 “Fitter” fighter-bomber hit a Turkish convoy. In reprisal, Ankara bombed a number of Syrian targets, including airfields, UAV control centers, and SAM installations. On March 1, Turkey’s defense minister Hulusi Akar announced that the action against the SAA in Idlib is known as Operation Spring Shield.
In late February, two Syrian Mi-8 helicopters were downed by shoulder-launched missiles, while in another dozen cases, Syrian and Russian aircraft escaped unharmed by using flares and maneuvering. On March 1, two Syrian Su-24M2 “Fencers” were shot down by AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles fired by Turkish air force F-16Cs. The Turks lost a pair of Turkish Aerospace Anka-S armed medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) drones, along with a few lightweight UAVs. The first Anka-S went down on February 25 and the second on March 1, both cases having been proven by photo and video reports from crash spots. According to Damascus, its air defenses shot down six Turkish drones on March 1, with a third Anka-S possibly among them.
Although this type has been exhibited many times at air shows, the Anka-S appears to be making its combat debut in Idlib, while the bulk of previous reports about involvement of armed Turkish drones in the ongoing civil wars in Syria and Libya have concerned the Bayraktar TB2, also a single-engine MALE with a pusher propeller.
Developed by Kale-Baykar as Turkey’s first indigenous armed drone, the Bayraktar TB2 has gained a reputation for high accuracy and lethality during the TSK’s Operations Euphrates Shield (2016-2017), Olive Branch (2018) and Peace Spring (2019) in Syria, as well as in counter-insurgency against the Kurdish rebels in east Turkey and northeast Iraq.
Apparently, the TSK did not want to expose the larger and more expensive Anka-S until recently, since the lighter (1,433-lb- versus 3,527-lb-gross weight) and more compact (39-ft- versus 56-ft-wingspan) Bayraktar TB2 proved sufficient for the previous operations. The Anka-S was called into action as the Turkish forces in Idlib met strong resistance from the regular Syrian army, a far-better-equipped opponent than the Kurdish and Libyan gunmen. In some instances, the 55-lb Roketsan MAM-L guided missile, a standard weapon in the TB2’s arsenal, had proven insufficient to take out a main battle tank. The TB2’s limited maximum payload—just a pair of these “Smart Micro Munitions”—does not allow for a heavier punch. By contrast, the Anka-S can carry larger missiles and bombs, for a total payload of 441 lb (versus 121).
The Anka-S is a recent addition to the Anka family, whose development commenced at the turn of the century following TSK procurement of several UAV types from the U.S. and Israel. Having assessed the imported equipment, Turkey decided to produce a better product of its own, tailored to specific TSK requirements. First flown almost 10 years ago, the unarmed and poorly-equipped prototypes provided the basis for developing reconnaissance and strike UAVs carrying modern mission equipment. The Anka-S comes with an electro-optic color day camera, electro-optic/forward-looking infrared/laser rangefinder/laser designator and spotter camera, as well as a synthetic aperture radar/ground moving target indicator (SAR/GMTI) and inverse SAR radar, along with satellite communications and electronic intelligence systems.
The confirmed combat loss of two drones in Syria, on top of the three crashes of prototypes suffered during the flight-test campaign, is a blow for the program that has so far seen the completion of 10 unarmed and 15 armed vehicles, following a first order placed back in 2013. Such a low production run can be partially explained by the shortage and immaturity of locally-made substitutes to imported components, including a radar from Aselsan and a 170-hp engine from TUSAŞ Engine Industries (TEI).
The recent losses darken prospects for ongoing national programs to develop larger twin-engined MALE and HALE UCAVs (such as the Anka-2, Aksungur, Akinci) since they appear even more vulnerable to modern SAMs such as the Buk-M2 and Pantsyr-S1, which claimed responsibility for the recent Turkish losses.
*Update: On March 3 the THK shot down another Syrian aircraft, this time an L-39 Albatros. The Turkish MoD stated that the L-39 was shot down by a missile—most likely an AIM-120— fired from an F-16 that was flying inside Turkish airspace. This is thought to also have been the case with the two Su-24s that were downed.