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Pakistan Open Minded on Turkey’s Next-Gen Fighter TF-X

In 2016, Pakistan’s previous Minister of Defence Production (MoDP), Rana Tanveer Hussain, told PTV that Turkey invited Pakistan to participate in the TF-X, Turkish Aerospace’s (TAI) next-generation fighter (NGF) program. Since then, the following official representatives from both countries promoted the possibility:

November 2016

On the lead-up to the 2016 International Defence Exhibition and Seminar (IDEAS), then Secretary of the MoDP, Lt. General (retired) Syed Muhammad Owais, said the following:

“Importantly, joint collaboration on 5th generation fighter aircraft, commonly known as Turkish Fighter Development [TF-X] Program, will be a true flagship project between Pakistan and Turkey. Currently, the details and scope of collaboration and participation is being worked between the two governments for jointly undertaking this strategic project, which would further open new vistas of mutual cooperation of defence industries of the two countries.”[1]

During IDEAS 2016, Özcan Ertem, then Executive Vice President of TAI’s Aircraft Group, told MSI Turkish Defence Review that both sides were talking on the issue.

April 2017

In an interview with Bol Narratives, Air Chief Marshal (ACM) Sohail Aman, the prior Chief of Air Staff (CAS) of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), spoke of collaborating with Turkey (twice):

  1. We are integrating our technology with friendly countries, including Turkey. We are thinking of producing the next-generation aircraft by pooling resources with them. For this, the basic framework and agreements have been made.
  2. We are also collaborating with Turkey for developing a next generation aircraft.

May 2017

During the 2017 International Defence Industry Fair (IDEF), aviation journalist and a leading source of PAF information, Alan Warnes had tweeted, “No [Pakistan] agreement with TAI on TF-X, but sometime in near future it’s likely to figure in PAF’s new generation fighter aircraft requirement.

Thus, it is evident that the PAF is following the TF-X with a measure of interest, and a recent statement of Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) Kamra’s Chairman, Air Marshal Ahmer Shahzad (via Alan Warnes) – i.e., “Turkey’s T-FX is in line with what the PAF want” – during IDEF 2019 is a direct and official statement.

However, the importance of this apparent interest in unclear. In fact, the PAF commissioned its own NGF under its Project Azm initiative. If anything, this news of the PAF showing interest in the TF-X could mean one of two potential outcomes: (1) the PAF is seeking a complementary NGF to accompany Project Azm or (2) Project Azm could blend into a collaborative foreign project. In some areas, such as electronics, air-to-air and air-to-surface munitions, and/or the turbofan platform, it could be a combination of both.

A Project Azm Hint?

The notion of acquiring a second NGF is plausible. Yes, it would be costly, but seeing how the PAF has no apparent plans for an imported high-performance fighter in the near-term, it could tag the TF-X or another fighter as a potential long-term successor to the F-16. Thus, Project Azm could supplant the JF-17.

However, the PAF selecting that route may give an idea of the potential scope of Project Azm. If the TF-X – i.e., a medium-to-heavy-weight twin-engine design – supplants the F-16, then it stands to reason that a JF-17 successor (i.e., Project Azm) could be a light-to-medium-weight fighter.

Though a divergence from the trend of most (if not all) forthcoming NGF programs – i.e., generally larger twin-engine fighters – this avenue is plausible. Ultimately, Pakistan’s aviation industry is in its infancy, at least from the standpoint of critical inputs (such as composites, gas turbines, etc) and design experience.

It does not have the time or resources to attempt a comparatively more complex project; rather, its main goals would be to minimize risk. The starting point to this would be to save as much as possible in Project Azm’s design specifications and engineering phase so as to maintain a relatively light R&D overhead.

Interestingly, Pakistan could learn a lesson in this regard from South Africa. In the 1980s, South Africa had intended to develop its own multi-role fighter to supplant its aging Mirage III/5s and Mirage F-1s.

This was the Atlas Carver. The South African Air Force (SAAF) had intended the Carver to be a single engine fighter, but South Africa’s inability to find a suitable turbofan engine and/or a shift in SAAF requirements pushed Atlas to develop a larger twin-engine fighter instead. Unfortunately, the design complexity, time, and R&D spending had each gone up, resulting in a development overhead of $2 billion US.

Thus, for Project Azm to succeed, the R&D overhead must be relatively light. To achieve that, the design must be comparatively simpler. That said, one should not underestimate the inherent design potential of even a conservative NGF. For example, the 4.5-gen Saab Gripen E/F – while billed as an enlarged version of the JAS-39C/D – utilizes the GE F414 turbofan engine to achieve supercruise.

The PAF could blend the approach by enlarging the JF-17 (e.g., by 20-30% as the Gripen E/F and Tejas Mk2 compared to the Gripen C/D and Tejas Mk1, respectively), but heavily use composite materials and work on reducing the radar cross-section (RCS) in parts of the airframe to lower detectability.

Interestingly, South Korea had examined a similar approach for the KF-X by designing a lightweight single-engine fighter drawing on the T-50 Golden Eagle. Designated the C501, the concept was billed as the less complex and lower-cost approach for the KF-X. There are potential constraints, such as less range, lighter payload, and, possibly, the omission of an internal weapons bay.

Korea Aerospace Industries KFX C501 Concept. Source: Korean Times

However, none of those necessarily render a lightweight fighter incapable, especially if the PAF designs it to achieve specific performance parameters (e.g., sustained turn-rate and instantaneous turn-rate), key capabilities (e.g., supercruise), and procures the right electronics and munitions. It could even look at the idea of a small internal bay for primarily air-to-air missiles and small munitions.

Overall, the PAF could, in theory, blend Saab and Korea Aerospace Industries’ (KAI) respective approaches. Basically, it could start with the JF-17, but enlarge the airframe while improving its maneuverability, RCS, and weight. A project of this scope would still result in a net-new fighter program, but in terms of cost and time, it would likely fit Project Azm’s scope the best compared to going alone on a bigger fighter.

That said, the starting-point to fighter design should be the engine. That constraint basically forced Atlas to completely change the Carver, so it serves the PAF’s interest to start inductively by securing the engine for Project Azm. Interestingly, there may already be an option in China, notably the Gas Turbine Research Institute, which reportedly developed a new high-performance turbofan for next-generation fighters.

TF-X Competitors

If the PAF has settled on a light-to-medium-weight fighter for Project Azm (note: retired ACM Sohail Aman was quoted saying the PAF completed the design), then it could confer its long-range and heavy-payload needs to an off-the-shelf fighter. However, give the cost and complexity involved, the PAF would be best served collaborating with other countries on said fighter. Cue the TF-X.

That said, the TF-X is not the only fighter that fits that bill. There is also the KAI KF-X – Seoul decided to go for the larger twin-engine C-109 – which also should, by Air Marshal Ahmer Shahzad’s logic, also align with the PAF’s needs. It is unlikely that the costliness of the TF-X would be any less challenging than the KF-X (especially seeing how South Kore has a fully matured industrial base, unlike Turkey).

Finally, there is also China. If the PAF can consider the TF-X, then it is unlikely to be ignoring the FC-31 or, potentially, future Chinese NGF programs (e.g., a carrier-borne development of the FC-31). The interesting scenario would be Turkey pivoting the TF-X from drawing on Western technology to, instead, drawing on Chinese or Russian inputs (e.g., for engines). That could align Turkey, Pakistan, China and/or Russia on the same page, though, at this stage, this appears unlikely.

[1] Birol Tekince. “IDEAS serves as a platform to portray a positive and realistic image of Pakistan.” MSI Turkish Defence Review. November 2016. Issue. 31.

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