Evicted from F-35 JSF programme, Turkey is aiming to build a domestic fighter jet which will have fifth-generation stealth characteristics.
Turkish Aerospace Industries envisioned a fifth-generation fighter, and has been for some time, well before Turkey’s role in the F-35 programme ended. Turkey’s bid to build a fifth-generation stealth fighter is behind schedule and the warplanes might not even get off the ground by the end of the decade.
The TAI TF-X (Turkish Fighter – Experimental) is set to combine the best of a stealth air-superiority fighter, with additional ground attack capabilities and an impressive array of sensors, cutting-edge radar, networked drone control and hypersonic missile capacity.
The fighter jet will feature two engines, a single pilot, and stealth features such as internal weapons bays.
Double the engines equals faster speed, ensuring that energy-intensive maneuvers don’t bleed too much of the plane’s velocity which could otherwise leave it vulnerable or outperformed by a faster opponent.
Having a single pilot gives engineers that much more room to pack more technology into the plane, and is only possible with heavy automation that lets the pilot focus on the mission target, instead of running the fighter jet.
When it comes to stealth, externally-mounted weapons increase the aircraft’s visibility on the radar. The TF-X will also include stealth features such as an advanced carbon-composite body that aims to be radar reflective.
A flying prototype is expected by 2023, with the first plane envisioned to be ready by 2025, and the full fleet of 250 to be operational by 2032. These are planned to replace Turkey’s ageing fleet of 245 F-16 fighter jets, which only have one engine, among other drawbacks. The TF-X could remain in service until the 2070s.
In 2017, BAE Systems and Turkish Aerospace Industries, the prime contractor of TF-X, signed a $125 million heads of agreement to collaborate on the first development phase of the planned fifth-generation fighter jet.
BAE Systems, which is working on the British Tempest stealth fighter programme, has provided consulting for TAI.
In 2017, Kale Group had established a partnership with Rolls-Royce to produce an aircraft engine. The partnership was formed after a $133 million defense deal signed between Turkey and the U.K.
Turkish Aerospace Industries is the main contractor of the project. ASELSAN and TRMotor are the main subcontractors for mission systems and engines. BAE Systems is providing consultancy and assistance to TAI. Meanwhile, ROKETSAN is expected to provide weapons such as smart and cruise missiles.
TUBITAK SAG (the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey), will be building an entire family of air-to-air missiles that ROKETSAN may build. TUBITAK also built Turkey’s first rail gun and laser defence systems.
In January 2017, the then British Prime Minister Theresa May and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan signed a $137 million contract for BAE Systems to advise and assist TAI in the development the TF-X, with follow-up contracts likely down the line.
Turkey has received support from Saab Aerospace for conceptual design, Dassault Systems of France for software support and BAE Systems for detailed engineering support. These companies are all aerospace giants.
TAI has selected Dassault Systeme to provide flight control software for the project.
Initially, there were talks with South Korea to merge the project with the Korean experimental fighter jet programme being carried out with Indonesia. But the countries had different defense needs and priorities, affecting the design. Given the United States’ role in removing Turkey from the F-35 programme, it does not seem feasible for Lockheed Martin to be a partner.
TAI invited Malaysia to join the TF-X, following Ankara’s suspension from the U.S.-led F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. Temel Kotil, CEO of Turkish Aerospace Industries, said in Janaury this year he is now awaiting Malaysia’s reply. Last year, TAI signed a memorandum of understanding with the Asian nation for the co-production of TF-X composites.
Turkish Air Force Requirements
The Turkish Air Force has around 240 F-16s and nearly 40 F-4s. The F-4s are at the very end of their service lives. Thirty of the F-16s are of newer models received between 2011 and 2013. But in general, the Turkish Air Force has to fill in a strategic gap in early 2020 when some of its older planes will be retired.
Meanwhile, neighbours such as Greece have expressed an interest in the F-35, and upgraded their F-16s, while all neighbouring countries are pursuing fourth or fifth-generation fighter jets. With Turkey’s suspension from the F-35 programme, it seems all the more necessary to develop an indigenous stealth fighter that works well with the long-range missile coverage provided by MIM Patriot offered by the US.
With its own fifth-generation fighter, Turkey would stand to profit by selling it to other countries, while enjoying increased national security with a supply chain that can’t be threatened by sanctions.
At the Paris Air Show, the aircraft was featured with two 12 tonne engines, able to operate at a maximum height of 16.76 km. Just to put that into scale, cloud cover begins at 3 km and higher.
