Turkey’s 5th-Gen KAAN Fighter Conducts Maiden Flight; Ukraine Hopes To Deploy It Against Russia

Turkey is scrambling to get its indigenous 5th generation fighter jet KAAN (‘Ruler’ or ‘King of Kings’) flying. On Jan 21, the fighter jet conducted its maiden sortie successfully.

Prospective partners like Azerbaijan and Pakistan are taking note of Turkey’s capability to stick to its aggressive timeline to get the 5th generation fighter operational. Ukraine has also expressed the desire to purchase KAAN.

The flight has made Turkey one of the few countries that can manufacture 5th-generation fighter jets.

The US finally gave in to Turkey’s demand for more F-16s but simultaneously authorized the sale of F-35 fighter jets to Greece, the country’s arch-rival on the Anatolian peninsula.

Turkey’s timely development of TF-X or Kaan is threatened by the economic challenges faced by Ankara. 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 2023.

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.

According to reports, KAAN took to the skies “in the hands of the test pilot Barbaros Demirbas. The flight was a short hop, lasting 13 mins, with KAAN reaching 8,000 feet and a speed of 230 knots.”

The fighter jet had finished its taxi trials in March. TAI, the main contractor for the “KAAN” fifth-generation fighter jet development program, has set the goal of delivering 20 KAAN Block 10 fighter jets to the Turkish Air Force by 2028.

The second prototype (known as P1) is due to fly in 2025 and will be more representative of the planned production aircraft and cover the entire envelope. The third aircraft is expected to fly in 2026.

By 2034, follow-on blocks will be delivered. The block 20 aircraft will be the true fifth-generation fighter, with LO-appropriate materials, coatings, sensors, and systems, and with super-cruise capabilities.

The aircraft will use an advanced carbon composite fuselage for the TF-X, using new lighter carbon composite thermoplastic materials developed by TAI’s advanced carbon composite fuselage facility, which was previously tasked with producing F-35 fuselages.

NATO member Türkiye launched its TF-X project to produce a national combat aircraft in 2016. TAI signed a deal with Britain’s BAE Systems worth $125 million in 2017 to develop the next-generation fighter jet.

The warplane will be capable of air-to-air combat with new-generation weapons and precision strikes from internal weapon mounts at supersonic speed and will provide increased combat power with AI and neural network support.

KAAN is designed as an air superiority fighter but can also perform the secondary role of ground attack. In the air-to-air role, the aircraft will be armed with the MBDA Meteor and MICA, and Raytheon’s AIM-120 advanced medium-range air-to-air missile (AMRAAM), as well as the indigenous Gökdoğan missile, while short-range weapons will include AIM-9X, advanced short-range air-to-air missile (ASRAAM), and the Turkish Bozdoğan missile.

For air-to-ground weapons, the fighter jet will include a newly developed reconnaissance pod. In low observability (LO) configuration, the aircraft will have only a modest internal 1,000lb weapon load, primarily using small precision-guided munitions (PGMs) like Aselsan’s new Tolun, an INS/GPS-guided winged munition with a stand-off range of 60 miles.

The aircraft can also carry the compressed carriage TÜBİTAK SAGE SOM-J cruise missile, which was originally designed for internal carriage by the F-35A, with folding control surfaces and a booster.

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In August 2023, reports indicated that Turkey inked a National Combat Aircraft Development Collaboration Protocol with Azerbaijan. The contract facilitated 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.

File Image: KAAN
File Image: KAAN

Alienated by NATO countries, Turkey requires partners to shoulder the project’s financial burden. Two countries, Azerbaijan and Pakistan, have shown interest. The maiden flight of KAAN will help Turkey to consolidate the partnership further. While the two countries don’t bring much to the table when it comes to aerospace technology, they do provide Turkey with economies of scale and will bring down the cost per aircraft in the long run.

Even Ukraine has expressed interest in buying KAAN. Ukrainian Ambassador to Turkey, Vasyl Bodnar, recently said: “We (Ukraine) will not only purchase the KAAN fighter jet, but we will also utilize it, and we know where it will be deployed.”

He added that Ukraine is closely monitoring the development of the fifth-generation “KAAN” fighter jet.

Bodnar expressed confidence that KAAN has the potential to stand on its own with other 5th-generation fighter jets like the American F-35 and F-22.

Ukrainian teams have also been “actively” participating in the KAAN project, the Ukrainian ambassador has revealed.

While it is a significant achievement for the Turkish defense industry, experts feel that the haste with which it is pursuing the project would hinder the aircraft technology from venturing well. The world’s top military powers each have fifth-gen jets, but Russia, China, and the US are all facing problems with their fighters.

The US built the first 5th generation fighter – the F-22 Raptor, which is no longer in production. The US then followed it up with the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter. Russia has the Su-57 Felon, and China has the J-20. While the manufacturing countries claim them to be 5th generation, they don’t meet all the criteria to fit in the category.

To qualify as a fifth-generation fighter, an aircraft must have certain features like stealth capabilities to avoid detection and the ability to cruise at supersonic speeds without engaging its afterburners, among other things. All these 5th-generation development programs have faced problems with stealth technology, engine development, and maintenance.

Turkey’s haste will only compound these problems. Ankara is powering KAAN with two General Electric F-110 engines, also used on fourth-generation Lockheed Martin F-16 jets. Future developments may include the use of an indigenously developed TEI engine. So, after the inaugural flight, experts will observe how Turkey makes KAAN stealthy enough to meet the 5th-generation fighter criteria.

  • Ritu Sharma has been a journalist for over a decade, writing on defense, foreign affairs, and nuclear technology.
  • She can be reached at ritu.sharma (at) mail.com
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