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Turkey Reveals Prototype of its MMU/TFX Next-Gen Fighter

In November, Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) revealed the first prototype of its next-generation fighter (NGFA), the MMU (Milli Muharip Ucak). The unit is currently undergoing final assembly as TAI’s production facility. TAI is working to complete the prototype by 2023 and, in turn, fly the aircraft by 2026.

Turkey began planning for a homegrown NGFA in 2010 with the aim of gradually replacing its workhorse multirole fighter, the F-16C/D. Turkey had called on several OEMs for assistance in developing the fighter, and it got responses from Sweden’s Saab and Britain’s BAE Systems.

In 2017, TAI signed an agreement with BAE Systems. Under the £100 million-plus deal, the latter provided design and development assistance to TAI. However, this was a transactional agreement with BAE selling services to TAI. Ultimately, Turkey was aiming to indigenize the TFX’s critical inputs and, following its exit from the F-35 Lightning II program, build a turnkey industry for the TFX domestically.

One interesting aspect of the MMU is its design configuration. While opting for a twin-engine design was not a surprise, even in the context of replacing F-16s. Most of the emerging medium-weight NGFAs, such as the Chinese J-35 and South Korean KF-21, are twin-engine designs.

Rather, the intriguing characteristic of the MMU is that it is a heavyweight twin-engine design. It will utilize two GE F110-class engines, much like the F-15 Eagle. Thus, it is possible that the MMU, especially a later block, could provide a notable payload and range upgrade over the F-16.

It is possible that the push for a heavyweight twin-engine caught momentum due to Turkey’s departure from the F-35. Originally, the F-35 was supposed to provide a dedicated strike element for the Turkish Air Force. Thus, the Turkish Air Force may have sought to build enough flexibility in the MMU to eventually deliver a significant strike capability, especially through a later block that is fully optimized for the role.

Another major aspect of the MMU is Turkey’s ongoing push to invite other countries, such as Pakistan, to collaborate in the program. Turkey’s probable motivations for inviting foreign partners likely centered on driving economies-of-scale and, potentially, driving cost savings by pooling resources.

However, for some countries – notably Pakistan – the MMU’s reliance on ITAR inputs (like the engine) was a major barrier to entering the program. This was understandable given the turbulent nature of Pakistan’s ties with the United States, which has shown a willingness to block third-party transfers of engines.

But with Turkey actively moving to develop largely – if not completely – indigenous MMU, this perception (of ITAR risk) may change. In fact, the wider Turkish aerospace industry is starting to make major inroads in Pakistan, especially in the area of drones. Thus, as the Turkish industry demonstrates more control over the TFX/MMU’s critical inputs, it could start attracting partners.

Turkey’s defence industry – across both state-owned and private-sector players – is making progress on the major core inputs of the TFX/MMU, such as:

Indigenous Turbofan Engines

TAI will power the first MMU prototype(s) with the General Electric (GE) F110 turbofan engine. This is the same powerplant used onboard the Turkish Air Force’s F-16s. In fact, the Turkish defence industry built a significant level of infrastructure to support and, to some extent, even produce the F110. Thus, extending its use to the MMU made sense from an economical standpoint as it re-leverages an existing overhead.

However, Turkey is working to equip the MMU with indigenously developed turbofan engines. The central player of these plans seems to be TR Motor, a branch of TAI (which had taken over the entity from BMC, a local private sector giant). TAI/TR Motor is trying to locally develop every critical piece of the turbofan engines, including the difficult components, such as the turbine and crystal blades.

Turkey is aiming to fly the MMU with homegrown engines by 2029. This is an ambitious timeline, especially considering that the first prototype (equipped with GE F110 engines) is still under production. However, few, if any, observers outside of Turkey had anticipated TAI showing the prototype and its assembly line.

Overall, there is cause to be optimistic about Turkey’s progress with the MMU. Everything it has done up to this point has shown both active willingness and tangible progress for the engine, and the wider project.

Sensors and Avionics

Aselsan and Havelsan are taking the lead roles in developing the MMU’s radar, electro-optical (EO) sensor, human-machine interfaces (HMI), and onboard electronics countermeasures (ECM) systems.

In fact, the work has already materialized in the sense that these homegrown inputs will find their way to a number of the Turkish Air Force’s older F-16s through an upgrade. Thus, the groundwork for these sub-systems has already been set. Turkey has tangible products it can already operationalize and test ahead of the products it aims to release for the MMU.

Arguably, one of the more difficult inputs left to develop is the helmet-mounted display and sight (HMD/S) system for the TFX/MMU. However, even in this regard, Aselsan has shown glimpses of the HMD/S it has been developing for the MMU. The design takes cues from the BAE Striker II in the sense that it leverages a projection-based system that displays on the helmet visor.

Air-to-Air and Air-to-Surface Munitions

Turkey also has a growing roster of indigenously developed air-to-air missiles (AAM) and advanced air-to-surface munitions, like anti-ship cruising missiles (ASCM), air-launched cruise missiles (ALCM), stand-off weapons (SOW), and precision-guided bombs (PGB).

Like the radar and avionics stack, these solutions have already started materializing and entering service with the Turkish Air Force. Like the onboard electronics, these solutions (e.g., the Roketsan Atmaca and the SOM) are not concepts or theoretical ideas. They are systems that Turkey can deploy, test, and, just as importantly, improve through future iterations ahead of the MMU.

The Growth of Aerospace Infrastructure for the MMU

The MMU will reportedly have upwards of 20,000 individual components. Not only that, but the General Manager of TAI, Dr. Temel Kotil, expects that as many as 6,000 engineers could be working on the project.

Without a doubt, the MMU is a massive undertaking for not just the Turkish government, but potentially, the Turkish economy and industrial base as a whole. In this sense, the Turkish government is encouraging the country’s industry to step up and deliver each key input through indigenous IP and resources.

This aspect of the program is also beginning to materialize in Turkey’s favour. For example, the company Volo is responsible for producing the MMU’s canopy. It has even delivered a unit for the prototype. This is simply one among many inputs coming from the wider Turkish industry. Other local suppliers will deliver onboard oxygen-generating systems (OBOGS), composites, and specific aerostructure parts.

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