Turkey is doing it’s own thing, spurning US fighters in favour of an indigenous fighter — and relying in the short term on Russian-made air defences. If TFX lives up to the hype it will be a formidable aircraft, but has Turkish aerospace bitten off more than it can chew?
What is the current status of TFX? How much funding has been dedicated to the project?
The TFX program consists of four main phases: Conceptual Design, Design and Prototype Qualification, Initial Operation Capability and Full Operation Capability and Serial Production. The first phase, with the assistance by SAAB (under a contract) was started in 2011 and completed in 2013. A contract for the first stage of the second phase, namely Engineering Development and Preliminary Design was signed between the Presidency of Defence Industries (SSB – Savunma Sanayii Baskanligi) and Turkish Aerospace in August 2016. Following this Turkish Aerospace signed a contract with BAE Systems for consultancy and technical assistance in 2018. The project schedule officially started in September 2018.
The first stage of the second phase is planned to last four years, It will be followed by the second stage, Critical Design and Prototype Qualification, which is expected to take eight years.
There are various estimates about the total cost of the project but it will almost definitely cost double-digit billions of dollars. Turkish government announced an incentive program with a budget of around USD1 billion allocated to Turkish Aerospace last August for infrastructure and investment associated with the project.
Top fighters of the 2030s here.
Which companies are working on it?
Turkish Aerospace is the main contractor of the project. ASELSAN and TRMotor are the main subcontractors for mission systems and engines respectively. BAE Systems is providing consultancy and technical assistance to Turkish Aerospace. ROKETSAN is expected to provide weapon systems such as smart bombs, SOM air launched cruise missiles etc. TUBITAK SAGE is developing the Goktug family of air to air missiles, and ROKETSAN could be responsible of serial production and delivery of them also.
Does the team have all the experience necessary to make it?
This is a difficult question with no easy answer! It is a fact that Turkish aerospace industry has yet to complete the lifecycle of a modern military aircraft, i.e design, test, manufacture, serial production, upgrades and retirement.
Apart from early attempts like THK-5, and the Ugur from the 1950’s, the very first Turkish military aircraft to be designed, tested and manufactured in Turkey is the Hurkus.
The Hurkus is a turboprop trainer and is in the same class as the EMBRAER Super Tucano, the KAI KT-1 (which Turkish Air Force already operates) and so on. Turkish Air Force ordered an initial batch of 15 Hurkus B trainers and these are undergoing operational acceptance tests.
Turkish companies have some experience in providing subsystems and parts to major aircraft programs like F-35, A400M. Turkish has achieved significant self sufficiency in air launched weapon systems, some sensors and communications equipment. Furthermore, local avionics and structural upgrade programs are underway such as Ari avionics upgrade for the T-38 Talon trainer jets and Ozgur (local upgrade of F-16 with indigenous mission computer and avionics). But then again, these are all some parts of a very complex puzzle. The main deficiency is the lack of experienced engineers and infrastructure, especially for test, verification and qualification.
Compensation of these shortcomings is possibly, especially through international partnerships, but at no low cost.
Are you confident TFX will happen?
From the very first day the project was announced, I have been defending a low cost, low risk approach for the TFX program: I am a believer in the balance between affordability and effectiveness. A single engine, maybe a derivative of a proven design or a product of joint development would be a lower-risk approach, similar to what South Korea has been doing. The Hurjet should have been the TFX.
As a Turkish national, I would love to see the design presented at Paris Air Show flying. As an engineer and realist I am quite skeptical that I will see it, under this project model, schedule, infrastructure and economic conditions.
What is the current state of US/Turkish relations re. F-35/S400? What do think will happen?
Unless an unexpected or extraordinary development takes place, Turkey is going to take delivery of the S400 in July, as announced by the President Recep Tayyip Erdogan several times. I expect the US impose sanctions immediately, but their severity might be limited. Turkey’s withdrawal from the F-35 program, postponement of the delivery of aircraft will most likely take place, accompanied by CAATSA sanctions. The latter will possibly result in a domino effect for the Turkish defence industry in particular and Turkish economy in general.
What will TFX be armed with? Who will supply the weapons & sensors?
ASELSAN will be the contractor for the sensor suite and avionics of the aircraft. We know that ASELSAN is currently working on an AESA radar. For the TFX, an integrated communication and navigation suite is planned.
ROKETSAN is the main contractor in Turkey for rocket and missile systems. It already manufactures the SOM cruise missile (developed by TUBITAK SAGE) and working on a version of it suitable for F-35 together with Lockheed Martin, designated SOM-J. ROKETSAN is also manufacturing precision guided bombs, while ASELSAN produces guidance kits. As mentioned, TUBITAK SAGE is working on the Goktug family of air-to-air missiles. All in all, air-launched weapon systems are one of the most mature areas of the Turkish defence sector.
ASELSAN has been manufacturing ASELPOD targeting pods for Turkish and Pakistani fighters. They are also providing secure comms, IFF systems, multi function displays and mission computers. There are also numerous smaller subject-matter expert companies in the sector specialised in airborne software and mission systems.
Could more nations join TFX or TFX merge with another project for a future fighter? (NGF, Tempest, Japanese F-3 or South Korean fighter for example)?
