Turkey’s Electronic Warfare Capabilities: The Invisible Power Behind its UACVs


Main Image Credit A Turkish STM Kamikaze drone. Courtesy of Armyinform.com.ua / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0


Turkey’s advanced electronic warfare systems have played a critical role in Ankara’s recent involvements in several regional theatres.

In modern warfare, the increasing dependence on radars, radio signals and satellites to command, control and coordinate the movement of or communicate with military assets requires sophisticated electronic capabilities in the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS). A country lacking such capabilities risks endangering its military assets on the battlefield and therefore losing a war before it starts.

Currently, a number of countries are advancing electronic warfare systems (EWSs), including Russia, the US and China. The last few years, in particular, have witnessed intensified competition between these countries to dominate the EMS.

Turkey realised the importance of this field as early as the 1970s. Over the past two decades, the government has directed more funds towards several national defence companies and scientific institutions, such as ASELSAN, HAVELSAN and TUBITAK, to develop its EWS capabilities.

ASELSAN is Turkey’s leading defence company specialised in electronic technologies and system integration. It was established by the Turkish Army in 1975 to meet its communication needs. Defense News’ 2020 annual ranking of the top 100 defence companies globally included seven Turkish companies; two of them – ASELSAN and TAI – already made the 2019 SIPRI ranking for global defence companies.

This achievement is often attributed to the government’s ambition, aggressive strategy, and quest for strategic autonomy. Over the past decade, Turkey’s homegrown defence industry has been rapidly expanding, allowing Ankara to add more critical defence systems to its inventory than ever before.

ASELSAN produces several EWSs and platforms, but one of them, KORAL, occupies a unique position and has played a critical role in Ankara’s recent involvements in several regional theatres. Although Turkey’s unmanned aerial combat vehicles (UACVs) have been making headlines in the last few years, the KORAL has been the invisible power behind their success.

Not much credit is given to this system due to its silent role and lack of publicity; however, there is no doubt that this system has enabled Turkey’s strategic and military planners to boost the efficiency and lethality of its UACVs. This is not to underestimate the unique capabilities of Ankara’s drones, but rather to underscore the value and role of the KORAL.

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Although Turkey’s unmanned aerial combat vehicles (UACVs) have been making headlines in the last few years, the KORAL has been the invisible power behind their success

The KORAL is a land-based transportable EWS with an effective range of 150–200 km. The system offers advanced options and supports Suppression of Enemy Air Defences (SEAD) operations. It consists of two subsystems: the first provides electronic support operations for conducting ISR, while the other is dedicated to attack operations to degrade, neutralise or destroy enemy combat capabilities. This kind of operation usually involves the use of electromagnetic energy against communication systems and radar systems.

The KORAL was part of a Land-Based Stand-off Jammer System project adopted by the Defence Industry Executive Committee around two decades ago. It came as a response to increasing threats and to meet the growing needs of the Turkish air force command. The system was contracted in 2009, and within seven years, the KORAL EWS entered the Turkey Armed Forces’ (TSK) inventory. In this sense, the EWS filled a gap and offered new opportunities for the TSK.

Since 2016, the KORAL has been battle-tested in different environments, including critical theatres in Syria, Libya and Azerbaijan, demonstrating impressive capabilities and executing complex roles in the first-ever wars won by unmanned systems. Ankara incorporated the KORAL in a new unconventional drone doctrine that prescribes the use of drones as an air force in a conventional battle. The doctrine requires a high level of cooperation, coordination and integration between the deployed EWS (KORAL in this case), the UAVs (Aerospace Anka-S and Bayraktar TB2) and the smart micro-munitions (MAM-L and MAM-C).

This innovative military doctrine has generated a lot of discussion. Many defence ministers, military experts and security analysts worldwide have called on their countries and armies to observe what Turkey has done in this field and to draw appropriate lessons, in order to be prepared for the new age of automated wars. During the Royal Air Force’s online Air and Space Power Conference 2020, UK Defence Secretary Ben Wallace urged the force to go in this direction, hinting that ‘Even if half the claims [about Turkey’s drones and EWSs] are true, the implications are game-changing’.

During Operation Spring Shield against the Syrian regime and pro-Iranian militias, the KORAL set the stage for Ankara’s drones by securing aerial dominance for the TSK. As a result, Turkey’s drones were able to wipe out a large portion of Bashar al-Assad’s army in Idlib using pinpoint technology. During the battle, the Assad regime lost 151 tanks, eight helicopters, three drones, three fighter jets (including two Russian-made Sukhoi Su-24s), around 100 armoured military vehicles, eight aerial defence systems, 86 cannons and howitzers, multiple ammunition trucks and one headquarters, among other military equipment and facilities. Additionally, the KORAL humiliated Russia’s technology, including the air defence systems (ADSs) designed specifically to counter such drone threats.

