Turkish 5th-Gen KAAN Fighter Program Zooms Ahead Thanks To Strong Manufacturing Base; Can India’s AMCA Catch Up

OPED By Air Marshal Anil Chopra (Retired)

Turkey’s fifth-generation aircraft, “Kaan,” made its first flight in February 2024. Considering that just in 2010, Turkey’s Defence Industry Executive Committee (SSIK) had decided to design, develop, and manufacture a national next-generation air-superiority fighter that would replace Turkey’s F-16 fleet, it was an outstanding achievement.

Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) was founded just over 50 years ago in 1973.

The prototype of the TAI Anka-3 stealth unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) made its first flight on 28 December 2023. Earlier, TAI produced a significant number of General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon jets under license, as well as CASA/IPTN CN-235 light transport/maritime patrol/surveillance aircraft.

TAI is known for producing a large variety of UAVs. A Turkish private company manufactures the Bayraktar TB2 medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV) capable of remotely controlled or autonomous flight operations, which has been extensively used in Syria, Libya, Azerbaijan, and Ukraine.

There are lessons and challenges from Turkish aerospace endeavors for the developing world.

Turkey’s Significant Defence & Aerospace Industry

The first aircraft factory, the Turkish Aircraft, and Engine Limited Company factory was set up in August 1925. TAI was founded in Ankara in 1973 and manufactures aircraft, helicopters, satellites, and UAVs.

The main shareholding of  54.49% is with the Turkish Armed Forces Foundation, and 45.45% is with the Under Secretariat for Defence Industries. It has around 17,000 employees.

Turkish aerospace and defense market size in 2024 is estimated to be $15.27 billion. Interestingly, with a combined arms revenue of $5.5 billion, four Turkish companies, namely Aselsan (60th), Baykar (76th), Turkish Aerospace Industries (82nd), and Roketsan (100th), have made it to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute’s (SIPRI) Top 100 list for 2022 — two more than in 2021.

Baykar’s arms revenue rose by 94 percent, the largest increase among all Top 100 companies, as a result of growing sales of Bayraktar TB-2 UAVs.

To put it in perspective, India’s Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) was founded in December 1940 as Hindustan Aircraft and got its current name in 1964. It currently has 71.65% government ownership, 24,500 employees, $3.6 billion in revenue in 2023, and is ranked (41st) in the 2022 SIPRI list.

Among other Indian aerospace companies in the top 100 is BEL (63rd). Mazagon Dock Shipbuilders are at (89th). Interestingly, India’s GDP is three times greater than Turkey’s, and its military power is ranked fourth compared to Turkey’s 8th globally.

Turkish Aerospace Industries

During the late 1980s and 1990s, TAI produced 232 Block 30/40/50 F-16s on a production line in Ankara under license for the Turkish Air Force. TAI also produced 46 Block 40s for Egypt in the mid-1990s and 30 Block 50s from 2010 onwards.

It was the third plant outside the US. It marked the first sale of a foreign-built Fighting Falcon to a third-party nation in the history of the F-16 program.

In January 2024, the US State Department cleared the sale of some $23 billion worth of fighter jets and equipment to Turkey that included the sale of 40 F-16 fighters and upgrades to dozens of other jets, which was linked to Sweden’s accession to NATO.

TAI also license-produced CASA/IPTN CN-235 light transport/maritime patrol/surveillance aircraft and has become the largest operator of the CN-235, with 52 transport and nine maritime variants. They subsequently upgraded these. Nearly 25 TAI’s Hurkus essential trainers are flying, with a few exported.

Turkey also licensed produced SIAI-Marchetti SF.260 trainers, Cougar AS-532 utility, and search and rescue (SAR) helicopters. TAI is involved in designing and developing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), target drones, and agricultural aircraft. Upgrades of both fixed and rotary-wing military and commercial aircraft in Turkey’s inventory and those of some allies have been a strong area.

TAI was involved in Electronic warfare retrofit and structural modifications on Turkish F-16s; mid-life upgrade of Jordanian and Pakistani F-16s; conversion of B737-700 aircraft into AEW&C, participating in the design and development of the A400M military transport and tanker aircraft; design, development, and production of Anka unmanned aerial vehicle for the Turkish Air Force.

