In three questions, Can Kasapoglu evaluates the Kemankes, a mini, intelligent cruise missile developed in Türkiye by defense company Baykar to be used on strategic objectives.
• What is the Baykar Kemankes and why is it important?
Let us start with a simple but important question. What is your favorite weapon system among the solutions provided by Baykar, one of the Turkish defense industry's major actors? The Kizilelma, which will be Türkiye's first transonic unmanned fighter aircraft with turbofan engines, draws attention with its low-visibility geometric design and internal weapon stations. There is no doubt that it will be the favorite of many defense industry followers.
If you had asked the same question to someone in Ukraine or on the streets of Baku after the 2020 Second Karabakh War in Azerbaijan, you would probably have heard the name of Bayraktar TB-2, which is Baykar's signature product in the world and has now become a classic brand. The top pick for fans of the TCG Anadolu and naval warfare systems, meanwhile, would be the Bayraktar TB-3.
For the author of these lines, however, the answer to this question is the Kemankes. Though it has yet to be used in combat, the capabilities of the Kemankes are special in many ways.
The most distinctive feature of the Kemankes, the name of which comes from the Turkish imperial archery tradition, is its design philosophy, as noted in international military science literature. Baykar officially introduced the Kemankes in the category of "mini intelligent cruise missile." International publications, however, are likely soon to describe the Kemankes as a loitering munition. It is this ambiguous character that marks the Kemankes as an element of modern warfare.
The Russia-Ukraine war demonstrated the importance of long-range systems that can strike at the enemy's rear with precision guidance, even with just a light warhead. Within this set of capabilities, the line between cruise missiles and loitering munitions, also known as kamikaze drones, is getting increasingly blurry in hybrid weapons systems. The Kemankes carries the genes of both a mini cruise missile and a loitering munition at the same time.
• What capability distinguishes the Kemankes from traditional drone munitions?
Besides being an intelligent long-range munition, the Kemankes can also serve reconnaissance, surveillance, and intelligence purposes. At least as important as its warhead is the weapon's sensor capabilities.
With this feature, the Kemankes will elevate the informational superiority capacity of Turkish robotic warfare to a new level. Let us not forget that the intelligence, reconnaissance, surveillance, and target acquisition data provided by unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV) and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) gradually improved the performance of ground fire-support vehicles (artillery elements and multiple rocket launcher systems).
The Second Karabakh War was the most realistic indication demonstrating the applicability of this trend in conventional warfare. With the Russia-Ukraine war, this trend became common practice. Today, unmanned systems play a significant role not just in reconnaissance, surveillance, intelligence, and target acquisition, but also in battle damage assessment tasks, ranging from ballistic missile attacks to artillery activities.
In a hypothetical scenario where two Kemankes missiles are launched from a Bayraktar TB-2, for example, the munitions will be able to reveal intelligence data from separate areas on that battlefield thanks to their electro-optical cameras. Moreover, after launching the munitions, the TB-2 will be able to change its target and embark on different intelligence-gathering missions. As a result, one should be ready for a much wider, more imaginative, and more flexible array of tactical options than those based on the MAM-L and MAM-C operational designs that have been used so far. Naturally, advanced datalink capabilities seem to be the first requirement for network-centric operations.
Additionally, the Kemankes' one-hour endurance is crucial for making this scenario more advanced. Increasing the endurance of the Kemankes in future modernization projects will boost its intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance capabilities. Another important thing to consider is the need to build a weapon system suitable for operational environments exposed to high-intensity electronic warfare. This is because the electromagnetic spectrum is one of the decisive dimensions of modern warfare and operations. Losing in the electromagnetic spectrum often has negative consequences in the other dimensions of the war.
• What does Kemankes mean for the Turkish defense industry?
The Kemankes represents a crucial milestone in the Turkish defense industry. In the simplest terms, Baykar has now become a munitions manufacturer on top of its previous status as a producer of UCAVs and UAVs. Of course, the Turkish defense industry already has an advanced ecosystem for munitions. Solutions by Roketsan and the Defense Industries Research and Development Institute (SAGE) of the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Türkiye (TUBITAK) have proven themselves on the battlefield for years. The UCAVs produced by Baykar are also equipped with these solutions. Further, the future direction of the Kemankes' defense technologies provides clues on Baykar's roadmap as a munitions manufacturer.
The technology used by the loitering munition (mini cruise missile) as it engages its target takes us to the future of defense technologies. The Kemankes studies, learns, and evaluates its targets with machine learning and advanced convolutional artificial intelligence algorithms. Of course, the first Kemankes variants will not feature fully autonomous reconnaissance, surveillance, and target acquisition functionality that is defined as "human-out-of-the-loop" in the Anglo-American military science literature. However, there is no doubt that the Kemankes' target detection algorithms and autonomy levels will be very different than they are today come the 2030s and 2040s.
With its range of about 200 kilometers (124 miles), the Kemankes will leave its mothership from a safe firing distance, outside the effective range of man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS), as well as many others considered effective against UCAVs, such as the Russian Pantsir and TOR-M2. This capability is especially important for the Bayraktar TB-2.
Finally, it is worth repeating my assessment of the Kizilelma — like the Kızılelma, the Kemankes also carries the genes of defense technologies and serve as a time machine. As much as the combat capabilities that it provides today are being discussed, the question of what the Kemankes family can evolve into in the coming decades appears to be even more critical than today's strategic issues.