ISTANBUL — Turkey is exploring whether it would be feasible to launch an indigenous fighter program, even though the government recognizes that the country still might have to be satisfied with another off-the-shelf procurement.
The fact that such an endeavor is being seriously contemplated became clear when the defense ministry’s powerful procurement and industrial agency, SSM, awarded a two-year feasibility study to Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) to explore the “art of the possible.” TAI may reach out to established aircraft makers for help, with Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Saab having already offered their support.
Embraer also is talking to TAI, which could be an interesting prospect given Brazil’s own interest in launching an indigenous development this decade.
The highly ambitious schedule currently envisioned would see the Turkish fighter enter service in 2023. Industry officials suggest the requirement is for a medium- to heavy-class aircraft.
Several fallback options exist in case an independent path is deemed beyond reach. One is a partnering arrangement in which another company would provide technology critical to managing a co-development program, likely derived from an existing design. Several models would already exist from which to work. One is what Japan undertook with its F-2 fighter, in which Lockheed Martin was a major partner; the other is the arrangement Lockheed Martin struck with Korea Aerospace Industries for development of the South Korean T-50/F50 .
Turkey and South Korea at one point discussed cooperation around Seoul’s KFX project, but Seoul did not want to relinquish more than 20-30% of the program.
Another option would be a straight off-the-shelf procurement. Industry officials say a decision on which approach will be followed should be announced before the end of 2013.
These deliberations come just as Turkey is implementing an extensive fighter modernization strategy. The country is buying 30 Lockheed Martin F-16 Block 50+ fighters; the first one is slated to be delivered this month and the rest will follow before 2013. They are being fielded to offset losses of more than 20 F-16s and as a bridge until the first of 116 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters are fielded. Turkey had hoped for a 2014 delivery, although that time frame is now considered unlikely given the delays in the core program.
The Turkish air force still operates a fleet of F-4 Phantom fighter/bombers. Around 50 of them were upgraded to the Phantom 2020 standard through a program carried out with Israeli involvement. But there are still “original” F-4s and RF-4s in service. These will be the first to go, while, in theory, the Phantom 2020s could last until a new fighter is procured.
Turkey also is reviewing its overall strategic outlook. The latest defense policy assessment no longer lists Greece, Syria and Iran as direct threats, which could herald a move to reduce the total fighter inventory and allow the F-4s to be retired without an immediate replacement.
Even if the F-4 follow-on program is realized, it would be for no more than 50 aircraft, with Ankara likely to buy an established system.