Turkish ambitions to develop and build the first ever made-in-Turkey fighter aircraft and at the same time buy a new generation, multinational combat jet may go beyond Turkey’s financing capacity, industry sources and experts said.
They said Turkey could face a US $50 billion bill in the next few decades if it decides to go ahead with now maturing plans to build an indigenous fighter jet and order scores of the US-led, multinational F-35 joint strike fighter in a parallel move.
“The [local] fighter program has not yet won the final green light from the government, but if it does, Turkish budget planners will have to sit down and find ways to finance both this ambition and the JSF program,” said one senior western aerospace official.
Procurement officials earlier said Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan would make the final decision on whether Turkey should skip to a next level in its pre-conceptual design work for the Turkish fighter, a program dubbed the TF-X.
Turkey’s ultimate decision-maker on procurement, the Defense Industry Executive Committee, chaired by Erdogan, is expected to make a decision this year.
Industry sources took a ministerial statement on a civilian project as an indication of a positive decision on the TF-X. Transport Minister Binali Yildirim told reporters Sept. 3 that a plan for the design, development and production of a Turkish civilian aircraft, with 60 to 120 seats, had been submitted to the cabinet for approval.
Defense industry officials estimate that building eight prototypes to be produced under the TF-X would cost Ankara over $10 billion. “Any figure in the range of $11-13 billion would be realistic,” an aviation official said.
His guess for the final Turkish order if the entire program succeeded is nearly 200 aircraft. “We target $100 million per aircraft,” he said. “I think 200 is a realistic figure given our aging fleet of aircraft that will phase out in the decades ahead.”
That means Turkey will have to spend $31-33 billion for the Turkish fighter it hopes to design, develop and manufacture. But independent analysts say this can be an over-optimistic calculation.
“We know that Turkey’s plans do not include developing an engine for the Turkish fighter. Moreover, I think $100 million per aircraft is too optimistic given Turkey’s technological constraints, its high-cost industry and the fact that a newcomer [into the fighter industry] like Turkey would always suffer setbacks and trials and errors during the entire process.”
Turkey has been in talks with Sweden’s Saab for pre-conceptual design work for the country’s first national fighter jet. Saab makes the JAS 39 Gripen, a lightweight single-engine multirole fighter. It was designed to replace the Saab 35 Draken and 37 Viggen in the Swedish Air Force. The Gripen is powered by the Volvo-Flygmotor RM12 engine, a derivative of the General Electric F404, and has a top speed of Mach 2.
Turkey hopes that under the TF-X program, it can fly the Turkish fighter by 2023, the centennial of the republic. Turkey’s aerospace powerhouse, TAI, has been debating three designs.
Meanwhile, Turkey, whose present fighter fleet is made up of US-made aircraft, also plans to buy the F-35.
Most of Turkey’s fleet of F-16 fighters, being modernized by Lockheed Martin, and the F-35s are open to US technological influence. Only its older F-4 aircraft, modernized by Israel, and its oldest F-16s, being modernized by Turkey, are free from this influence. But these older aircraft are expected to be decommissioned around 2020.
Turkey’s defense procurement officials have said that Ankara intends to buy around 100 F-35s. Defense analysts estimate the cost of the entire JSF program to Turkey to be around $16 billion, bringing Turkey’s fighter budget up to $50 billion together with the TF-X.