Turkey’s TF-X fighter unlikely to get off the ground in the 2020s

Turkey’s bid to build a fifth-generation stealth fighter is behind schedule and the warplanes might not even get off the ground by the end of the decade.

Turkey is aiming to become a major arms producer, both as a source of export revenues and to become more immune from possible foreign embargoes. That goal has become urgent after the United States last year suspended Turkey from the programme to help U.S. firm Lockheed Martin produce F-35 advanced fighters due to Ankara’s purchase of Russian S-400 air defence missiles.

Turkey’s defence undersecretary said in 2013 it would replace its fleet of F-16s with newer domestically made fighters by 2023. In November, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said Turkey’s own TF-X fifth generation fighter jet would be ready for flight in the next five or six years. But even that later target looks unlikely to be met. 

A fifth-generation jet fighter utilises the very latest stealth technology to make it all-but invisible to radar and has computer systems integrated with other elements in the battle arena. Only the United States and China currently have fifth generation fighters in operation.

“For Turkey to develop a truly capable fifth-generation fighter would be a huge challenge, especially in just five years,” said Michael Peck, a writer who covers defence issues for the National Interest magazine.

Justin Bronk, a research fellow who specialises in combat air power and technology at the London-based Royal United Services Institute think tank, said the idea that Turkey could develop and field a functional fifth-generation jet fighter within a decade “is fantasy”.

The United States suspended Turkey from the U.S. F-35 manufacturing programme and blocked the sale of 100 of the jets the Turkish military had ordered after the first components of Russian S-400 missiles arrived at an air base outside Ankara in July. U.S. and NATO officials say deploying the S-400s alongside the F-35s would allow Russia to collect data on the jets’ defences.

But Erdoğan has vowed not to back down on the purchase of the S-400s, and the U.S. administration is still firmly against selling F-35s to Turkey unless it reverses its deal with Russia. If Turkey wants a fifth-generation fighter, that puts the emphasis back on the TF-X project.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said in December that Turkey was seeking to revive a deal with Rolls-Royce to jointly produce engines for the aircraft. The British company said in March last year that it had scaled back its participation in the TF-X project as it was unwilling to share its intellectual property with Turkish vehicle manufacturer BMC. It is unclear whether Turkey is now willing to compromise with Rolls-Royce on the issue.

“If Turkey is genuinely seeking Rolls-Royce as the propulsion partner for a domestic TF-X airframe then the prospects for a renewed partnership are reasonably good,” said Bronk. “However, if Turkey is really looking for large-scale technology transfer of high-end military turbofan manufacturing techniques to develop domestic production capacity, then Rolls Royce will refuse.”

Levent Özgül, a defence analyst for BlueMelange Consultancy, said it was impossible to talk about a fifth-generation fighter without a fifth-generation engine. Even Rolls-Royce, he said, lacks the technology to build one. The United States is the “sole address for this tech”, he said.

In a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Erdoğan said Turkey could buy fifth-generation Su-57 jet fighters from Russia. But these aircraft are also unlikely to be functional and ready for export this decade, experts say. 

“Russia could not build real fifth-generation Izdeliye 30 engines for its Su-57 despite a 15-year development history, and the first serial production Su-57 fighter crashed last month,” Özgül said.

Bronk also pointed to Russia’s failure to develop a fully functional fifth-generation jet fighter and said that Britain, despite its experience in helping develop the F-35 and its strong industrial base, was “in some areas not sure it can afford to develop and field its own next-generation fighter”.

“Turkey will struggle more than any of these given its lack of domestic experience and intellectual property in building combat aircraft,” Bronk said.

Turkey nevertheless unveiled a full-scale model of the TF-X jet at the Paris Air Show in June last year. But experts were unimpressed.

Building “something that looks a bit like an F-22 is comparatively easy”, Bronk said, referring to the fourth generation U.S. stealth fighter, but building “something that actually functions like a fifth-generation fighter is extremely different, and something which so far only the U.S. and, arguably, China have managed.”

“There is more to a true fifth-generation fighter than just having a stealth shape,” said Peck. “The F-35 is a formidable aircraft because it combines stealth with other features, such as sophisticated sensors and data networking that allow it to coordinate operations with other aircraft.”