Performance-wise, the TF-X is planned to have a maximum speed of twice the speed of sound, and an operational range of nearly 1,111 km until it runs out fuel, exceeding the US F-35 stealth fighter in a terms of speed, maximum operational height, and matching it in terms of operational range.
The fighter jet is 21 metres long, with a large 14-metre wingspan. The fighter jet will reportedly use an advanced glass cockpit with voice-command interface and data-links so that it controls up to two friendly drones, which may be developed to fire air-to-ground or air-to-air missiles. This could allow it to stalk targets at a distant range without being spotted, sending drones to fire weapons without exposing itself to fire.
The engine remains the most important part of the project and could make or break it. An under powered engine could lead to performance issues, lower speeds, and deny it the air superiority it needs against fighters.
The joint venture will be established by Kale and Rolls-Royce with 51 percent and 49 percent shares, respectively, Daily Sabah reported Monday.
Kale Group aims to develop jet engines for civilian and military use, especially for the Turkey’s domestically-built fighter jet project TF-X.
Until now, various talks have been held with leading engine manufacturers around the world for joint development or technical assistance in building the TF-X engine.
Among these, Rolls-Royce seems to be the leading candidate, forming a joint venture with Kale, one of the leading private defence companies in Turkey, which developed a turbojet engine for the stand-off cruise missile. Negotiations are still ongoing.
The partnership between the two companies is aimed at developing an engine for use in the new-generation fighter aircraft program dubbed the TFX or the National Combat Aircraft (MMU).
A thrust-vector engine, unlike a normal fixed one-direction engine, can angle itself in a number of directions, allowing it to make tighter turns or difficult manoeuvres with ease.
Aside from the standard repertoire of missiles the fighter jet will be able to carry, Aselsan is set to produce the sensors and avionics of the fighter jet. Aselsan is also currently developing an AESA radar, (Active Electronically Scanned Arrays); which would allow the plane to focus radar in different directions without moving a thing.
Roketsan is the main player in Turkey when it comes to missiles and rockets. It already manufactures hypersonic SOM (Stand-off missiles), initially developed by Tubitak. It was working on a version for the F-35 with Lockheed Martin called the SOM-J, but given Turkey is no longer involved, it seems likely it will be adapted to the TF-X.
A stand-off missile is an intelligent hypersonic manoeuvring missile that can be fired from a distance, travelling faster than any known air or missile defence systems that currently exist with a 5 meter target accuracy radius. To put that into perspective, a hypersonic SOM would travel at Mach 5, or 1.6 km per second. Due to it’s intelligent maneuvering capacities, the SOM can fly close to low terrain, dipping beneath radar coverage before surprising a target with its sudden appearance.
Aselsan has also been building ASELPOD targeting systems for Turkish and Pakistani fighters. They also provide secure communications, identification, friend or foe (IFF) systems, displays and mission computers. Turkish Defence Industries also feature a number of smaller expert companies in airborne software and mission systems.
In February 2018, Turkey announced it had committed nearly $1.2 billion and over 3,200 full-time employees to the TF-X’s development. Turkey will commit additional funding when design is finalized.
S-400 Is An Obstacle
“Unfortunately, Turkey’s decision to purchase Russian S-400 air defence systems renders its continued involvement with the F-35 impossible,” the White House said in a statement.
The United States has suspended Ankara from the supply of the F-35s while it initiates the process to formally remove the nation from the programme.
İsmail Demir, President of the Turkish Presidency of Defence Industries (SSB) , said the following day that Turkey will continue to evaluate the alternatives to replace F-35s. “Our national combat aircraft project (TF-X) has been continuing with speed and that this project will be accelerated,” he noted.
Can Turkey Build A Fighter Jet?
Turkey never built a fighter jet, building a stealth aircraft requires considerable amount efforts, skilled manpower, technology and off course investment.
Entirely self-sufficient in air-to-air weapon systems, sensors, and communications, Turkey also provides avionics and structural upgrade programmes for F-35.
Turkish Aerospace Industries has invested a significant amount of its budget into advanced materials and structural manufacturing capabilities.
Turkish defense and aviation companies have considerable experience building aircraft systems and parts for major aircraft programmes, including the F-35 and A400M. For the F-35 alone, Turkey produced 844 parts.
If Turkey does not make any further decision on S-400 system or activate S-400 system and remain allied with the Western countries then possibility very high that USA, France, Germany, Italy, UK and Sweden will support Turkish ambitions to build a fifth-generation fighter jet. Without the technology, engineering know-how and political support from these countries, Turkey would never be able to build a fighter jet, the TFX will remain as a pipe dream.
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