With Turkey and Pakistan finalizing a number of important defence deals, such as the ASELPOD acquisition and Agosta 90B submarine program, some circles in both countries are of the hope that the era of strong bilateral defence relations is finally beginning. This has been an aspiration, especially since the mid-2000s when the two countries embarked to engage in areas such as joint technology development and training.
Sadly, a particularly troublesome political and economic period within Pakistan from 2009 put a heavy dampener on those aspirations, especially on the acquisitions front where the Pakistan Navy’s pursuit of four MILGEM corvettes fell through. Fortunately, the two countries still managed to nurture their ties in the realm of training, with the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and Turkish Air Force (TuAF) being regular participants at one another’s exercises, such as Anatolian Eagle (Turkey) and Indus Viper (Pakistan).
The summer of 2016 could emerge as a milestone where major procurements and joint-initiatives become a more common sight between Anakara and Islamabad. For example, Pakistan requested $400 million in credit from Turkey to help finance a procurement of four MILGEM-based corvettes. Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) is also eager to sell its T-129 dedicated attack helicopter to the Pakistan Army. However, as valuable as these programs are on their own terms, their scope would utterly pale in comparison to the prospect of the PAF signing onto the TAI TFX next-generation fighter program.
The idea of this being reality is tenuous or on the weaker side, but a well-placed Pakistani government official reportedly told Turkey’s publicly owned media outlet Anadolu Agency that the two countries were in talks over the TAI TFX. Anadolu Agency even noted that if the program “materialized, it [would] be a flagship project between the two brotherly countries.” It has to be prefaced that government officials from Pakistan say many things, one only needs to look at the news of the PAF’s purported interest in the Sukhoi Su-35 as an example (of what could be wrong with what these officials say). When it comes to the PAF, it is always best to take it from the words of a publicly known PAF official.
At the same time, it would be unfair to extrapolate the weaker underpinnings of the Su-35 idea with the claims surrounding the TFX. For one thing, unlike Russia, Pakistan actually has a fruitful and increasingly strong defence relationship with Turkey. Furthermore, both countries are at work to connect Pakistan to big-ticket arms procurements (e.g. warships, helicopters and even drones); that cannot be said for Russia, at least at this time. While incredibly lofty in its own right, the idea of TFX coming up on the discussion table is still within the realm of reason. As a matter of fact, Turkey proceeded with the TFX in the hopes of exporting it.
But Turkey’s intentions aside, it is important to validate whether Pakistan itself could be interested in such a program. Fortunately, the PAF leadership has been relatively very open with its thoughts about its next-generation fighter needs and options. Its current commander, Air Chief Marshal (ACM) Sohail Aman, told PTV (a state-owned Pakistani media outlet) that the PAF was exploring its options in the ‘East’ and ‘West.’ Given the reality in front of Air Headquarters (AHQ), the PAF’s options in the East would be in the shape of Chinese platforms, namely the AVIC FC-31. But what could the PAF possibly look at from the West? An existing platform (such as the Eurofighter Typhoon) notwithstanding, the PAF’s next-generation option in the West would essentially center on the TFX. In fact, the TFX is a Western platform; the principal user is a NATO power (Turkey) and the platform’s technology progenitors are British and West European.
With the above in mind, one could plausibly suggest that the TAI TFX is an option for the PAF. However, this does not necessarily mean that the PAF would take that route. Part-two will examine the viability of the TFX in light with the PAF’s realities and alternative options.