Video captures by Turkey’s Ministry of Defence proved that Ankara was able to identify, locate, monitor, follow and target several Russian-made ADSs, including the Pantsir, without fear of being hit. One video which went viral on social media showed that the Turkish drones targeted and destroyed the Pantsir, even though its radar was active and combat-ready. Considering the close-up nature of the video and the large size of the TB2, it is highly likely that the KORAL managed to blind the Russian radar. During the operations, the TSK successfully destroyed eight Pantsir ADS units.

In Libya, Ankara’s intervention in favour of the UN-recognised government and against Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) – which has been supported by a host of countries including the UAE, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, France and Russia – turned the tide of the war. Turkey’s deployment of the KORAL alongside its TB2s dramatically changed the equation on the ground.

The KORAL disrupted the LNA’s Chinese-made Wing Loong drones supplied by the UAE, and established local aerial superiority for Turkey’s UACVs by rendering the LNA’s ADSs useless (including S-125, SA-6 and Pantsir S-1 systems). Furthermore, it enabled the lethal and precise targeting of Haftar’s military bases, supply lines, military equipment, fortified positions and ground targets. Clash Report claimed that Turkey destroyed at least 15 Pantsir systems in Libya. Once again, in at least one case, a video recording showed a Pantsir’s radar active and hopelessly looking for a threat to engage with, before being hit and destroyed by Ankara’s state-of-the-art drone, the TB2.

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Many defence ministers, military experts and security analysts worldwide have called on their countries and armies to observe what Turkey has done in this field and to draw appropriate lessons

During the 44-day war between Azerbaijan and Armenia last year, the KORAL demonstrated its critical capacity on a broader scale. The Turkish-made EWS prepared the ground for a swift and decisive Azeri victory. The KORAL reportedly reduced the formidable Russian-made Armenian formations of ground-based ADSs to junk, enabling the Azeri forces to wipe them out, and thus leaving the Armenian Army at the mercy of Azeri TB2s acquired from Turkey.

Armenia lost around 256 tanks, 50 BMP vehicles, 40 OSA SAM systems, over 400 trucks, hundreds of artillery pieces, and other military equipment during the war. In an act of psychological and information warfare, Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Defence released video recordings showing Armenian ADSs of all types (SA 8 Osa, SA 13 Strela 10, SA 15 Buk and even Russian-made S-300) being hit and destroyed by its forces. According to Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev, the Azeri military destroyed at least six S-300 missile systems using mainly Turkish and some Harop loitering munitions or Kamikaze drones.

To gain leverage over Azerbaijan, Yerevan acquired Russia’s Iskander ballistic missile and Repellent EWS in 2016 and 2017. Yet, Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan discovered that these systems – worth tens of millions of dollars each – did not actually work, despite Moscow promoting them as advanced, complex and superior systems. Azerbaijan managed to disable and/or destroy many of these systems along with Armenia’s ADSs. In one documented case, an Armenian ADS is seen executing a series of unsuccessful attempts to launch missiles against an aerial target due to the powerful suppression targeting of the KORAL.

In November 2020, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan praised the KORAL. Confirming the EWS’s critical role in Ankara’s latest battles, he revealed that his country is working on a new, more advanced version of the KORAL. Under the leadership of the Presidency of Defence Industries, ASELSAN has been working on a new generation of KORAL with advanced capabilities, the Kara SOJ-2. More recently, the TSK added the new highly capable SANCAK EWS to its inventory.

These new developments mean that Ankara is now open to exporting the KORAL. Several news platforms claimed that Ankara signed a $50.7 million contract to sell the KORAL EWS to Morocco’s Royal Armed Forces. Last August, a report indicated that the Royal Army of Oman was mulling the possibility of buying the Turkish-made EWS. At the end of that month, Iraq’s Defence Minister Jouma Saadoun reportedly expressed his country’s willingness to purchase Turkish-made military equipment, including TB2 UACVs, 12 T-129 ATAK helicopters and six KORAL EWSs.

Considering Ankara’s rising ambition to become a leader in robotic warfare systems and its relentless effort to add more unmanned offensive and defensive systems to the TSK’s inventory in the coming years, it will definitely focus on boosting its electronic warfare capabilities in the future.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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WRITTEN BY

Ali Bakir

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