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Turkey’s TFX: Where Does It Stand Today?

By Arslan Khan

Author Profile: Arslan Khan is an aerospace engineering student and an analyst/observer of Pakistani defence issues.

On 19 November, the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) Air Chief Marshal (ACM) Mike Wigston tweeted a comment about the TFX, Turkey’s next-generation fighter program.[1] ACM Wigston seemingly reaffirmed the U.K’s – and in particular, BAE System’s – involvement in the TFX. In 2017, Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) signed an agreement with BAE Systems in which the latter agreed to help design and develop the fighter.

Having lost its access to the F-35 Lightning II, the TFX is of importance to Turkey as its sole (albeit current) option for a next-generation fighter. However, Ankara was also clear about exporting the fighter; but considering its current development track (and inputs), is this a realistic option?

How Realistic is the TFX?

There is skepticism about Turkey’s ability to develop the TFX, at least within its aggressive timelines and – more importantly – indigenization goals. In January 2020, the Presidency of Defence Industries (SSB) led by Dr. Ismail Demir reportedly said that the indigenous engine-equipped TFX would fly in 2029.[2] To achieve a goal of this magnitude on one’s first attempt at an in-house fighter and engine is unprecedented.

In one respect, the TFX is fully tenable. In this context, one can trust Turkey’s ability to manage the project (from its past history manufacturing F-16s and, as of late, designing advanced drones) if it relies on reliable foreign inputs, such as engines and electronics. The Turkish industry – including both public sector giants such as TAI and private sector upstarts like KALE – was also involved in the F-35’s supply channel. Thus, its ability to support design, development, integration, manufacturing, and support is all established.

However, the caveat in this scenario is that the critical inputs – i.e., the most valuable and difficult to build – components are of foreign origin. If Turkey can take these inputs for granted, the TFX will be as capable and successful as the T129 ATAK attack helicopter and Altay main battle tank (MBT). However, if the Turks fail to secure these inputs, the TFX will suffer the same delays or export roadblocks as the ATAK and Altay.

It is simply unlikely that Turkey will develop an inhouse engine from scratch (with minimal to not outside intellectual property and support) in less than a decade. China had invested multitudes more funds in the gas turbine industry as a whole to get serviceable versions of its WS-10 turbofan engine 15 years after its first test-run in 2002 (where it could exclusively rely on the design rather than imports).

In its current roadmap, Turkey will use the General Electric (GE) F110-GE-129E to power the TFX.[3] TAI had even signed an agreement in 2018 with France’s Dassault Systèmes to co-develop various elements of the fighter using the latter’s 3DEXPERIENCE software stack.[4] It is worth noting that Embraer had used the very same platform to develop flight control systems (FCS) for its various aircraft.[5] This, it is possible that TAI is – or at least was – intended to develop the TFX’s FCS with Dassault Systèmes’ support. Currently, Turkey will source the radar, avionics, and electronic countermeasures (ECM) suite domestically.

Based on the engine and FCS alone, the TFX already has several key fault-lines. Given the recurrent spats Ankara and Paris get into, the Dassault Systèmes angle is not something Turkey can take for granted. And while Turkey’s bilateral ties with the US industry are strong, foreign policy disputes can jeopardize entire programs – e.g., Turkey’s involvement in the F-35. The causes for this instability may be Ankara’s volatility, but that volatility is a ‘fixed variable’ in that it occurs on a regular basis. In other words, the TFX would be under constant threat of issues due to this volatility.

In a cynical sense, the SSB’s confidence in Turkey’s indigenous input development makes sense. In light of the foreign relations instability, the existence of domestic input programs can offer confidence to possible co-development and/or co-funding partners. However, if the domestic programs are not critical for local needs (as Turkey can, at least for now, rely on the US and Europe), then are they priorities for the TFX? In one sense, Turkey wants partners to help fund and scale the program, yet its best candidates cannot (for one reason or another) work with the same supplier pool as Turkey.

