TF-X project a tall order for Turkey – airpower expert Justin Bronk

Turkey is facing a steep climb as it works to complete development of its TF-X fighter jet or risk seeing its air fleet fall into obsolescence. 

The TF-X is a proposed fifth generation fighter jet, meaning it would be able to incorporate the latest stealth, sensor and flight technologies to compete on the modern battlefield.

Initially announced in 2013, the TF-X programme has been beset by delays from Turkey’s inability to acquire or produce the components needed to bring it into service. It was first expected to test a prototype by 2023, but now it is not expected to be in service until 2029. 

Justin Bronk, a research fellow on airpower at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London, remarks that Turkey’s the victim of its own ambition of looking to develop the current most advanced form of a fighter aircraft without any prior experience in doing so. 

“Given that Turkey is trying to start in the deep end as it were, they really have really bitten off a huge chunk of a task with the TF-X,” Bronk told Ahval News in a recent podcast.

Listen to "Turkey's race against time to complete development of the TF-X fighter" on Spreaker.

Bronk explains that even though Turkey has proven successful at developing combat drones, like the infamous Bayraktar TB-2, it is a far more complicated endeavour to develop an advanced fighter jet. To make this point, he said that even countries with the technical know-how and experience in jet development find the task challenging. 

A persistent problem for the TF-X programme is the inability to acquire an engine that would power the fighter. For years, Turkey looked to U.K-based engine developer Rolls Royce to provide an engine, but talks faltered over disagreements over technology transfer arrangements and an inability to acquire an export license from the United States. 

The issue of the engine is particularly difficult to solve for the Turkish defence sector as a whole with one official telling Defense News that failing to acquire one posed “an existential threat” to programmes. 

Bronk says that the easiest solution to the conundrum would be purchasing a proven engine, but failures to negotiate a technology transfer arrangement remain an Achilles heel. He added that Turkish expectations to acquire the level of transfer they want was “pushing it” in their dealings. 

Here the fallout of Turkey’s expulsion from the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programme is felt too. Turkey was slated to acquire 100 F-35s to replace its aging F-16 squadrons, but after Ankara went ahead with the purchase of the S-400 from Russia in 2019 it was immediately removed from the programme. 

Last December, Turkey’s Presidency of Defence Industries (SSB), the heart of Turkey’s defence sector, was also hit with U.S export sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA).

These sanctions, according to Bronk, could ultimately complicate efforts to acquire components that may be subject to U.S export restrictions, slowing the TF-X further. 

Turkey’s officials have repeatedly said that the S-400 is a “done deal” but some, such as Minister of Defence Hulusi Akar, have floated proposals that would see sanctions lifted without giving up the S-400. Bronk cautions that this is a false hope to hold on to for Turkish officials. 

“There is no way around the ownership of an S-400 system with Russian technicians around is a complete prohibition on any of the West’s high-end combat systems,” he said. 

Russia has repeatedly stated that it would readily strike deals with Turkey if it was interested in replacing the F-35 with its own advanced jets like the SU-35 or SU-57, Russia’s own fifth-generation fighter. Bronk tossed cold water on this offer as unlikely as a replacement even for the F-35.

“I don’t think Russia at all is a viable replacement for the TF-X,” Bronk said, pointing to Russia’s own struggles in developing the SU-57 in particular.  

Turkey has announced in the interim that it will be upgrading its existing F-16s, but time may not be on Ankara’s side. The rate of development for advanced sensors and other jet technologies are already challenging existing fighters like the F-35 to keep pace, said Bronk. 

To that end, he insists the solution may ultimately have to be a political one. This would mean at the very least giving up the S-400 or finding some way to reconcile its differences with the United States in particular.

“I think for Erdogan himself, the ball is very much on his court on reducing tensions with the U.S,” said Bronk. 

“I think a key determinant of what challenges Turkey will face if it can’t find an affordable route to  replace its F-16s, will depend one whatever that political choice is,” he added.