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Türkiye and Pakistan to Start Talks on KAAN Stealth Fighter

On 02 August, the Turkish Deputy Minister of Defence, Celal Sami Tüfekçi, announced that officials from Türkiye and Pakistan will meet by the end of the month to discuss the latter’s potential entry into Türkiye’s next-generation fighter aircraft (NGFA) program, the KAAN.

Tüfekçi revealed the news during the launch ceremony of the Pakistan Navy’s (PN) fourth MILGEM Babur-class corvette, PNS Tariq. Currently, the MILGEM – which includes four corvettes plus the jointly-designed and produced Jinnah-class frigate – is the flagship defence program between Türkiye and Pakistan. But this could potentially be eclipsed by Pakistan one day joining the KAAN fighter program.

Tüfekçi also revealed that 200 Pakistani engineers and other technical personnel are providing support to the KAAN program. This is likely in reference to the Pakistani staff working for Turkish Aerospace Industries Inc.’s (TUSAŞ) office at the National Science and Technology Park (NSTP) from 2019.

A Pivot from ‘Project AZM?’

The Pakistan Air Force (PAF) had formally launched an in-house NGFA known as “Project AZM” in July 2017 under its ‘Kamra Aviation City’ initiative. Moreover, the PAF established an ‘Aviation Research, Innovation and Development’ (AvRID) Secretariat to lead Project AZM.

Though AvRID had ostensibly carried out some preliminary design work, it became apparent that Project AZM was losing steam among the PAF’s top decision-makers, including the Chief of Air Staff (CAS). In fact, by 2019, then PAF CAS, Air Chief Marshal (ACM) Mujahid Anwar Khan, said that the PAF could collaborate with overseas partners provided the design was free of ITAR restrictions. Other PAF officials, including the Chairman of Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC), stated that the Turkish TF-X could align with PAF needs.

Ultimately, the PAF’s initial idea of pursuing Project AZM as an in-house project was riddled with ‘red flags’ from the start. Generally, countries initiate programs of this nature to mobilize their existing expertise in key areas, such as engines, aerostructures, and aircraft design, among many others. While a new project can catapult a country’s technology base, there needs to be base to develop in the first place.

Pakistan lacked any such technology base; so, in the best-case scenario, it would have had to import each of the critical inputs (e.g., turbofan engines) to drive the program. However, to even take on that project, Pakistan would have needed credible in-house design and development capabilities. This would not have been possible as Pakistan, especially the PAF, lacked that capacity.

Thus, if the PAF was serious about acquiring an NGFA, it would have had to look outward. Considering the Turkish KAAN – alongside suitable Chinese options – was an inevitability. Pakistan – and the PAF especially – was in no position to drive a domestic NGFA program.

Rather, the PAF should have looked abroad at the start of its NGFA plans. In fact, as early as 2016, Türkiye had invited Pakistan to participate in the TFX/MMU program. Granted, Türkiye was also a new entrant in aerospace, but it had a relevant industrial and technology base to leverage, even in 2016.

For example, it was a key part of the F-35 Lightning II’s supply chain and, in fact, was responsible for several key inputs, like the fuselage and landing gear. Likewise, its aerospace industry (across both state-owned and private sector entities) were showing clear signs of technical progression in their work, be it as supply chain partners for major overseas aviation projects or as domestic solutions providers.

Additionally, working with Türkiye also made strategic sense for Pakistan. Unlike America or China, Türkiye is not an economic superpower where it could afford (or even require) large numbers of KAAN units. Yet, at the same time, it would still need to drive economies-of-scale so as to lower unit costs, amortize its R&D overhead, and continue further development. Pakistan could help Türkiye with driving scale (possibly by matching each Turkish Air Force unit order on a 1:1 or near 1:1 basis). In return, Pakistan could have wield enough leverage to secure favourable co-production and economic offset benefits.

By joining the KAAN at this stage, Pakistan could still potentially secure meaningful co-production and/or offset benefits. However, by failing to join the KAAN at an earlier stage, Pakistan may have lost out on the opportunity to nurture its own aircraft design and development base.