There is a disconnect between the current development track (which emphasizes foreign inputs) and the abstract, indigenous content-based program. It is as if the latter is only on the table to pull attention from the likes of Pakistan, yet it is not realistic at this time. Fortunately, the main track (i.e., the foreign input-based variant) can benefit from the fact that Turkey is not spending money on the F-35. So, the Western input version is realistic, it is just unclear if it is an exportable solution.

Will Turkey Export the TFX?

Not only does Turkey intend to export the TFX, but it has invited numerous countries to share funding and development tasks in the program. These countries include Pakistan, Azerbaijan, Malaysia, and Qatar. But as noted earlier, only countries that can readily access restricted (e.g., ITAR) technologies will realistically be able to buy TFX fighters. This may include Qatar and Malaysia. However, the likes of Pakistan will have to look forward to the indigenous input variant, which, practically, is a non-factor.

Unfortunately, Turkey cannot take Qatar or Malaysia for granted. Both of those countries are just as well inclined (if not more likely) to procure a Western European or American fighter. The latter could certainly pitch next-generation fighters to their existing customers. Pakistan could be a viable bet. It had expressed interest in the TFX on numerous occasions. However, given Islamabad’s own precarious relations with the US, it may prefer ITAR-free solutions. On the other hand, ITAR is not necessarily a deal-breaker.

If the Turks cannot take the West for granted, and cannot realistically rely on indigenous projects in near- or medium-term timelines, then it could look East. It will be worth observing if Ankara is open to working with Chinese input suppliers (just as Pakistan likely is to drive Project AZM).

There are indications of Ankara warming up to Beijing (and vice-versa), albeit on contentious matters such as the Uighur extradition issue. But a thaw is occurring. However, the thaw is unlikely to convert towards a fighter co-development effort, at least in the foreseeable future.

Overall, Turkey would prefer if Pakistan can maintain sufficiently amenable ties with the US so that it is able to secure ITAR components through third parties. Though the US did not greenlight the ATAK, it has allowed GE to sell the LM2500 gas turbine for the Pakistan Navy’s (PN) MILGEM corvettes.

The Biden administration may continue where Obama left off in using a balanced carrot-and-stick method of influencing Pakistani military decision-makers. In this sense, the White House can leverage third-party ITAR input sales to draw Pakistani support, and reliably follow-through on those sales.

Basically, Pakistan purchasing TFX fighters could attract less attention and scrutiny in Congress than a direct sale of US-built fighters. In fact, key Pakistani projects – such as the MILGEM corvette and Sea Sultan long-range maritime patrol aircraft (LRMPA) – already rely on ITAR inputs.

Thus, those countries interested in the TFX will have to accept that it is practically a Western fighter. For those with stable ties with the US and Western Europe, this may not be an issue. However, Turkey would have to compete with those same suppliers, and the latter will have an advantage in key markets (except for a handful, such as Azerbaijan and Pakistan).

 

[1] Twitter. 19 November 2020. URL: https://twitter.com/ChiefofAirStaff/status/1329359772328587269

[2] “Homegrown fighter jet to fly with domestic engine by 2029.” Daily Sabah. 10 January 2020. URL: https://www.dailysabah.com/defense/2020/01/10/homegrown-fighter-jet-to-fly-with-domestic-engine-by-2029

[3] Interview with Dr. Ismail Demir, the Head of Turkey’s Presidency of Defence Industries (SSB). Volume 15. Issue 101. 2020. URL: https://www.defenceturkey.com/en/content/at-the-helm-of-the-ssb-steering-the-stability-and-strength-of-the-turkish-defense-industry-ssb-president-prof-ismail-demir-discusses-turkey-s-opportunities-and-capabilities-in-a-multipolar-world-4230

[4] Verdi Ogewell. “Dassault Claims TAI PLM Order is the Biggest of the Year and a Win-Back from Siemens.” Engineering.com. 13 August 2018. URL: https://www.engineering.com/PLMERP/ArticleID/17467/Dassault-Claims-TAI-PLM-Order-is-the-Biggest-of-the-Year-and-a-Win-Back-from-Siemens.aspx

[5] Case Study. Dassault Systèmes. URL: https://www.3ds.com/insights/customer-stories/embraer

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