Can Turkey’s fifth-gen stealth fighter jet outperform US F35?

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Turkish Fighter Jet TF-X
Turkish Fifth-generation Fighter Jet TF-X. Photo rendering by TAI

Turkey is one of the early backers of the fifth-generation American fighter jet program. But the U-turn in USA policy towards Turkey, a key member of NATO, is forcing this strategic partner to speed up the development of its own fifth-generation fighter jet.

Just for the reference for the difficulty of this enormous task, only USA and China currently can boast serially produced planes of this class, while Russia still is at the prototype stage. And just two countries are at the experimental stage: Turkey and South Korea.

And, who knows, maybe the United States will have the current Trump administration to thank, if, in just under a decade, it finds itself competing against a supplier that could have been its buyer.

Here is everything you need to know about the Turkish fighter jet (source of the information below is TRT World):

As Turkey puts its specialist expertise to the task of developing its own stealth fighter, these are the advanced technological developments you can expect to see.

Here’s everything you need to know

The TAI TF-X (Turkish Fighter – Experimental) is set to combine the best of a stealth air-superiority fighter, with additional ground attack capabilities and an impressive array of sensors, cutting-edge radar, networked drone control and hyper-sonic missile capacity.

The fighter jet will feature two engines, a single pilot, and stealth features such as internal weapons bays. Why?

Double the engines equals faster speed, ensuring that energy-intensive maneuvers don’t bleed too much of the plane’s velocity which could otherwise leave it vulnerable or outperformed by a faster opponent.

Having a single pilot gives engineers that much more room to pack more technology into the plane, and is only possible with heavy automation that lets the pilot focus on the mission target, instead of running the fighter jet.

When it comes to stealth, externally-mounted weapons increase the aircraft’s visibility on the radar. The TF-X will also include stealth features such as an advanced carbon-composite body that aims to be radar reflective.

A flying prototype is expected by 2023, with the first plane envisioned to be ready by 2025, and the full fleet of 250 to be operational by 2032. These are planned to replace Turkey’s ageing fleet of 245 F-16 fighter jets, which only have one engine, among other drawbacks. The TF-X could remain in service until the 2070s.

A digital rendering of the Turkish Experimental Fighter (TF-X) by Turkish Aerospace Industries.
A digital rendering of the Turkish Experimental Fighter (TF-X) by Turkish Aerospace Industries. (TAI)

Why does Turkey need the TF-X?

The Turkish Air Force has around 240 F-16s and nearly 40 F-4s. The F-4s are at the very end of their service lives. Thirty of the F-16s are of newer models received between 2011 and 2013. But in general, the Turkish Air Force has to fill in a strategic gap in early 2020 when some of its older planes will be retired.

Meanwhile, neighbours such as Greece have expressed an interest in the F-35, and upgraded their F-16s, while all neighbouring countries are pursuing fourth or fifth-generation fighter jets. With Turkey’s suspension from the F-35 programme, it seems all the more necessary to develop an indigenous stealth fighter that works well with the long-range missile coverage provided by the S400 it procured recently from Russia.

With its own fifth-generation fighter, Turkey would stand to profit by selling it to other countries, while enjoying increased national security with a supply chain that can’t be threatened by sanctions.

What are some facts about it?

At the Paris Air Show, the aircraft was featured with two 12 tonne engines, able to operate at a maximum height of 16.76 km. Just to put that into scale, cloud cover begins at 3 km and higher.

Performance-wise, the TF-X is planned to have a maximum speed of twice the speed of sound, and an operational range of nearly 1,111 km until it runs out fuel, exceeding the US F-35 stealth fighter in a terms of speed, maximum operational height, and matching it in terms of operational range.

The fighter jet is 21 metres long, with a large 14-metre wingspan. The fighter jet will reportedly use an advanced glass cockpit with voice-command interface and data-links so that it controls up to two friendly drones, which may be developed to fire air-to-ground or air-to-air missiles. This could allow it to stalk targets at a distant range without being spotted, sending drones to fire weapons without exposing itself to fire.

What’s the deal with the engine?

The engine remains the most important part of the project and could make or break it. An underpowered engine could lead to performance issues, lower speeds, and deny it the air superiority it needs against fighters.

Until now, various talks have been held with leading engine manufacturers around the world for joint development or technical assistance in building the TF-X engine.

Among these, Rolls-Royce seems to be the leading candidate, forming a joint venture with Kale, one of the leading private defence companies in Turkey, which developed a turbojet engine for the stand-off cruise missile. Negotiations are still ongoing.

