Jul 21 2019

S-400 also poses threat to Turkish national fighter programme

On June 16, the mock up of Turkey's first national combat jet Turkish Fighter Experimental (TF-X) made a debut at the Paris Air Show.

The TF-X is Turkey’s project for the creation of a fifth-generation fighter for the international market.

Although Turkey has long been facing snags in the project, whose first prototype is set to ready in 2023, the centennial of the Turkish Republic, the display of the mock up of the fighter signalled that Ankara has accelerated the project.

This, at the time, also led to speculations that Turkey was in search for bridging a gap in the event that the United States would suspend Turkish participation in the F-35 third generation fighter programme in retaliation to Turkish purchase of Russian S-400 surface –to-air (SAM) long range missiles.

Turkey’s display of the mock up of the TF-X also indicated, at the time, that Ankara will go ahead with the purchase of the S-400s despite repeated U.S. warnings that Turkey may face sanctions including its exclusion from the F-35 programme.

Washington says S-400s are not compatible with NATO’s defence network and that much of the F-35 strength lies in its stealth capabilities so the ability to detect those capabilities would jeopardise the long-term security of the F 35 programme.

Following months of anticipation, parts of S-400s began arriving on July 12 at Mürted Air Base, formerly known as Akinci air base, located at a suburb of Turkey’s capital Ankara.

On July 17, five days after Turkey began to take delivery of the S-400s, U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration announced that it would follow through on its threat to curtail Ankara’s participation in the F-35 effort.

“Unfortunately, Turkey’s decision to purchase Russian S-400 air defence systems renders its continued involvement with the F-35 impossible,” the White House said in a statement.

The United States has suspended Ankara from the supply of the F-35s while it initiates the process to formally remove the nation from the programme.

İsmail Demir, President of the Turkish Presidency of Defence Industries (SSB) , said the following day that Turkey will continue to evaluate the alternatives to replace F-35s.

“Our national combat aircraft project (TF-X) has been continuing with speed and that this project will be accelerated,” he noted.

But TF-X is also in danger.

In January 2017, Turkey signed around 120 million pound agreement with the UK’s BAE Systems for the initial design phase of the combat jet. BAE Systems is working alongside prime manufacturer Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) on the design of the aircraft, but the project has long been facing snags.

The main obstacle is the engine of the fighter jet. 

A joint venture between the two companies, called TAEC, was formed to facilitate work between Turkish Kale Group and British Rolls-Royce on projects in Turkey. TAEC is 51 percent owned by Kale Group and 49 percent by Rolls Royce, and is initially aimed at the TF-X development.

Yet, in the face of ongoing disagreement between Turkey and the UK, mainly surrounding around the transfer of technology of an engine to power the national fighter, it has been difficult to advance the project. This is because the type of an engine to be selected will also determine the design of the fighter.

Turkey was planning to replace U.S. Lockheed Martin made F-16s in its inventory with both the F-35s and the TF-X in early 2020s.

With the arrival of S-400 missile parts Turkey is not expected to receive the F-35s.

However, the TFX- is also dependant on a U.S. licence for the engine as being a partner to Rolls Royce.

Even if Rolls Royce were to agree to build a brand new engine for TF-X with its local partner Kale group, it is still facing difficulties due to Turkey’s insistence on the transfer of the engine’s intellectual property rights to Ankara.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, while speaking to the local media on July 14 in İstanbul, confirmed that the UK has been slowing down the fighter programme, as Rolls Royce has not provided a licence for its engine.

“I last spoken on this issue with [UK Prime Minister Theresa] May during the G20 summit [in June in Japan]. We asked Britain to ‘give us the Rolls Royce.’ But they can’t sell [the engines], I hope we can accelerate the process with the new [UK] administration,” Erdoğan stressed.

Moreover, the TF-X designers should also avoid using any U.S. systems on the TF-X to escape the effects of possible U.S. sanctions, which could also affect Turkey’s ability to jointly build the Black Hawk utility helicopters, among other defence systems.

Talking to a local TV station, Kanal 7, SSB’s Demir said that the general design of the aircraft, which would replace Turkey’s F-16s, had emerged and that the first fighter would be ready in 2023. However, Demir’s deadline does not appear to be realistic one given the existing obstacles facing the TF-X programme.