The TAI Hürjet single-engine, tandem seat, supersonic advanced trainer, and light combat aircraft prototype made its first flight on 25 April 2023. It is meant to replace the Northrop T-38 Talon in the trainer role and supplement the F-16s for close air support. A naval version of the aircraft may also be developed.

Turkey has built over 80 TAI/AgustaWestland T129 ATAK attack helicopters. The TAI T929 ATAK 2 is a twin-engine, heavy attack, and electronic warfare helicopter that made its first flight in April 2023 and is planned for induction in 2025. They also make light and medium utility helicopters.

TAI also makes a variety of Anka brands, MALE ISR, and combat UAVs. They have made a variety of drones since 2001. Over 100 Anka modular platforms with synthetic-aperture radar, precise weapons, and satellite communication are already flying. They have also been ordered by Algeria, Chad, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, and Tunisia.

Pakistan has ordered but also manufactures parts under license at Pakistan Aeronautical Complex, Kamra. The Anka-3 flying-wing jet-powered stealth UCAV first flew in April 2023. It is one of two Turkish jet-powered stealth UCAVs developed as part of Project MIUS, along with the Bayraktar Kızılelma.

TAI manufactures aero-structures for many global OEMs, including Boeing, Airbus, EADS CASA, Lockheed, IAI, Sikorsky, and Eurocopter, among others. TAI began work on two regional jets, the 32-seat TRJ-328, and the larger, 70-seat TRJ-628, but both were later canceled. TAI also working on many earth-observation and communication satellites.

File Image: KAAN
File Image: KAAN

TAI TF Kaan 5th Generation Fighter

TF Kaan 5th Generation stealth twin-engine multirole/air superiority fighter made its first flight on 21 February 2024. Service introduction is planned for the early 2030s. TAI works with sub-contractor BAE Systems. The aircraft is meant to replace the Turkish F-16s and is also planned for exports.

In 2011, the Turkish government gave the go-ahead with funding equivalent to US$20 million for a 2-year conceptual design phase. By 2015, TAI released three potential airframe configurations.

FX-1 was akin to a twin-engine Lockheed Martin F-22. FX-5 was somewhat like the F-16 configuration, and FX-6 was like a single-engine canard-delta Saab JAS 39 Gripen.

Finally, it was decided in 2015 to have the twin-engine configuration. Earlier considerations to join up with the Saab or Russians for a joint program were abandoned. In December 2015, Turkey announced that it had chosen BAE Systems of the United Kingdom to assist with the design of the nation’s next-generation air superiority fighter.

The contract for design and development was signed in August 2016, and TAI granted $1.18 billion. Simultaneously, the Request for Proposal (RFP) was issued for the aircraft’s engine, to General Electric, Eurojet, and Snecma, with the condition that the engine infrastructure be developed in Turkey and production is domestic as long as possible.

Even Rolls-Royce evinced interest. General Electric’s local partner Tusaş Engine Industries (TEI) proposed a mature engine and emphasized the advantage of GE engine designs. TEI is committed to submitting all intellectual rights to the government.

Meanwhile, in October 2018, it was reported that an unknown number of initial production fighters will be equipped with General Electric F110 engines until the Turkish Air Engine Company (TAEC) finalizes the local engine. Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce continues to make attempts to get into the locally developed engine.

In 2022, ten General Electric F110 engines were reportedly delivered to TEI.

The first production aircraft, called Block-0, is planned for 2025, and the first flight is targeted for 2026. TAI plans three prototypes by then.

The Block-1 configuration is planned to be developed until 2029. The target is to deliver twenty Block-1 aircraft to the Turkish Air Force in 2028, then two aircraft per month by 2029.

The Phase-2 aircraft will be delivered to the Turkish Air Force between 2030 and 2033. In Phase 3, between 2034 and 2040, development and mass production activities of other TF-X blocks are planned. The earlier price tag of $100 million per unit is likely to exceed.

The 25-ton max take-off weight (similar to Indian AMCA) aircraft is meant to feature standard 5th-generation features such as improved aerodynamics and propulsion, super-cruise, sufficient combat radius (undefined), advanced and internal multi-spectral sensors (EW and RF/IR), low observability, sensor fusion and autonomy, improved data-link capabilities for network-enabled warfare, internal-bays, high precision stand-off weapons.