The Russian state-owned corporation Rostec, which built engines for the Sukhoi 57 (Su-57) fighter jets, has expressed interest in developing thrust-vector engines for the TF-X.

A thrust-vector engine, unlike a normal fixed one-direction engine, can angle itself in a number of directions, allowing it to make tighter turns or difficult manoeuvres with ease.

How will it be armed?

Aside from the standard repertoire of missiles the fighter jet will be able to carry, Aselsan is set to produce the sensors and avionics of the fighter jet. Aselsan is also currently developing an AESA radar, (Active Electronically Scanned Arrays); which would allow the plane to focus radar in different directions without moving a thing.

Roketsan is the main player in Turkey when it comes to missiles and rockets. It already manufactures hypersonic SOM (Stand-off missiles), initially developed by Tubitak. It was working on a version for the F-35 with Lockheed Martin called the SOM-J, but given Turkey is no longer involved, it seems likely it will be adapted to the TF-X.

The Stand-Off Missile (SOM) can be attached to a fighter jet, and can locate and track targets independently. It can also maneuver at low altitudes to evade defenses. With a range of 250+ KM, it is set to eventually reach 1500 KM with further development.
The Stand-Off Missile (SOM) can be attached to a fighter jet, and can locate and track targets independently. It can also maneuver at low altitudes to evade defenses. With a range of 250+ KM, it is set to eventually reach 1500 KM with further development. (Courtesy of: Roketsan)

A stand-off missile is an intelligent hypersonic manoeuvring missile that can be fired from a distance, travelling faster than any known air or missile defence systems that currently exist with a 5 meter target accuracy radius. To put that into perspective, a hypersonic SOM would travel at Mach 5, or 1.6 km per second. Due to it’s intelligent maneuvering capacities, the SOM can fly close to low terrain, dipping beneath radar coverage before surprising a target with its sudden appearance.

Aselsan has also been building ASELPOD targeting systems for Turkish and Pakistani fighters. They also provide secure communications, identification, friend or foe (IFF) systems, displays and mission computers. Turkish Defence Industries also feature a number of smaller expert companies in airborne software and mission systems.

Cost

In February 2018, Turkey announced it had committed nearly $1.2 billion and over 3,200 full-time employees to the TF-X’s development.

Who’s working on it?

Turkish Aerospace Industries is the main contractor of the project. ASELSAN and TRMotor are the main subcontractors for mission systems and engines. BAE Systems is providing consultancy and assistance to TAI. Meanwhile, ROKETSAN is expected to provide weapons such as smart and cruise missiles.

TUBITAK SAG (the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey), will be building an entire family of air-to-air missiles that ROKETSAN may build. TUBITAK also built Turkey’s first rail gun and laser defence systems.

Does Turkey have the engineering experience to build a stealth fighter?

Turkish defence and aviation companies have considerable experience building aircraft systems and parts for major aircraft programmes, including the F-35 and A400M.

For the F-35 alone, Turkey produced 844 parts.

Entirely self-sufficient in air-to-air weapon systems, sensors, and communications, Turkey also provides avionics and structural upgrade programmes for other jets.

Some of the key contributions Turkey made to the 5th generation F-35 fighter jet, which will serve TAI well in developing its own stealth fighter. (Source: Anadolu Agency)
Some of the key contributions Turkey made to the 5th generation F-35 fighter jet, which will serve TAI well in developing its own stealth fighter. (Source: Anadolu Agency) (AA)

Who are the international partners for the fighter?

BAE Systems, which is working on the British Tempest stealth fighter programme, has provided consulting for TAI.

In January 2017, the then British Prime Minister Theresa May and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan signed a $137 million contract for BAE Systems to advise and assist TAI in the development the TF-X, with follow-up contracts likely down the line.

Turkey has received support from Saab Aerospace for conceptual design, Dassault Systems of France for software support and BAE Systems for detailed engineering support. These companies are all aerospace giants.

Initially, there were talks with South Korea to merge the project with the Korean experimental fighter jet programme being carried out with Indonesia. But the countries had different defence needs and priorities, affecting the design. Given the United States’ role in removing Turkey from the F-35 programme, it does not seem feasible for Lockheed Martin to be a partner.

Can TAI mass produce high tech composite body parts? 

Turkish Aerospace Industries has invested a significant amount of its budget into advanced materials and structural manufacturing capabilities.

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