Turkey’s TF-X indigenous fighter is finally taking shape, a homegrown plan to put the country in the elite club of middle powers that have successfully built and tested stealth fighter jets.
Last month, Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) released a video of its TF-X fighter under construction, images that underscored the country’s determination to develop indigenous fighter jets.
The video shows the TF-X in the early stages of development, with the fuselage and wings of the aircraft visible while the engine, control fins and avionics remain invisible.
While little is known about the TF-X’s specifications, Thomas Newdick noted in The Warzone that it won’t be immediately in the same league as the US F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters. He reported that the TF-X prototype is expected to be unveiled in March 2023, with the first flight test set for 2025 or 2026 and the first unit entering service in the 2028 or 2030s.
Airforce Technology notes that the TF-X is primarily designed for air-to-air operations, with a secondary air-to-ground role. In line with its emphasis on air-to-air missions, TAI said the TF-X will increase its air-to-air range with a new weapon, possibly the domestically developed Gokdogan beyond-visual-range (BVR) missile.
It will also feature an internal weapon bay to maintain stealth, artificial intelligence and neural network support. With a wingspan of 14 meters, a length of 21 meters and a height of 6 meters, the TF-X will be smaller than the F-22 but larger than the F-35.
The TF-X will be powered by two US General Electric F110 afterburning engines or Turkish-produced, license-produced F118 non-afterburning engines derived from the F110.
However, Asia Times has reported that the US may be reluctant to sell machines or transfer technology to Turkey given the latter’s ambiguous relationship with Russia, seen in the purchase of Russian-made S-400 surface-to-air missiles in 2017 and Turkey’s release. of the American F-35 program in 2019.
Newdick said Britain’s Rolls Royce could be another potential engine supplier but disputes over technology transfer and intellectual property rights are likely to block any deal. Newdick also noted that while Russia may provide jet engines, the threat of sanctions and Russia’s need to replace its own fighter losses in Ukraine make this a bleak prospect.
For a middle power like Turkey to develop an indigenous stealth fighter is no small feat.
In a 2021 article for The Diplomat, Jacob Parakilas noted that as fighter jets have become more expensive, it has become rare for middle powers to produce their own. He also stated that successfully designing combat effective fighters is one thing but doing so in a financially viable manner is quite another.
Even leading military powers like the US, China, and Russia are not immune to cost constraints. For example, cost-death spirals led to the termination of production of F-22 US in 187 units in 2009. This is probably the same reason why China has only around 200 J-20 stealth fighters. Likewise, Russia only has between 3 and 15 Su-57s, which may be too few to be effective in combat.
Parakilas said it was impossible to determine whether a 5th generation fighter developed by a middle power could compete with more established manufacturers.
Thus, the Turkish TF-X can be compared to Japan’s Mitsubishi X-2 and South Korea’s KF-21 Boramae fighter, as both middle powers have sufficient resources, knowledge and technology to design such aircraft.
Japan’s Mitsubishi X-2 was first developed in 2009 in response to the US decision not to sell the F-22 to its allies. As noted by Defense Aviation, the single X-2 prototype has 3D thrust vectoring, allowing for tight and fast turns, and an electronically scanned array (AESA) radar.
Compared to the TF-X, the X-2 is relatively small, with the Aerotime Hub showing its dimensions at 14.2 meters in length and 9.1 meters in wingspan. The X-2 is powered by two IHI XF5-1 low-bypass after-burning engines. A 2016 test flight saw it hit a speed of 370 kilometers per hour at an altitude of 3,600 meters.
Although the X-2 only exists as a single prototype, the lessons learned from the project have been instrumental in advancing Japan’s 6th generation FX program, which in partnership with the UK aims to plant an air superiority fighter to overmatch China’s 4th and 5th generation already there aircraft by 2035.
Asia Times previously reported on South Korea’s KF-21 Boramae fighter jet, a 4.5 generation aircraft similar to the F-35. KF-21 does not have an internal weapon bay, so it must carry its weapons on external hardpoints, thus reducing its stealth compared to other 5th generation fighters equipped. Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) lists the KF-21 as having a wingspan of 11.2 meters, a length of 16.2 meters, and a height of 4.7 meters.
It is powered by two US General Electric F414 after-burning engines used in the F / A-18 Super Hornet and JAS 39 Gripen, giving it a maximum speed of 2,250 kilometers per hour. KF-21 is also designed to carry a variety of Western and South Korean armaments, such as the indigenous BVR missile, still under development, and the Swedish-German Taurus KEPD-350 cruise missile.
South Korea envisions the KF-21 as a high-end alternative to the F-35, costing half as much as the US-made latter. The country also hopes to launch its KF-21 in the global market as a cheaper option compared to Western 4.5 generation fighters such as the Eurofighter and Rafale, offering 4.5 generation capabilities for a fraction of the price.
Turkey’s TF-X could be aimed at following the example set by Japan, with the fighter serving as a test bed for more advanced fighters in the future. On the other hand, it could also follow South Korea’s example in trying to enter the export market for capable 4.5 generation fighters.
In any case, the TF-X should be a significant stimulus for the Turkish aerospace industry. In a TRT World article last month, Ibrahim Karatas stated that TF-X production could build from where Turkey’s involvement in the F-35 program shut down in 2019 after being canceled by the US.
According to the US Naval Institute, eight Turkish firms are involved in F-35 aircraft and engine design, and Turkey has been selected as the first European F-35 engine maintenance hub. The source also said that Turkish-made F-35 parts are set to be marketed globally, and that the companies are slated to put US$12 billion in labor on the F-35 over its lifetime.
Given the losses, Karatas said the TF-X would provide a lifeline for Turkey’s defense industry as a significant revenue generator, an affordable combat aircraft for the Turkish military and a contributor to the country’s strategic independence.