Turkey’s Next-Gen Fighter Jet and Stealthy Drone Are Here—and Massively Important
Last week, Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) proudly showed off its TF-X fighter, which is now on the move—even though it’s still land-bound for a little while. Also known by its program name, the National Combat Aircraft (MMU), Turkey’s first homegrown fighter jet began taxi trials on March 16. Firing up its F110 turbofans, the jet advanced down a runway in Ankara without mishap.
A few days later, Turkish president Recep Erdogan attended the aircraft’s formal unveiling at a ceremony commemorating the World War I battle of Gallipoli. The 21-meter-long jet falls in between the U.S.’s F-22 and F-35 in size, and closely resembles the former.
Besides the TF-X, the event showcased a new flying wing stealth drone called the Anka-3 and the Hürjet supersonic trainer/ground-attack aircraft, conceptually reminiscent of South Korea’s successful FA-50 Golden Eagle. A prototype of the Hürjet made its first taxi tests on March 18.
İnanç, emek, başarı... Bu sevinci bizlere yaşattıkları için tüm çalışma arkadaşlarıma bir kez daha sonsuz teşekkürlerimi sunuyorum.@SavunmaSanayii pic.twitter.com/twT0H3Vs0H
— Temel Kotil (@Temel_Kotil) March 18, 2023
The Political Struggles of Turkey’s Future Jet Fighters
Erdogan, staring down the barrel of a tough election this May, undoubtedly hopes the prototype aircraft will highlight Turkey’s progress toward a self-sufficient defense industry—a drive that has been made even more necessary due to its worsening relationship with former primary arms suppliers Germany and the United States over the last decade.
The twin-engine TF-X was originally intended to be a more air-superiority-oriented complement to Turkey’s expected fleet of F-35 stealth fighters. The F-35s would replace Turkey’s aging fleet of F-4 Terminators 2020s while the TF-X would replace Turkey’s F-16s.
But after Erdogan chose to purchase S-400 surface-to-air missile systems from Russia, Turkey was ejected from the F-35 program over fears that Russia might use backdoors installed in those systems to gather intel. Turkey has lost access to a number of Western defense products over time. For example, the country no longer has access to engines for its Altay tank due to frequent dispute with other members of NATO over such issues as attacking Kurdish forces allied with the U.S. in Syria and Iraq, attempting to claim Mediterranean islands and waters, and the targeting of Erdogan’s political opponents abroad.
These international difficulties have thrown Turkey’s options for upgrading its F-16 fleet into question. However, the country may be able to secure a modernization deal through a quid-pro-quo, in exchange for ending its block on Swedish admission to NATO. Erdogan also has baited NATO allies by suggesting it may procure Russian Su-35 and Su-57 jets, but the odds of this already unlikely purchase have only become fainter since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
With the F-35 off the table and the F-16 likely to remain in service longer as a result, the domestic TF-X project has become even more important for Turkey’s planned military modernization. Development has been bumpy, as partnerships with Russia, Sweden, South Korea, the UK, and Pakistan were all explored to no avail.
TF-X: The Specs and the Hardware
Like South Korea’s similar KF-X indigenous fighter, the TF-X reportedly falls short of being a true stealth fighter, though full stealth configuration—along with the implementation of indigenous engines—is planned for a third production block.
Otherwise, the aircraft is expected to meet standard performance benchmarks for modern fighter jets, including a maximum speed pegged between Mach 1.8 and Mach 2.2, a service ceiling of 55,000 feet, a decent range of 700 miles on internal fuel, and supersonic cruising capability without the use of afterburners—though, at this time, that last point is more a hope than a guarantee.
In an interview, Turkish Aerospace Industries CEO Temel Kotil said that the TF-X featured an indigenous, bird-strike-resistant canopy, single-wheel landing gears, 7050-grade aluminum alloy nose and cockpit, and a titanium central fuselage. Meanwhile, composite carbon thermoplastics—which are light and reduce radar reflectivity—coat the aircraft’s external surfaces and engine inlets.
Pilots will benefit from a digital ‘glass cockpit’ with voice command interface, helmet-mounted sights for targeting missiles, and the ability to remote-control up to two missile-armed Anka drones.
Allegedly, the aircraft’s AI-enhanced autopilot can handle routine navigational tasks, compensate for inclement weather operations, and even land the aircraft if the pilot is unconscious. TAI dangled the possibility of developing a TF-X two-seat variant last year, but has since said the variant was unnecessary, thanks to the capabilities of the autopilot.
Turkey claims that indigenous components make up roughly 85 percent of the TF-X. Notable exceptions are Martin Baker ejection seats, and propulsion from two GE F110-GE-129 turbofan engines—which can produce up to 29,500-lb of “wet” thrust, the kind of thrust that uses afterburners. The F110 has been used in variants of the F-14, F-15, and F-16 fighters.
TAI has apparently procured 10 F110s from the U.S. for its four twin-engine prototypes, with more likely to follow for initial production. TEI will then license-build at least 40 F110 engines for the second production tranche, followed (ideally) by a domestic engine projected to achieve 35,000-pounds of wet thrust.
Stealth may be vital, but so is situational awareness. For sensors, the TAI TF-X is expected to include an indigenous Aselsan AESA-class multimode radar—which can simultaneously scan and jam, making it more resilient to enemy jamming—with supposedly twice as many transmit-receive elements as on the F-22’s AN/APG-77 radar. It also includes a forward-facing infrared search-and-track system on top of the nose, and an electro-optical targeting system with 360-degree coverage.
Turkish firms have already built a variety of defensive systems, including laser, radar, and missile-warning systems, and DRFM jammers, which may make their way to the TF-X’s electronic self-defense suite as well.
