Turkey’s homemade fighter poised to storm global markets

Turkey’s Kaan Next-Generation Fighter, previously known as the TF-X, has made its first flight, giving rise to geostrategic speculation the fighter jet may soon be available for export to a range of states, according to multiple news outlets.

The aircraft was airborne for 13 minutes, reached an altitude of 8,000 feet and a speed of 230 knots while flying alongside an F-16D for support, the reports said.

The TF-X cum Kaan project, launched in 2016, aims to replace Turkey’s fleet of US-made F-16s, which will be phased out starting in the 2030s. The Kaan’s design philosophy has evolved since Turkey left the US-led F-35 consortium following the country’s controversial procurement of Russia’s S-400 missile defense system in 2019.

The Kaan will be the flagship of Turkey’s military aerospace industry, with the country working on a project to produce locally manufactured jet engines and the design being considered for a sixth-generation fighter replete with artificial intelligence-powered capabilities.

Popular Mechanics notes in a March 2023 article that the Kaan is in the same league as South Korea’s indigenously made KF-21 Boramae fighter. This 4.5 generation jet falls short of being a 5th generation aircraft, although a complete stealth configuration and indigenous engines are planned for a third production batch.

Popular Mechanics mentions that the Kaan is expected to meet performance benchmarks for modern fighter jets, with a top speed between Mach 1.8 to 2.2, a service ceiling of 55,000 feet, a 700-mile range on internal fuel and supersonic capability without afterburners. However, the report assesses those capabilities are still more aspirational than assured.

The Kaan features an indigenous, bird strike-resistant canopy, single-wheel landing gears, 7050-grade aluminum nose and cockpit, titanium central fuselage and lightweight carbon composite thermoplastic coatings on the engines and surface inlets to reduce radar reflectivity.

While the Popular Mechanics report says Turkey claims up to 85% indigenous parts for the Kaan, it features imported components such as two General Electric F110-GE-129 turbofan engines and a Martin-Baker ejection seat.  

Popular Mechanics says the Kaan is expected to feature an indigenous Aselsan AESA-class multimode radar that can scan and jam simultaneously, increasing resistance to jamming, and will have twice as many transmit-receive elements on the AN/APG-77 radar used on the US F-22.

It also says the Kaan has a nose-mounted forward infrared search and track (IRST) sensor, an electro-optical system with 360-degree coverage. Turkish firms have already built various laser, missile and radar warning receivers, including digital radio frequency memory (DRFM) jammers, for integration in the Kaan.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar at a Kaan unveiling ceremony. Image: Turkish Defense Ministry

The Kaan can reportedly store four weapons in an internal weapons bay and four more in its side fuselage bays alongside an autocannon. It also has four underwing hardpoints for non-stealth options.

While the Kaan may be a sound design, Turkey’s economic woes may prevent it from getting past the prototype technology demonstrator stage or limit the actual number of production airframes.

In an article for The National Interest (TNI) this month, Stavros Atlamazoglou notes that the Kaan’s reliance on key imported parts and Turkey’s poor economic prospects may jeopardize the aircraft’s future. Atlamazoglou mentions that the weak Turkish lira could result in extreme cost overruns for advanced projects like the Kaan.

While Turkey can still spread out costs over several years of production, such attenuation may result in capabilities that are obsolete on delivery, as Turkey plans to have an operational capability by 2040 with a fleet of 300 aircraft.  

Nevertheless, Turkey likely aims to pitch the Kaan on the international fighter jet market. Aside from longtime strategic partner Azerbaijan, the UAE, Indonesia and Pakistan have been cited as potential customers.

Asia Times reported in January 2022 that Russia and the UAE have entered into talks to co-produce the former’s Su-75 Checkmate fighter, following US restrictions on F-35 sales to the UAE due to its telecoms contracts with Huawei that Washington believes could compromise the F-35’s technology.

However, the Su-75’s future is uncertain. Paul Iddon mentions in a June 2023 Business Insider article that unconfirmed reports state the UAE has stopped funding for the Su-75, with the threat of secondary sanctions and import restrictions on microelectronics to Russia serving as strong disincentives for continued participation in the program.

Iddon also states the possibility that the UAE’s involvement in the Su-75 program was more bluff than intent in a negotiating tactic to pressure the US into eventually selling F-35s.

While Ashley Roque notes in a February 2023 Breaking…

Read More: Turkey’s homemade fighter poised to storm global markets