Nearly every country on the globe with both a large defense budget and pressing security concerns is attempting to either purchase stealth fighters from abroad or develop their own. Turkey now joins India , South Korea and Japan in seeking to do both.
Next month on June 21, 2018 the Turkish Air Force is set to receive the first of thirty F-35A Lightning II stealth fighters from the United States—overcoming efforts by members of Congress to block the sale due to growing foreign policy clashes and concerns over human rights. The transfer ceremony will occur in the U.S., as the Turkish pilots receive training at Lockheed-Martin facilities.
Turkey invested $175 million in the F-35’s development, and Ankara plans to eventually procure 120 of the fifth-generation attack jets. However, in 2013 Turkey began seriously looking into developing its own TF-X stealth fighter as well. Initially, Turkey considered buying into Korea’s KF-X stealth aircraft program, but that fell through due to Seoul’s limited interested in sharing technology.
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Turkey instead intends to design its own stealth jet, for reasons both tactical and political. The F-35 is a multi-role strike plane designed to infiltrate enemy airspace, gather and distribute critical intelligence, and attack key targets. It is less optimized than the preceding F-22 Raptor for tackling enemy fighters, especially in shorter-range engagements where the Lightning’s stealth characteristics become less salient and its mediocre kinematic performance causes more problems. Turkey, however, would like an air superiority-focused fighter to complement its F-35s.
In the political realm, the Turkish government’s long running slide into authoritarianism and diverging foreign policy objectives with Europe and the United States have led politicians in both to begin opposing continued technology transfers. Turkey has even dangled the release of foreign political prisoners as a quid pro quo for arms transfers. The situation doubtlessly is reinforcing Ankara’s desire for an indigenous technological base and weapons systems that may be less disrupted by chilling relations with Europe and the United States.
The TAI TF-X—on Paper
The TAI TF-X is intended to be a twin-engine, single-seat low-observable air-superiority fighter with secondary ground attack capability, much like the F-22. Stealthy features would include an internal weapons bay (as externally mounted weapons increase an aircraft’s radar cross section) and an advanced carbon-composite fuselage which will be less radar-reflective.
The Turkish manufacturer TAI is supposed to produce a flying TF-X prototype by 2023, with the first of an envisioned 250 production aircraft leaving the factory floor in 2029 and entering service in 2031. These would eventually replace the Turkish Air Force’s fleet of 245 single-engine F-16 fighters . The TF-X would remain in service into the 2070s, serving in a complementary role to Turkish F-35s.
Founded in 2005, Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) is not an instantly recognizable name like Boeing or Dassault. Originally devoted to license-building Turkish F-16s, TAI continues to produce avionics and components (including F-35 parts), drones and Turkish variants or modifications of foreign-built aircraft.
However, TAI has only fully designed one manned airplane: the Hurkus, a turboprop two-seat trainer/light attack plane similar in concept to the Super Tucano . While TAI has license-built F-16s, designing an entirely new jet from scratch, let alone a stealth plane, will amount to a major leap for the company.
The TF-X currently is conceptualized with a design that somewhat resembles an F-22 with its canted tail fins. Earlier iterations of the TF-X concept developed with the Swedish Saab firm envisioned a family of single and twin-engine aircraft .
In January 2017, British Prime Minister Theresa May and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan publicly signed off on a £100 million ($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. Then in February 2018, Ankara announced it had committed the equivalent of $1.2 billion and over 3,200 full time employees to the T-X’s development.
TAI released specifications in 2017 indicating the aircraft will measure 17 meters long, have a 12-meter wingspan, and a maximum take-off weight exceeding 30 tons (MTOW of the F-35 and F-22 are 35 and 41.5 tons respectively). Performance wise, the TF-X is intended to have a maximum speed of twice the speed of sound, a service ceiling of 55,000 ft, and range approaching 700 miles, the former two characteristics exceeding those of the F-35.
Additionally, the Turkish firm ASELSAN has been subcontracted, and is working on a domestic gallium-nitride Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar. AESA radars are the cutting-edge in aerial sensors, as they boast high resolution while having a low probability of intercept by hostile radars. ASELSAN already manufactures a variety of defensive avionics, so its speculated it may also contribute digital-frequency jammers and components such as Radar Warning Receivers to the TF-X.