To keep its radar cross-section slim, the jet will store up to four weapons in a fuselage bay, as well as four more in side fuselage bays. A cannon will round out the jet’s internal armament, and externally, four under-wing hardpoints can be used for non-stealth operations.
Turkey’s defense industry is in the process of creating a broad variety of indigenous weapons, including laser-guidance kits for Mark 82, 83 and 84 bombs (500, 100- to 2,000-lb class); various air-to-surface missiles, and air-to-air missiles—including the short-range heat-seeking Bozdogan and the medium-range (40 miles) radar-guided Gokdogan.
The TF-X will also support SOM cruise missiles weighing over a half-ton and with a range of up to 171 miles that rely on GPS and IR imaging for guidance.
Unexpectedly, given the general track record of stealth fighter programs, the TAI TF-X’s development appears to be roughly on schedule. Back in 2018, a flying prototype was expected by 2023. It was later moved up to 2026, but wound back to 2024, or even 2023. The design is expected to begin wind tunnel tests this April, and in 2024, an upcoming radar cross-section testing facility is expected to be used to measure and optimize the aircraft’s radar signature.
Serial production will begin in 2029, followed by service entry in 2031. Turkey is expecting a production rate of 24 aircraft per year, and estimating it will take just over a decade to fulfill a planned order for 250 aircraft.
If the TF-X is successful, it’s speculated that Pakistan could be a potential export client. Azerbaijan, which has a close defense partnership with Turkey and ample finances, seems like another potential buyer.
Hurjet and Anka-3
The single-engine Hürjet, meanwhile, will come in both Advanced Jet Trainer and Light Combat Aircraft models. The former could replace as many as 68 U.S.-built T-38M Talon jets, which are based at Cigli Airbase near Izmir and often used for preparing pilots to operate heavier combat aircraft. The TAF initial order is reportedly for 16 Hürjet AJTs, and deliveries are expected to begin in 2023. These Hürjet AJTs will be supplemented by three prototype aircraft, two of which are currently flyable.
A promotional poster for the AJT indicates that the 8.5-ton jet will have a maximum speed of Mach 1.4, a service ceiling of 45,000 feet, and the ability to withstands loads of up to 8 Gs.
Hürjet prototypes and initial production aircraft use an F404-GE-102 turbofan engine with two inlets— and engine which may eventually be replaced by a domestic one. Additional systems notably include in-flight refueling capability and an augmented-reality helmet for pilots. The trainers will also be sold in a bundle with an advanced simulator called the Hürjet 270, largely to reduce training costs.
The LCA- version would function as a more cost-efficient platform for close air support, or for strikes targeting militants with limited air defense capabilities. This development of this version isn’t projected to be complete until 2027, but when it’s finally ready, it will boast five heavy hardpoints to mount up to 3 tons of weapons—though Kotil only claimed they could hold one ton in a speech—as well as rails for short-range air-to-air missiles on the wingtips, and a 20-millimeter cannon.
Turkey has tried to sell Malaysia 33 Hürjets, 18 of which could build under license. So far, however, these attempts have been unsuccessful.
While Turkey is new to designing and building fighter jets, it has developed, exported and fielded in combat several missile-armed combat drones—or UCAVs—since the year 2000. The Bayraktar, currently operational over Ukraine, is the most well known, but Turkey’s military has also made use of the beefier and more heavily armed Anka-S (“Phoenix”) for strikes and surveillance in Libya and Syria.
The newly unveiled, jet-powered Anka-3 stealth combat drone has a tailless flying wing form. The design is aimed at radar cross-section reduction, and doesn’t appear to be directly evolved from prior Anka-S.
It’s alleged the Anka-S will achieve a maximum speed of 489 miles per hour cruise at 288 miles per hour at a maximum altitude of 40,000 feet, specifications 50 to 60 percent greater than those of the U.S.’s mainstay MQ-9 Reaper combat drone. It’s said to have only 10 hours of endurance, however, which is less than the 14 hours a turbo-prop powered MQ-9 can sustain when fully loaded.
The Anka-3 is expected to support 1.3 tons of weapons, which may include Simsek kamikaze drones, at least based on one of TAI’s promotional poster.
The design of the new drone contrasts sharply with the roughly 6-ton Kizilelma (“Red Apple”) drone developed by Bayraktar, which first flew in December 2022. The Kizilelma basically resembles a small manned fighter jet without a cockpit, and can attain transonic speeds of 680 miles per hour, or 457 while cruising. It’s powered by a Ukrainian Al-25T turbofan by Motor Sich, and will supposedly be followed in development by two supersonic B and C models (the latter twin-engined), which will make use of an afterburning Al-322 engine. The rival heavy combat drone thus has greater speed, likely for reduced stealth.
Thanks to short takeoff or landing (STOL) capability, these combat drones may vie for deck space on the Turkish carrier Anadolu, due for commissioning this year. Deprived of the F-35B jump jets it was intended to haul, the carrier will instead operate as a drone launch platform, starting with the Bayraktar TB3.
The array of jet-powered aircraft unveiled in Turkey this month—drones and fighter jets alike—display serious strides toward indigenous military aircraft production, supported by a defense industry with substantial capability to producing sensors, guided weapons, and digital control systems. However, the propulsion of these jets remains dependent on foreign-built engines, meaning Turkey’s ability to self-produce aircraft could still be constrained by its often difficult relations with the U.S. or European partners.
Currently, Turkish engine manufacturer TEI is working to develop a domestic TF6000 turbofan with heat-resistant, single-crystal turbine blades. The hope is that the engine will generate 6,000 pounds of thrust, or 10,000 when eventually augmented with an afterburner. Successfully completing the TF6000’s development would represent a breakthrough for the Turkish military industry, but scaling up to surpass the 29,000 pounds of afterburning thrust generated by the F110-GE-129 engine would remain a challenge.
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