Turkey’s pursuit of developing a fifth-generation fighter jet within a specified timeframe is compelling the country to seek partners capable of shouldering the project’s financial burden, with Azerbaijan and Pakistan emerging as key partners.
However, experts suggest that Azerbaijan and Pakistan might not be able to provide anything substantial to this fifth-generation aircraft project.
After finishing its taxi trials in March, the Turkish fifth-generation fighter jet TF-X is planned to perform its maiden flight by the end of 2023.
The timely development of TF-X, or Kaan, is of utmost priority for Turkey, especially in light of its deteriorating relations with the United States over the last decade, as evidenced by its expulsion from the F-35 program.
Yet, a recurring concern that continues to draw attention is whether Ankara possesses the capability and resources to complete the project independently, especially amid economic challenges.
Turkey’s economy is troubled by high inflation, with the country’s external debt surging to an alarming figure of nearly US$476 billion as of March.
This financial strain has been underscored by a recent report from Allianz Trade, a prominent international insurance company, revealing that the total external debt due to be repaid within the coming 12 months has experienced a substantial increase, reaching an estimated sum of approximately US$250 billion.
Considering the prevailing economic challenges, it is evident that the fifth-generation fighter aircraft, presently in its developmental phase, will require a substantial budget allocation.
In May 2023, Temel Kotil, the CEO of Turkish Aerospace Industries, said that the cost associated with Turkey’s TF-X fighter jet might surpass the initial expectations.
In a televised interview held in March 2021, Temel Kotil stated that the price for a single unit of the TF-X fighter jet would be approximately US$100 million.
Thus, Turkey is actively exploring opportunities to establish partnerships with friendly countries. Such collaborations can alleviate the country’s financial burden associated with the TF-X fighter jet program.
This strategic approach may also help distribute the costs and resources required for the project more evenly, making it a more sustainable endeavor for Turkey.
Examining Pakistan’s Role In The Project
Currently, two countries, Azerbaijan and Pakistan, have emerged as potential contenders for partnership in the TF-X fighter jet project.
In early August, reports indicated that Turkey had inked a National Combat Aircraft Development Collaboration Protocol with Azerbaijan. The partnership aims to incorporate Azerbaijan into Turkey’s domestically developed TF-X fifth-generation fighter jet program.
Shortly after, a senior Turkish official hinted at the possibility of Pakistan joining the initiative. Turkish Defense Minister Yasar Guler, on August 14, announced that Pakistan was on the verge of signing an agreement to participate in developing this fifth-generation fighter.
Guler emphasized that several friendly countries were actively working toward becoming partners in this project. The Pakistani government has not publicly commented on their potential involvement.
However, experts have suggested that collaborating with other nations will accelerate the development process for the ambitious TF-X project and help mitigate risks for Turkey.
Building a fifth-generation fighter jet is a sophisticated and expensive venture, demanding diverse skills and substantial resources. Engaging in collaborations with other nations allows Turkey to consolidate resources and tap into the technological expertise of the participating countries.
This approach also allows for the distribution of the financial burden among multiple partners and, in turn, contributes to developing a more advanced and capable aircraft.
However, there remains uncertainty regarding what partner countries, particularly Pakistan, will bring to the table. Experts have said that a near-bankrupt Pakistan can neither provide technological nor financial support to the project and might only end up burdening Turkey, unlike Azerbaijan, which can at least support the project financially.
The EurAsian Times approached Rahul Manohar Yelwe, a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Security Studies, to explore how these two potential partner countries could contribute to the project.
Yelwe said Azerbaijan and Pakistan can’t contribute substantially to the project, primarily due to the demanding nature of a fifth-generation fighter jet. He emphasized that even developing a fourth-generation aircraft requires a significant financial investment.
When questioned whether Pakistan, having previously partnered with China to develop the JF-17, could provide technological support for Turkey’s project, Yelwe dismissed this possibility unequivocally.
He explained that Turkey is superior to Pakistan in terms of aerospace technology. Ankara has not only successfully assembled F-16s but has also ventured into the production of cutting-edge drones, with a notable track record of exporting them in substantial quantities.
The only advantage Turkey can derive from Pakistan and Azerbaijan lies in economies of scale; as the production of the aircraft increases, the cost per aircraft can be reduced, Yelwe added.
He said that, to the maximum extent, Pakistan’s potential contribution to the project could involve producing spare parts such as surface controls, hydraulics, and landing gear components.
An Aggressive Development Timeline
The planned timeline for the entire aircraft development process is carefully laid out, with the inaugural flight scheduled for the year’s end.
The ambition to see the TF-X prototype take flight before the end of 2023 holds immense importance. It represents a concrete step forward in pursuing cutting-edge technological capabilities, symbolizing Turkey’s commitment to advancing its defense industry.
On January 9, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed the nation’s resolve to designate 2023 as a crucial year for the advancement of not only the defense industry but also various other sectors.
In December 2022, a Turkish official said that the first deliveries of the TF-X jet fighter will take place in 2028. Following this, the production rate is planned to be consistent at 24 aircraft per year, with the flexibility for substantial increases if circumstances necessitate.
While describing this timeline as “very aggressive,” Yelwe suggested that Turkey could potentially follow a path similar to South Korea, where the initial aircraft might not be fully stealthy or mature, and there could be several deficiencies in that aircraft.
Yelwe further noted that India introduced its Tejas fighter jet into service despite having approximately 50 shortfalls.
Likewise, Russia introduced the Su-57 with engines that exhibited suboptimal performance, with plans to upgrade the aircraft to meet its requirements in later stages of development.
Therefore, in the incremental approach, the nation can address the shortcomings present in the initial variants through improvements in future models.
He also underscored that combining different technologies, conducting thorough testing, and securing the necessary certifications is time-consuming. Given the current economic challenges, Ankara could encounter delays in ensuring the fighter jet is fit for flight.
However, a key challenge Yelwe underscores is unlike South Korea, which has forged a robust partnership with Lockheed Martin to develop the KF-X fighter jet, Turkey currently finds itself without a consulting partner.
This absence of a collaborative partner is expected to introduce a distinct set of challenges and complexities that Turkey may face throughout the extensive developmental phases of the fighter jet project.
That being said, the participation of Pakistan and Azerbaijan may not yield technological or financial advantages for Turkey. However, if these countries do acquire this fighter jet, it could serve as a strategic marketing move for Turkey.