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Türkiye Christens its Next-Gen Fighter as “KAAN”

At the start of May, Türkiye officially named its next-generation fighter aircraft (NGFA) program, the MMU (Milli Muharip Uçak) as the “KAAN.”

The test pilot of the prototype Kaan, Gökhan Bayramoğlu, told Anadolu Agency, Türkiye’s state-owned news agency, that Turkish Aerospace Industries (TUSAŞ) successfully carried out the taxi tests and, in turn, is now validating the fighter’s control systems to bring them to flight-ready status.

In his speech, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that the Kaan was the “dream that the nation had been pursuing since the foundation of the Republic.” Indeed, Türkiye had originally aimed to test fly the Kaan in time for the country’s centennial or 100-year anniversary.

Though the Kaan did not reach that goal, TUSAŞ anticipates that the Kaan could fly relatively soon. Through an interview with Aviation Week, the MMU’s executive vice president, Ugur Zengin, said, “We have all the testing infrastructure and a very broad experience on testing the aircraft, so that gives us the confidence to fly as early as possible.” TUSAŞ expects to field seven flying prototypes of the Kaan.

The name is an apparent reference to the Turkish title, “Kaan or Khan,” that refers to ‘leader.’ While a clear sign of the Kaan’s significance to Türkiye as its flagship defence program, the name could also reflect the role of the fighter in Türkiye’s future integrated air warfare system.

The Kaan is a twin-engine fighter with ‘stealth’ or low observability (LO) design features to help mitigate its detectability on radar. It also features an internal bay for air-to-air and air-to-surface munitions as well as an assortment of sensors, such as an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, an apparent twin-array electro-optical tracking system (EOTS) and/or infrared search and track (IRST) system.

According to Bayramoğlu, the Kaan’s human-machine interface (HMI) system aims to reduce the workload for the pilot while also providing them with relevant information.

Originally, the MMU project was meant to serve in the Turkish Air Force (TuAF) as a complementary asset to the Lockheed Martin F-35. Where the F-35 was meant to be Türkiye’s principal strike aircraft, the Kaan was to be a mainstay general purpose aircraft (taking over from the current TuAF workhorse, the F-16).

However, when Türkiye was ejected from the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program, the TuAF lost out on a key piece of its future plans. Not only was the F-35 a well optimized design for the strike role, but it also held a unique role as a flexible naval air warfare asset via the F-35B. The F-35B would have equipped Türkiye to deploy a markedly capable fighter solution from its newly commissioned light aircraft carrier, TCG Anadolu.

Thus, the loss of the F-35 left a major gap in Türkiye’s future air warfare plans. This led to a number of key design decisions on the Kaan, such adopting a seemingly larger airframe. Türkiye selected the GE F110 to power the prototype and, in turn, indigenously develop a future powerplant with similar thrust output. In effect, the Kaan is closer in size to the Sukhoi Su-57 and Chengdu J-20 than the Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) KF-21 or Shenyang FC-31, for example. This avenue could lead to a future Kaan variant with a heavier payload and more range so that it could take on the strike role in lieu of the F-35.

However, it also seems that the Kaan has a relatively strong focus on situational awareness compared to most other known NGFA programs. For example, the Kaan’s EOTS set up is unique in that it has arrays at both the top of the nose cone and below it. It is not yet known how this system works, but it clearly speaks to the type of role the Kaan is slated to play in Türkiye’s future air warfare system.

With a focus on situational awareness and information management, it seems that the Kaan would be at the “center” of a package largely comprising of drones. The Kaan’s crew would monitor the drones, issue commands, and basically ‘lead’ the mission. Thus, the Kaan is not just a multirole fighter, but the anchor point of a multi-platform air warfare package. In turn, that package will consist of unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV), like the TUSAŞ ANKA-3 and Bayraktar TUSAŞ, or even small drones, like loitering munitions and decoys, among others.

In this sense, Türkiye is moving away from the traditional ‘hi/lo’ mix of the MMU and F-35 to a new concept similar to the Airbus Future Combat Air System (FCAS) or tripartite Global Combat Air Programme (GCAP) between Britain, Japan, and Italy. Basically, these programs envision a crewed fighter at the ‘center’ of an ecosystem consisting of a wide range of drones, like UCAVs, loyal wingman drones, small loitering munitions, and decoys. As one advances in automation, machine learning, artificial intelligence, information management and other areas, the ecosystem could grow to involve more types of systems.

The advantage of this approach is that the bulk of the combat tasking, such as deploying air-to-air and air-to-surface munitions, would be done by drones. In general, the drones are simpler in design compared to the Kaan and, in turn, cheaper to manufacture. Drone losses are also easier to sustain as their unmanned nature and lower costs make them easier to replace. Of course, Türkiye could also potentially develop an unmanned variant of the Hürjet trainer, thus adding a true drone fighter into its mix.

Overall, the Kaan is more than solely a NGFA, it is the nucleus of a future integrated air warfare system – a major next step for both the Turkish industry and, above all, the TuAF. In this sense, the Kaan is perhaps more unique because it makes Türkiye both one of the few countries that could one day offer a NGFA for export, but an entire system comprising of drones, munitions, and the systems bring them all together.

Thus, indigenization across every critical input – from aerostructures to engines to electronics – is a major goal for the Turkish government, armed forces, and industry. The Kaan alone involves many critical inputs for its airframe, engines, electronics, and other critical inputs – but an entire warfare system highlights the sheer scale of the program as a whole. Finding export customers with both reliable funding mechanisms and adept industry capabilities would play a critical role in scaling this program and making it economical from a procurement and sustainment standpoint.

This is the same challenge that the FCAS and GCAP are facing, though, arguably, they have a head-start by virtue of being consortium-led or joint-ventures, respectively. However, by virtue of being the only option that is neither Western or Eastern (i.e., Chinese or Russian), the Kaan offers a third path to countries that cannot fully leverage their ties with the traditional vendors. Granted, it is the higher risk route, but it also the one with the highest rewards in the sense that the partners could negotiate for more favourable work-share, technology transfer, and economic offsets.

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