Turkish officials previously mentioned negotiations with several countries from Asia, without giving names. Given the strong relations of Turkey with Pakistan and Malaysia, these two are the first ones that comes to mind. A general from Malaysian Air Force posed in front of the TFX mock up in Paris Air Show, an indication of negotiations between the countries or at least of an interest by this country.
Strong partnership between Turkish Aerospace and BAE Systems and the latter’s work on the Tempest programme suggests a possibility of a merger of some kind of the two programs. This possibility was also voiced by Turkish press as an alternative of F-35, in case Turkey is kicked out of the project. But the realisation of such partnership will depend on a number of quite complex factors, starting with requirements, priorities, schedules, budget and political issues.
It is known that at earlier stages of the TFX, there were some talks with South Korea to merge TFX with the KFX programs. Because of the technical requirements and priorities of the two countries, it was not realised. Lockheed Martin’s involvement of the programs and US – Turkish relations make is very unlikely for a partnership in the future.
Some sort of partnership with either Tempest or NGF is not a far fetched possibility, though being dependent on mainly political factors. I personally expect a lot of “fluctuation” in these projects in the coming years, in terms of teaming, project models and requirements. Turkey might benefit from these.
Did the mock-up at Paris reveal anything new? What was the point of the Paris public relations exercise?
Presentation of a full scale mock up is an important milestone in the development process: It shows that the project has achieved some progress and certain critical decision regarding the main design parameters have been finalised. It also represents an opportunity to keep the public interest and support alive. The Franco – German FCAS project mock up was also revealed at the very same show.
By judging the look of the two mock ups, we can say that the TFX project is at a more advanced stage than the FCAS, since it had landing gears! 😊
Joke aside, this move can also be interpreted as a message to US for the F-35 issue. From the very start, TFX was envisaged as an air superiority fighter to supplement F-35As. The design characteristics shown during the Paris Air Show reflect more emphasis on swing-role capability for the TFX, suggesting that it is being considered as an alternative solution in the absence of F-35’s.
What should I have asked you?
How urgent is the need for TFX?
Turkish Air Force currently has around 240 F-16C/D’s and 40 F-4E 2020’s. The F-4E’s are at the very end of their service lives. 30 of the F-16’s are of Block 50+ with CFT and they were received between 2011 and 2013. Around 35 of the F-16’s are of Block 30 and the remainder are Block 40 and 50 which received CCIP upgrade. The Block 30’s are receiving structural upgrades to extend their service lives by 4,000 hours.
All in all, Turkish Air Force will have a capability gap in early 2020’s with the retirement of F-4E’s and later Block 30’s. This gap will pose a significant challenge especially by developments in the region such as F-16V upgrade of Greece and their interest in F-35, Israel’s F-35’s and Egypt’s procurement of advanced fighters such as Rafale.
What is going on with the engine?
The engine issue is the Gordion’s knot for the whole project. Turkey has an engine manufacturer, named TEI, a joint venture between Turkish Aerospace and General Electric. This company manufactures many parts for GE engines and also works on indigenous powerplant projects such as TS1400 turboshaft and PD170 diesel engine for UAV’s. Turkey also has recently formed an engine company, TRMotor and this company was selected as the main contractor for the TFX.
Until now, Turkey has held talks with various engine manufacturer in the world for joint development or technical assistance of the power plant of TFX. Among these, Rolls Royce seems -or seemed- as the leading candidate: They formed a JV with Kale, one of the leading private defence companies in Turkey which developed a turbojet engine for the SOM cruise missile. But negotiations between SSB and Rolls Royce has not been fruitful.
There are some reports that GE F110 engine was selected to power the prototypes. This might be sufficient for flight tests but it will also create some challenges in terms of design and cost. The design will have to be modified for the final engine whereas first stages of testing will be done with another one. If the final engine will be different with F110 in terms of tooling, connections, subsystems and interfaces, then the cost and engineering work required to modify the aircraft design according to the indigenous engine will be significant.
TAI’s capability to mass produce high tech composite body parts?
Turkish Aerospace has invested a very large budget in advanced materials and structural parts manufacturing capabilities. This is the strongest part of the capability range of the company. I personally do not see any major challenge in this field.
As proposed will it be underpowered?
During the Paris Air Show, the aircraft is presented as being powered by two 27,000lb engines. The overall dimensions of the aircraft (21m length, 14m wingspan, more than 60,000lb MTOW). I am doubtful that 27,000lb engines will be sufficient to provide enough power for agility and especially supercruise capability.
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Arda Mevlutoglu is an astronautical engineer. He is currently working as the VP of an international trading and consultancy company, focusing on defense and aerospace sector. He is currently working as the Vice President of Defense Programs at an international trading and consultancy company. His research focuses on defense industry technology, policies and geopolitical assessments, with a focus to the Eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea region. His works have been published in various local and international journals such as Air Forces Monthly, Air International, Combat Aircraft, EurasiaCritic, ORSAM Middle East Analysis. He has been quoted by Financial Times, Reuters, BBC, Al Monitor, CNN Turk and TRT on issues covering Turkish defence industry and military developments.