Turkey has tossed aside plans to purchase the Eurofighter Typhoon and is pursuing an ambitious endeavour to design and produce its own fighter jet instead.
The decision, announced by Turkish Defence Minister Vecdi Gonul, is seen as not only an industrial move, but one aimed at boosting national pride with its “Made in Turkey” fighter.
“The decision we have taken now calls for the production of a totally national and original aircraft,” Gonul told reporters last week after a meeting of the powerful Defence Industry Executive Committee decided to nix plans to purchase 60 of the latest Typhoon jet fighters.
“This move by the committee effectively is a decision for making Turkey’s first fighter aircraft,” Gonul said. “The Eurofighter is off Turkey’s agenda.”
According to reports, the new aircraft would replace the aging US-made F-4, which had been upgraded by Israel to last well into the next decade, as well as newer F-16s. The expected rollout date for Turkey’s twin-engine combat jet would reportedly be about 2023.
Ankara has already announced it plans to procure some 100 of the next-generation F-35s Joint Strike Fighter aircraft in a deal worth about $15 billion. The first JSF jets are expected to be delivered around 2015.
According to Defence News, however, Turkey would take the approximately 30 F-16 fighters only as a “stopgap” measure.
The decision to fly solo in developing a fighter jet comes as Turkey distances itself from its North Atlantic Treaty Organization partners in Europe and North America, and seeks closer ties with its Middle Eastern neighbors. In November, Turkey disputed NATO plans for a missile shield against a possible Iranian attack and has objected to the alliance sharing information with Israel.
Turkey assembles the F-16s on contract from Lockheed Martin at a Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) plant. The government named state-controlled TAI, based on the outskirts of Ankara, as the general coordinator of the new fighter jet project. The Turkish Defence Industry’s Procurement agency SSM has allotted some $20 million for a two-year conceptual design study.
Officials at TAI said they couldn’t speak on the project and referred all calls to the SSM. The SSM couldn’t be reached for comment.
“It’s a large endeavour. I’m skeptical that they would be able to do the project on their own since Turkey didn’t have the adequate technological know-how,” said one aerospace executive intimately involved with the design and production of the Israeli fighter jet Lavi in the 1980s.
“But it’s not just technological know-how. Developing a fighter jet requires billions and billions of dollars. It’s certainly not the same as assembling an aircraft. It takes a very long time to develop the technology and then you need to have the influx of funding to bring it all together,” the executive, who spoke on condition he not be named, told The Media Line.
Turkish industry officials told The Media Line that the government decision didn’t make sense. Turkey was currently so heavily engaged in joint international aircraft design projects such as the F-35 that it wouldn’t be feasible to embark on such a costly and risky venture, the officials said.
While hardly world class, the Turkish defence industry is growing and modernizing. But it remains dependent on foreign technology. TAI has designed the Hurkus, a basic training aircraft, but it has yet to make its maiden flight. It has also rolled out an unmanned aerial vehicle this year called the ANKA.
“Development is very, very expensive. Israel was a small country without a big defence budget. Even when we had the infrastructure we decided to give up on it because it was just too expensive,” the executive said, adding that any development today would likely be more successful with international partners.
Israel eventually scrapped the Lavi– built to be a competitor with the F-16 –under heavy US pressure and from a lack of funds.
Defence Minister Gonul said Turkey might cooperate with South Korea, which was developing the KF-X fighter jet with Indonesia. However, that project has sputtered due to lack of funding.
If it goes forward with the fighter jet, Turkey will join a small league of half a dozen or so countries that have the capabilities to design and produce their own fighter jets.
“It’s not much different than designing and building a satellite, only a fighter jet is much more expensive,” said the executive.
It appears that the 2023 rollout date will put its debut a the tail end of era of manned fighters as they give way to unmanned aerial vehicles. But some believe that there will always be a task for piloted aircraft.
“Even 50 years from now, there will be manned fighters. Maybe their numbers will be reduced and their tasks changed, but there will always be manned aircraft,” he said.