To develop the KAAN, Türkiye had to build competency in a large – and still growing – array of technologies, such as airframe materials (e.g., composites), flight control technology, and many others. Pakistan could have inserted itself into the KAAN’s early development process and, in turn, learned about these key inputs as Türkiye was developing them. Potentially, Pakistan could have built its own cadre of experts who could then offer more meaningful technical support for the KAAN.

Finally, it would be inaccurate to say argue that “hindsight is 20:20” in this scenario. Undoubtedly, joining the KAAN was – and still is – a high-risk avenue. However, the PAF opted for an alternate high-risk option in AZM which, in reality, was less substantiated and less feasible than the KAAN. The fact that the PAF had pursued AZM exposes a lack of policymaking maturity in Pakistan, especially in terms of understanding the economics of aircraft development and production, failing to see valuable R&D opportunities, and lacking accountability mechanisms to sanction against poor strategic decisions.

Ultimately, even at this stage, Pakistan joining the KAAN is not a given. The PAF will likely examine Chinese options as well, such as the forthcoming J-35 (albeit a land-based export variant, if available). However, it is unlikely that the Chinese would offer as many co-production, offset, and other collaborative benefits as the Turks. The Turks need partners to drive the KAAN to fruition, whereas the Chinese (being an economic superpower) can support the J-35 et.al independently.

Where Would the KAAN Fit in Pakistan’s Air Doctrine?

For the PAF, the KAAN would be the ideal successor to the F-16 as both a high-performance fighter and a key tactical asset. The F-16 plays an indispensable part in the PAF’s offensive strategy, as demonstrated in its response to India’s air incursions in 2019. In fact, technically speaking, the F-16C/D Block-52 is the PAF’s most capable strike fighter, but it is limited by the lack of compatible stand-off weapons (SOW) available to the PAF. Thus, the PAF relies on its ageing Mirage III/5s and, increasingly, JF-17s to carry SOWs, such as air-launched cruise missiles (ALCM), precision-guided bombs (PGB), glide bombs, and others.

However, the Mirage III/5 and JF-17 are short-legged in terms of range and payload, even compared to the F-16C/D Block-52. Thus, the PAF had always required a larger and more capable platform to drive its strike requirements while, at the same time, maintaining the highly capable air-to-air coverage of the F-16.

The KAAN could be the optimal solution. Powered by two GE F110s (which the Turks are aiming to replace with indigenously developed TR Motor engines), the KAAN will likely have a maximum take-off weight of around 32 to 35 tons. This would make the KAAN a large fighter, comparable to the F-15 Strike Eagle and, as importantly, the Turkish Air Force needs it to deliver a comparable strike capability as the F-35.

Thus, the KAAN would provide the PAF with a platform with sufficient range and payload to take point on its strike requirements, especially as a SOW carrier. Its robust sensor suite, which will likely include electro-optical tracking systems (EOTS), would add to its value as a strike asset.

However, the KAAN will also carry a large active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar; thus, it could also be a far superior beyond-visual-range (BVR) air-to-air asset than the F-16. Moreover, the KAAN would be a highly capable maritime asset, be it in the air-to-air or air-to-surface/anti-ship roles.

Procuring 90 fighters in the caliber of the KAAN would imbue the PAF with a vastly improved deep-strike element, thus contributing to a credible conventional deterrence capability. However, this is a longer-term roadmap; the PAF’s interest in the KAAN may also be driven by more tangible near-term alternatives.

Basically, the PAF might be satisfied with the J-10CE and JF-17 Block-III as its go-to procurement options in the 2020s and 2030s. So, if the NGFA (be it KAAN or otherwise) suffer from delays or setbacks, the PAF can continue acquiring the Dragon and/or Thunder to supplant its ageing aircraft. In other words, the PAF now has the space to seriously invest in a NGFA, especially a high-risk project like the KAAN.

 

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