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Britain and Turkey signed a £100 million deal on 28 January during Theresa May’s trade talks in Ankara with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Under the deal, BAE Systems will join forces with Turkish Aerospace Industries to develop a ‘fifth-generation fighter’ for the Turkish Air Force of the 2020s. What sort of aircraft could be produced and what implications could there be?
While the RAF and Armée de l’Air usually come to mind as the most potent European NATO member air forces, the Turkish Air Force substantially eclipses both in terms of size. It operates a modern and effective fighter force composed predominantly of Lockheed Martin F-16s licence built by Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI).
As a partner in the F-35 programme, it is no secret that the Turkish Air Force wants to upgrade to fifth-generation capabilities to keep in step with the other major air forces in NATO.
However, financial limitations and possible security concerns have limited the number of F-35s which Turkey has on order at present to six with an eventual ambition for around 100. Turkey is determined to develop an indigenous fifth-generation combat aircraft manufacturing capability as soon as possible.
Enter BAE Systems; the defence giant with experience developing and building major parts of the F-35, as well as its own Taranis low-observable UCAV. BAE Systems has the required experience and industrial knowledge to develop fifth-generation aircraft, but no domestic market to enable it to remain a producer of combat aircraft outside manufacturing parts of the Lockheed Martin F-35.
Turkey offers that market, with an air force of nineteen squadrons of third- and fourth-generation fighters in need of eventual replacement, and a threat environment likely to remain characterised by foreign interventions, instability and the proliferation of high-end weapons systems.
As such, the stated requirement for TF-X is at least 250 air-superiority fighters.
Little has been disclosed so far in terms of what sort of fighter might emerge from the TF-X collaboration. So far, the concept has not been narrowed down to a single or twin-engine design, although a derivative of Eurojet’s EJ200 that powers the Eurofighter Typhoon has been selected to power the production fighter.
Turkey prefers a twin-engine aircraft, but key envisaged export customers such as Pakistan would prefer a single-engine jet for cost reasons.
Given the relatively close geographical distances between Turkey and potential opponents, it is likely that range on internal fuel may be a lower priority design variable than cost, internal weapons payload and low-observable airframe shaping.
Equally, the Turkish MoD’s stated timeline of 2023 for a first flight and roughly $100 million per airframe unit cost target impose limitations on how ambitious the design of the new fighter can be. With examples to draw on from the F-22, F-35 and China’s J-20, the development of a low-observable airframe shape should not be an impossible task for TAI within that timeframe.
However, as all those who have so far tried have discovered, it is much harder to develop something that operates like a true fifth-generation fighter with all the required sensor suite and information processing capabilities. Stealth coatings are also a dark art which takes a great deal of industrial know-how and experience to master.
BAE Systems can certainly make a critical contribution to the Turkish TF-X effort in the areas of sensor integration, airframe design, weapons integration and defensive aids suite. However, the question is how much technology transfer will be permitted under the agreement, especially where American International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) concerns might be raised.
On the other hand, the Turkish defence electronics firm ASELSAN has reportedly already begun work on an active electronically scanned array AESA radar for the TF-X programme incorporating advanced gallium nitride technology. Therefore, Turkish industry seems to already be at a fairly advanced stage for many critical component technologies.
BAE Systems sensor integration and defensive aids suite expertise might be able to help TAI produce most of the critical systems for TF-X without encountering too many ITAR restrictions.
There is still a great deal of uncertainty (or possibly everything to play for) in terms of the nature of BAE Systems’ participation in the eventual production of a fighter version of TF-X. The Turkish preference is clearly for production to be undertaken almost exclusively by TAI and, therefore, barring large scale export successes there is little evidence that BAE will manufacture much beyond select components and sensors.
It is, therefore, premature to assume that TF-X will keep BAE Systems in the fighter-manufacturing business outside the F-35 programme, even though it will undoubtedly help to maintain the institutional knowledge base required through technical collaboration arrangements.
However, there are reasons to keep an eye on the export prospects for TF-X if it does mature into a useful low-observable air superiority fighter in the mid-late 2020s.
First, a little competition is no bad thing, and if one thing has come to characterise the fifth-generation fighter market in recent years, it is a lack of Western competitors to the monolithic F-35 programme.
Second, the F-35 is optimised for strike and SEAD operations in heavily defended airspace, rather than for air superiority. The TF-X has long been intended as a complementary capability alongside the strike-oriented F-35 in Turkish service.
This implies a focus on missile-load, air-to-air radar performance and the capability to operate ‘high and fast’ in a similar fashion to the US Air Force’s formidable F-22 and the Eurofighter Typhoon. Twin EJ200-derived engines could certainly produce an aircraft with potent performance, especially given the streamlining and internal weapons and fuel carriage requirements inherent in a ‘stealth’ design.
This sort of capability is something that many air forces are keen to acquire, and countries such as Japan and Australia have been explicit about their frustrations with not being permitted to purchase the F-22 for this reason.
If TAI and BAE Systems can develop a low-observable fighter with the ability to carry six or more medium-range air-to air-missiles internally, an AESA radar, sensor fusion and supercruise capabilities for somewhere in the region of $100-120 million per airframe, then the potential export opportunities could be extremely lucrative and potentially even lead to manufacturing of the aircraft on multiple production lines in different countries.
Politics, however, will undoubtedly remain the TF-X’s worst enemy on the road to the creation of a viable fifth-generation air superiority fighter. Turkey’s strained relations with other NATO members over President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s authoritarian policies, the refugee crisis and EU membership offer the potential to scupper the transfer of high-end military technologies and defence collaboration if they continue to worsen.
Furthermore, the improving Ankara–Moscow relationship remains a matter of serious concern for other NATO members, both as a potential source of war with Russia over flashpoint confrontations, and also conversely as a potential source of technology compromise to Russia during the periods when Turkey is tempted to play the West off against the Kremlin when it suits.
Finally, the most recent in Turkey’s long history of military coups saw the gutting of many of the finest squadrons in the Turkish Air Force during subsequent reprisals and a helicopter pilot defecting with his aircraft to Greece when it became clear that the attempted overthrow had failed.
In this case, the defectors landed in NATO territory, but there is a risk that in future, assuming the long-standing rift between the military and Islamist political movement continues to simmer in Turkey, that defecting pilots might deliver high-end Western military technology to Russia, Iran or countries friendly to those regimes.
In the end though, the economics of fighter development and procurement are likely to trump security concerns and BAE Systems and TAI will have the opportunity to jointly develop a fifth- generation combat aircraft with huge export potential on the basis of relatively mature and understood technologies.
If they succeed, it will change the combat aircraft market for decades to come.
Banner image: A Turkish Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon at Muwaffaq Salti Air Base, Jordan. Turkey plans to phase out its fleet of F-16 fighters by 2030 and replace them with fifth-generation fighters. Courtesy of Wolfram M Stumpf, US Air Force/Wikimedia.