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Analysis: Why is Pakistan Pursuing the TF-X Kaan Fighter?

On 02 August, Turkish Deputy Defence Minister, Celal Sami Tüfekçi, revealed that discussions are underway on involving Pakistan in Turkey’s next-generation fighter aircraft (NGFA), the Turkish Aerospace Inc. (TAI or TUSAŞ) TF-X KAAN. Tüfekçi also shared that nearly 200 Pakistani engineers were already involved in KAAN.

If talks bear fruit, Pakistan could become the second foreign partner to join the KAAN program, following Azerbaijan, which officially committed itself to the fighter in July. For its part, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) had shown interest in the TAI TF-X several times; in 2019, then Chairman of Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC), Air Marshal Ahmer Shahzad, reportedly said: “Turkey’s T-FX is in line with what the PAF want.

However, joining the KAAN at this point would mark a pivot to the PAF’s previous plans of pursuing a NGFA on its own via an in-house original project – i.e., Project AZM. The apparent collapse of Project AZM is not surprising as Pakistan lacks meaningful experience designing aircraft and a sufficient industrial base for the core inputs, such as aerostructures, turbofan engines, and electronics, among others. Moreover, Pakistan also lacks the fiscal capacity to drive an original NGFA program, at least alone.

Thus, the question of what Pakistan can substantively contribute towards the KAAN emerges, and rightfully so seeing the country’s dearth of fiscal and industrial resources. What does Turkey have to gain from letting Pakistan join the KAAN? Would Pakistan be an asset – or a liability?

In this two-part analysis, Quwa will examine why Pakistan could pursue the TF-X KAAN. In part-one, Quwa will discuss the potential production and R&D gains for Pakistan. In part-two, Quwa will focus on the idea of building conventional deterrence through the KAAN.

Growing R&D Capacities, Offsets, and Technology Integration

For Turkey, one starting point could be getting Pakistan’s help in generating economies-of-scale, especially through firm orders or commitments. Generally, the PAF does not procure a new fighter platform (through national funds) without planning for a minimum of 90 units. Thus, a partnership with Pakistan could divide the substantial R&D overhead being built for the KAAN across more individual units, thus driving the unit cost of each fighter lower and, in turn, making it a more attractive prospect for other countries.

The PAF is also a major regional air force in that possesses large numbers of contemporary combat aircraft – i.e., F-16 and JF-17 – and a growing array of capable support assets, such as Erieye airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft, drones, and network-enabled warfare systems (including apparent plans for satellite communication, satellite imaging, and satellite navigation assets). It also has experience deploying its assets in a real-world conventional conflict scenario (i.e., Swift Retort in 2019).

Hence, the PAF can contribute towards testing and validating the KAAN, providing TAI with additional data and insights it can use in conjunction with those of the Turkish Air Force, among other partners. In fact, of the experience the PAF developed via the JF-17, building the bridge between flight-testing prototypes and frontline deployment was a critical – albeit self-serving – contribution.

However, there is no doubt that the KAAN would benefit the most from genuine fiscal and R&D support – and there is no doubt that Pakistan lacks both. That said, Pakistan can become a viable R&D partner, but it needs significant work in terms of policy planning, organizational leadership, and resource-usage. Sadly, the latent aerospace R&D capacities Pakistan already has are not being employed efficiently, and initiatives like National Aerospace Science and Technology Park (NASTP) could prove to become barriers rather than assets due to the country’s fundamental flaws to R&D.

On the other hand, Turkey brings the policy leadership, organizational maturity, and resources to force real change in Pakistan’s R&D environment. Moreover, at this point, the KAAN is the only available route to the PAF to accessing an NGFA with meaningful technology transfer and co-production opportunities (however limited, it will likely be more than what the Chinese will be willing to offer). Thus, Ankara can exercise real influence over Pakistani R&D decision-making, especially since Pakistan lacks fiscal leverage to create any real threat of “walking out” on the TF-X. It would be up to Pakistan to earn and keep its seat in the project.

For example, Turkey can force the PAF to actively collaborate with the Pakistani private sector. TAI can by-pass PAC and, instead, delegate more of the R&D duties to its Pakistani office. Given that this is happening today, there is little incentive for TAI to pivot away from trusting the managers and teams it recruited. The next step for TAI – and Turkey generally – could be to invest in Pakistani companies; first to grow them and, ultimately, expand them into long-term supply chain partners.

Ultimately, such initiatives would seek to shift the bulk of aerospace R&D and production work from state-owned enterprises (e.g., PAC) to more efficient, profit-focused private sector companies. This approach to collaboration could help build a productive R&D engine in Pakistan and, as importantly, build new revenue streams for Turkey via co-owning said Pakistani companies and sharing in their profits, which would come from servicing PAF procurement and maintenance/support orders.

The discussion thus far may sound unconventional, but, interestingly, the examples above mirror some of the ways the Turkish defence industry developed over the decades. Tusaş Engine Industries (TEI), which is Turkey’s leading state-owned engine manufacturer – and now designer – was founded as a joint-venture between TAI, the Turkish Armed Forces Foundation, and GE Aviation. Likewise, the land systems producer FNSS Savunma Sistemleri A.Ş. was also co-founded between Turkey’s Nurol Holding and BAE Systems from the U.K. Thus, Turkey has the experience of building its own industry by partnering with foreign vendors.

Though optimistic, Turkish investment in Pakistan’s private defence sector – and the implicit guarantees it exudes by having a competent policy and technology leader enter the space – could incentivize Pakistani investors to buy into the industry. If Ankara can provide an alternative pathway to the status-quo Pakistani red-tape, corruption, and lack of policy leadership, it might generate organic economic activity.

In this context, a productive R&D culture could arise in Pakistan (with Turkey’s helping hand) and, in turn, give Turkey a major partner to collaborate with on the KAAN and other programs. Combined with the fact that the PAF can provide economies-of-scale through firm orders, the groundwork for a strong partnership does exist. Unfortunately – and perhaps unfairly – for Turkey, Ankara would have to work to build it so that Pakistan can reach that point. Undoubtedly, this would be a test of Turkish patience, one that Pakistan can – and to its own detriment – squeeze due to its intrinsic problems.

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