Beyond Bayraktar: 5th Gen Fighters and Turkey’s new place in military aerospace

With its Bayraktar TB2 unmanned combat aircraft proving itself as a formidable weapon in Ukraine, a fifth-generation fighter in development, and a wealth of other aerospace projects, Turkey is growing in importance as an aircraft-producing nation. We get the Turkish perspective on the latest Turkish aerospace developments.

By Arda Mevlutoglu

What is going on with Kale & Rolls-Royce? Kale Group and Rolls Royce formed up a joint venture named Turkish Air Engine Company (TAEC) in 2017, primarily for the development of the engine of the MMU (Milli Muharip Ucak; National Combat Aircraft). Back then, negotiations were underway with the Kale – Rolls Royce partnership and Turkey’s Savunma Sanayii Baskanligi (SSB; Presidency for Defence Industries) who oversees the whole MMU programme.

The negotiations, which continued until around 2019 did not produce a result and SSB looked for other alternatives. According to local media, one of the main reasons for this was Turkish side insisting on the involvement of the TRMotor company, a joint venture which was then formed up by Turkish Aerospace (TA), SSB and BMC Power, a Turkish – Qatari joint venture for powerplant technologies. Reportedly, the British side did not welcome the inclusion of the TRMotor, mainly due to the presence of another country (Qatar) through shares, because of intellectual property (IP) and export end-use issues.

In the meantime, several F110 turbofan engines were ordered from General Electric for the prototypes. Also, TA has purchased all other shares in the TRMotor, making it its subsidiary, thereby addressing British concerns of the Qatari involvement. Very recently, the head of SSB, Prof. Ismail Demir announced negotiations with TAEC to be resumed. As of today, negotiations are underway and if everything goes well, a collaboration agreement will be signed with the TAEC. The role of the TRMotor and other Turkish engine companies, such as TEI is unclear, at least for the public for now.

  • What new Turkish aircraft projects are in development and how are the programme’s going?

The main aircraft development project is the MMU. TA has started manufacturing of structural parts of the prototype, and the roll-out is planned to take place on March 18, next year. First flight is expected to be sometime between 2025-26.

Another project is the Hurjet, advanced jet trainer development programme. Hurjet is being developd as a replacement for the T-38M trainers and the F-5 2000 of the Turkish Stars aerobatics team. The aircraft will be powered by a single General Electric F404 turbofan and will be capable of achieving Mach 1.4 speed at around 45,000ft altitude. It will be equipped with advanced avionics and communication systems, suited for training of 5th generation combat aircraft pilots. The first flight of the Hurjet is planned for 2023.

  • Why does a Turkish Typhoon deal seem a possibility again?

Turkey was expelled from the F-35 project as a result of the acquisition of S-400 air defence system from the Russian Federation. Until then, Turkey had been a Level III industrial partner to the project from the very start and planned to acquire 100 F-35As for the Air Force and between 12 and 20 F-35Bs for the Navy, for use with the Anadolu LHD, which is under construction.

The TurAF planned to equip the first squadron, the 171 Filo with the F-35As by early 2020s. The 100 F-35As were to be delivered to 171, 172, 111 and 112 Filos, replacing the F-4E 2020 Terminator. In the meantime, the MMU, which is planned to be delivered from late 2020’s would gradually replace the F-16 fleet, starting from the oldest Block 30 models.

Turkey’s ejection from the F-35 programme therefore dealt a severe blow to the TurAF’s modernization roadmap. The time required for the MMU to achieve a full operational capability and in significant number of aircraft will most likely see the first half of the next decade, and neighbouring countries’ significant investments in air power create major risk of losing qualitative superiority. As a result, Turkey requested from the United States the sale of 40 new F-16Vs and kits for 80 existing aircraft to upgrade them to F-16V standard. The Turkish – American relations, however, have significantly deteriorated in the past years and the mood in the Congress towards Turkey is especially negative. That’s why, as an alternative, acquisition of Typhoons from United Kingdom, either as second hand or new production -or maybe both- have been brought to agenda. There are not much details on this issue, but given the deepening bilateral relations and increased defence cooperation, Typhoon is most likely being discussed upon.

What is Erdogan’s relationship with Putin, and his position on the Russian invasion attempt in Ukraine? Does Russia have good relations with Turkey?

Turkey’s relationship with Russia has so far maintained on the razor’s edge. Russia is Turkey’s neighbour and the two nations have fought, made peace, made business and interacted culturally for many centuries. Even during certain periods in the Cold War, the Soviet Union and Turkey had good economic relations. But at the end of the day it is geopolitics that have the last word. The two states are geopolitical competitors, though remarkably successful in maintaining compartmentalizing issues and challenges.

From the very first day, Turkey has officially condemned Russia’s unprovoked and unjust attack on Ukraine. Ankara has also been refusing to recognize the annexation of Crimea. Turkey has been providing Ukraine with Bayraktar TB2 armed drones, and in early February the two countries signed an agreement to establish a factory in Ukraine to manufacture a localized version of the TB2, through transfer of technology. Turkey is also constructing a derivative of the MilGem class corvette for the Ukrainian navy and ASELSAN has provided advanced communication systems. Ukraine, on the other hand has become one of the important suppliers for the Turkish defence industry: Ukrainian turboprop engines are being used on the Bayraktar Akıncı strike drone, the T929 ATAK II next-generation attack helicopter and the upcoming Bayraktar Kızıl Elma jet-powered UCAV.

  • Why is Erdogan critical of NATO entry for Sweden and Finland?

One of the main reasons for Turkey’s negative position regarding these countries, especially Sweden providing a safe haven and even support for the PKK terrorist organization [editor note: the group is not described as a terrorist organisation by some] and Gulenist movement, which organized the July 15th coup attempt in 2016. Both countries have been more than reluctant in cooperating with Turkey in counter-terrorism operations.

  • Is there any chance Turkey could provide air defence systems to Ukraine, if so which? If not, why?

Turkey has so far developed the Korkut self- propelled low altitude air defence gun system, the Hisar A+ low altitude and the Hisar O+ medium-altitude air defence missile systems. These platforms have completed development and are in serial production phase. It is theoretically possible for Turkey to provide some of these systems to Ukraine but I believe this decision would be subject to complex military and political considerations.

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  • Has Turkey provided military aid to Ukraine, if so, what?

I don’t have information on whether or not Turkey has supplied any type of military equipment to Ukraine after the start of the war. Baykar Technology has recently announced the donation of a Bayraktar TB2, after a fundraising campaign by Lithuania raised enough money for one system along with weapons.

  • Is there a possibility of Turkey rejoining the F-35 effort?

I believe, Turkey rejoining the programme as an industrial partner is impossible. Getting the aircraft in the not-so-soon future might be a slim possibility and that would depend on a number of conditions, the S-400 issue being the number one.

  • What should I have asked you?

What’s next for the Turkish Air Force? Well, the MMU and the drone programme have the utmost priorities. The MMU is the most complex and the most strategic project, albeit being an over-ambitious one in terms of budget, schedule, human capital, infrastructure and requirements. On the drone side, the Akıncı, Aksungur, and the Kızıl Elma will contribute to the transformation of the Turkish Air Force into something new, and something big. It is important to underline that a major part of this transformation is Turkey’s unprecedented leap in developing and fielding a wide range of precision-guided weapon systems such as guidance kits, multi-mode guided bombs, cruise missiles and miniature bombs.

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.

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