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Monthly Defense News Recap – May 2023

Türkiye Flies Indigenous Helicopter with Indigenous Engine

On 22 April, Turkish Aerospace (TUSAŞ) successfully test flew its T625 Gökbey general purpose helicopter with the indigenously developed Turkish Engine Industries (TEI) TS1400 turboshaft engine.

The head of Türkiye’s Defence Industry Agency (SSB), Ismail Demir, announced the achievement on social media, stating that it was “an important milestone in the Turkish defence industry.”

Indeed, this was the first time Türkiye flew both an indigenously developed helicopter powered by a locally designed and produced powerplant. In fact, the feat arguably places Türkiye among a handful of countries now capable of domestically sourcing the most important inputs of a modern rotary-wing aircraft.

The SSB started the TS1400 program in 2017. Its original goal was to wrap up initial development by 2019 and, in turn, test fly the engine in 2023. Development of the TS1400 is to conclude by 2024 or 2025, with the engine entering full-scale production by that point. From there, Türkiye envisions developing engines with higher thrust ratings so as to support its larger helicopter programs, like the T929 and T925.

The SSB is also aiming to rejuvenate the stalled T129 ATAK deal with Pakistan through the TS1400. Though signed in 2018, the sale of the 30 attack helicopters was derailed due to Washington’s reluctance to release export permits for the LHTEC CTS-800 turboshaft engines, which currently power the ATAK. These engines are bound by ITAR restrictions due to the use of various American-origin technologies.

On paper, the TS1400 offers similar thrust to the CTS-800 at 1,570 shp (compared to the 1,563 shp of the CTS-800). However, for Pakistan to accept a TS1400-powered ATAK, it would need to test the helicopter in its own environment to gauge the aircraft’s hot-and-high performance. The originally configured ATAK had excelled in Pakistan’s hot-temperature and high-altitude operating theaters.

That said, Pakistan likely has an incentive to revive the T129 program if and when the engine matter is fully sorted. Islamabad had signed the contract under the condition of a Turkish government-backed financing program. Thus, the deal did not necessarily require Pakistan to pay upfront to start production as Türkiye’s government at the time took responsibility for it. Potentially, the worst outcome for Pakistan had been the delay in actually acquiring the helicopters, but not a loss of payment money.

Moreover, Türkiye’s apparent push to re-engine T129 also implies that it has shelved the T629, which was supposed to be the attack helicopter version of the T625. This approach makes sense in that Türkiye could re-use all of its existing production infrastructure of the T129 so as to control costs and accelerate timelines to supply an ITAR-free attack helicopter. That said, Türkiye could rework its T629 work in other ways, such as by producing an unmanned attack helicopter to complement the T929.

Türkiye Delivers First Indigenously Upgraded F-16s

On 18 May, Turkish Aerospace (TUSAŞ) delivered the first batch of upgraded F-16C/D Block-30 fighters to the Turkish Air Force. Though domestically upgrading F-16s is not new for Türkiye, indigenously designing and implementing the configuration – i.e., “Özgür” – is a significant milestone.

In effect, Türkiye now has its own analogous counterpart to the Lockheed Martin F-16V upgrade available for both F-16A/B and F-16C/D aircraft. Currently, the Turkish Air Force is aiming to upgrade 35 of its older F-16C/D Block-30s through the Özgür upgrade program.

The centerpiece of the Özgür configuration is the MURAD active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, which is developed and produced by Aselsan, Türkiye’s leading defence electronics producer. In addition, the Özgür also has a domestically produced mission computer alongside an Aselsan-designed avionics and human-machine interface (HMI), which includes new colour multifunction displays (MFD).

Besides modernizing the F-16’s sensors and electronics suite, a major deliverable of the Özgür program is to enable the Turkish Air Force’s F-16s to deploy Türkiye’s indigenously developed munitions, such as the Bozdoğan and Gökdoğan air-to-air missiles (AAM), Atmaca anti-ship cruising missile (ASCM), the SOM air-launched cruise missile (ALCM), and many others both available today and in the coming years.

Finally, Türkiye is also carrying out a service life extension program (SLEP) that will extend the airframe life of the F-16 Block-30 from 8,000 hours to 12,000 hours. For the Turkish Air Force, the Özgür upgrade helps the force deploy emerging air warfare technologies (like AESA radars) ahead of ultimately inducting next-generation fighter aircraft (NGFA) and unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV). Should the new programs experience delays, the upgraded F-16s can still provide a credible, cost-effective capability in the interim.

U.S. President Greenlights F-16 Fighters to Ukraine

The Biden Administration is now approving the eventual transfer of F-16 multirole fighters to the Ukrainian Air Force. However, the aircraft will not be a factor in Ukraine’s forthcoming counter-offensive against the Russians, but rather, as a long-term solution for Ukraine’s air warfare needs.

In the meantime, the U.S. as well as other NATO allies have approved training programs for Ukrainian pilots so that they can acclimate to the F-16 and, potentially, other Western-origin fighters. For example, Sweden (which has applied for NATO membership) will also permit Ukrainian pilots to train on the JAS-39 Gripen, though there is no commitment at this time to transfer those fighters to Kyiv.

Though second-hand or mothballed airframes can help accelerate the process, it is unrealistic to imagine Ukraine effectively deploying new fighters in the immediate future. Rather, it seems that the U.S. and NATO now have a vision for how Ukraine’s military should look in the future, potentially in a post-war context as a future NATO member or, at least, a close NATO ally.

Basically, the West is not just transferring sophisticated weapons to Ukraine, but it is packaging the systems with changes in doctrine. In other words, the Ukrainian military is gradually evolving into a Western force with, potentially, a capacity for interoperability with the U.S. and NATO.

However, for Ukraine to get F-16s in the long-term, an allied Kyiv needs to exist at that point. Thus, Biden’s approval is a sign in of itself; the current US administration wants Ukraine to emerge out of this war with Russia. What this specifically looks like from a territorial standpoint is not known, but with F-16s possibly on the horizon, the U.S. wants a credible ally on Russia’s doorstep.

By initiating this war, Moscow accelerated the strategic threat it wanted to thwart by invading. It has rallied the West to see Ukraine as a military ally, and it has pushed overtly neutral states like Finland and Sweden to seek membership with NATO.

Withdrawing from Ukraine would leave Russia without a buffer; thus, the Russians may not have (from their calculus) any other alternative but to prevent Ukraine from allying with the West. Currently, the U.S. is not interested in letting Russia secure this outcome militarily; ironically, the optimal solution for Moscow could ultimately be on the negotiating table. If anything, the aid has provided the U.S. with the leverage it needs in Ukraine to ensure Kyiv aligns with a possibly American-led conclusion to the war.

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