Turkish company Aselsan is developing an advanced active electronically scanned array radar that will use gallium nitride (GaN) technology. The aircraft will integrate with TAI Anka through an encrypted data link for manned-unmanned teaming.

The aircraft will use upgraded variants of Aselsan’s own radar warning receiver (RWR), missile warning system (MWS), laser warning system (LWS), chaff and flare management, dispensing system, and digital radio frequency memory (DRFM)-based jamming system, which is already deployed with the other air platforms.

Other Major Turkish Defence Companies

Aselsan is into military electronics. Turkish Army Foundation is the founder and major stockholder. Their main products are communication and information technologies, microelectronics, guidance and electro-optics, radar, and electronic warfare systems.

Baykar is a private Turkish defense company specializing in UAVs, C4I, and artificial intelligence. They manufacture the famous Bayraktar variants of drones, UAVs, and UCAVs.

Roketsan is a Turkish weapons manufacturer that established the nation’s industrial base on missile technology. Roketsan’s current shareholders include the Turkish Armed Forces Foundation (55.5%) and Aselsan (15%), among others.

They make a wide range of munitions, guided and unguided rockets, and missiles, including ballistic missiles. Their inventory includes Laser-guided weapons and are working on directed energy weapons.

Pakistan’s JF-17 ‘Thunder’ Production Line To Continue With New PFX Variant Despite Technical Glitches

Pushing Ahead Turkey – Ideas India?

Turkey occupies a geo-strategically important position. It is part of both Europe and West Asia. It is a NATO member but maintains cordial relations with Russia.

It does have friction with its immediate neighbors, Greece and Syria. It has been the recipient of both Russian missile systems and Western aircraft technologies. But the US stopping the earlier committed F-35 sales to Turkey on the pretext that they had bought Russian S-400 SAMs did shake up Turkey.

Their desire to not only lead the Islamic world as its most powerful nation but also to become a major arms supplier has taken Turkey forward in defense production. Also, a large shareholding in the military industries is with the Turkish Armed Forces Foundation, and this has its own dynamics.

Turkey’s experience in manufacturing the F-16s has been significant. Their close work with BAE is helping. They hope to use them to support “Kaan” exports. They are effectively the fourth country after the US, China, and Russia to have flown a home-grown fifth-generation fighter. However, both stealth and engine technologies are complex and will take some time to master.

Meanwhile, Pakistan has shown interest in the fighter. Nearly 200 Pakistani engineers were already involved in Kaan. If talks succeed, Pakistan could become the second foreign partner to join the Kaan program, following Azerbaijan, which officially committed itself to the venture last July.

However, that could affect Pakistan’s indigenous NGFA Project AZM. In any case, Pakistan still does not have sufficient industrial base and fiscal capacity to drive its own NGFA program alone. What does Turkey gain from letting Pakistan join the Kaan? Would Pakistan be an asset – or a liability? Yes, there will be the advantage of economy of scale. PAF may want around 100 fighters. But Pakistan is also talking to China for J-31.

Amca india fighter jet
File Image: AMCA Model

India has to learn from Turkey’s successes in unmanned platforms. They are also ahead in helicopters and transport aircraft. Turkey is clearly way ahead in the fifth-generation fighter program.

India’s AMCA has still to get CCS approval, even though a Critical Design Review (CDR) has been completed. AMCA’s challenges will be similar to Kaan, including stealth and aero-engine.

It appears that Turkey is moving much faster in decision-making. India has the advantage of a larger economy. India’s DRDO and HAL are bigger, albeit a little more bureaucratic.

India is doing well in radars and missiles. India needs to leap forward on AMCA. India perhaps has to be more open to taking foreign assistance. We need to run the AMCA project along with the aero-engine project using a task-force approach. We must put an equivalent of “Metroman” Sridharan to head the project or bring it directly under PMO.

  • Air Marshal Anil Chopra (Retired) is an Indian Air Force veteran fighter test pilot and is currently the Director-General of the Center for Air Power Studies in New Delhi. He has been decorated with gallantry and distinguished service medals while serving in the IAF for 40 years. He tweets @Chopsyturvey 
  • Follow EurAsian Times on Google News