Turkey’s aerospace industry is turning away from traditional US ITAR restricted platforms to indigenously shape the future of the Turkish Air Force.
Turkish Air Force (TuAFA) modernisation is being fuelled by the indigenisation of Turkey’s relatively new aerospace industry. Major home growth defence contractors such as Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI), Aselsan, Havelsan and Roketsan all now play a massive part in solving the needs of the local military, and are keen to export their products to fund the domestic market.
Increasingly though, they are finding it difficult to sell to allied countries because of International Treaty on Arms (ITAR) restrictions. For example, Pakistan signed up for 30 TAI T129 attack and reconnaissance helicopters (ATAK) in a $1.5 billion deal in May 2018, but the Honeywell/Rolls Royce LHTEC 800 engine that powers the helicopter has been sanctioned under ITAR legislation. A Tusas Engine Industries (TEI) TS1400 powerplant is being heralded as the replacement solution, but this will take time due to its ongoing development.
Banned from F-35
One major setback for the TuAFA came when the United States (US) government banned Turkey from the Lockheed Martin’s F-35 programme. The TuAF had a requirement for 100 F-35As to replace its ageing F-4E Phantoms and F-16C/Ds. Six had been contracted, while another 24 were set to be acquired by fiscal year 2020. It led to the first TuAF F-35A flight on 10 May, 2018 with the aircraft subsequently handed over to the 56th Fighter Wing at Luke AFB, Arizona, for pilot and maintenance training. By April 2019 three more had arrived. Then in March 2019, Turkey ordered the Russian S-400 long range air defence system. That put relations with the United States in a spin. The transfer of F-35A support equipment was put on hold and Turkish personnel were eventually expelled from F-35 training and other activities.
The chief Pentagon spokesman, Charles Summers said in a statement released on Monday 1 April, 2019, “the United States has suspended deliveries and activities associated with the stand-up of Turkey’s F-35 operational capability. Should Turkey procure the S-400, their continued participation in the F-35 program is at risk.”
On July 17, 2019 the White House issued a statement, stated: “Unfortunately, Turkey’s decision to purchase Russian S-400 air defence systems renders its continued involvement with the F-35 impossible. The F-35 cannot co-exist with a Russian intelligence collection platform that will be used to learn about its advanced capabilities. The United States still greatly values its strategic relationship with Turkey and we will continue to cooperate with Turkey extensively, mindful of constraints due to the presence of the S-400 system in Turkey.”
Since then all the workshare that had been awarded to Turkish companies has stopped, with the majority of it being transferred back to the US under ex-President Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ policy.
The F-35 cancellation meant that the TuAFA had to extend the lifetime in service of the older F-16C/Ds and F-4E Phantoms until around 2030. At that time Turkey’s indigenous new generation fighter, known as Turkish Fighter-X (TF-X), or MMU as as it is known locally, should start being delivered to the TuAF. A full scale mock-up of the TF-X was unveiled in June 2019 at the Paris Airshow, but a month earlier at Turkey’s own defence exhibition, IDEF 2019 in Istanbul, the author spoke to Fahrettin Öztürk, Turkish Aerospace’s vice president, Research and Development who stated that he had been “tasked to handle the research and development processes and get everything to serial production quicker.”
Undoubtedly TF-X will be take up much of his time. “We are in a design partnership with BAE Systems on the project…This involves around 100 BAE staff on secondment to TAI in Ankara,“ stated Öztürk at the time. “We are in Phase 1 – the conceptual design and selection of major systems, then we will put [a model] through wind tunnel tests. In Phase 2 we will start the detailed design, manufacturing and integrating of all the systems. We are expecting TF-X will have its first flight in 2026,” he predicted.
In August 2020 TAI’s CEO, Temel Kotil said that the TF-X would now be rolled out on 18 March, 2023 (to coincide with Turkey celebrating 100 years of its existence). This would be followed by two years of ground tests. He added that there will be seven prototypes.
The biggest issue is the engine. Designing and developing an indigenous powerplant for a fighter isn’t easy as both Russia and China can vouch. There were aspirations to co-develop such a requirement with an international partner, but so far nothing has materialised. Originally three foreign companies bid for the work in partnership with Eskisehir-based Turkish Engine Industries (TEI), which will be responsible for producing the engine.
Rolls Royce and Kale Group of Turkey announced the creation of a joint venture company on 8 May, 2017 for a new engine, which never materialised into development due to transfer of technology concerns. General Electric offered technology transfer (ToT) for the F414-GE-400 which powers the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, while Eurojet offered an improved version of its EJ-200 engine, the Typhoon’s powerplant as well as ToT. However, on 14 February this year, Turkish state-run engine maker TRMotor signed a deal with TAI to develop two critical components of the engine – the auxiliary power unit and an air turbine start system, that will power the jet. As Osman Dur, general manager of TRMotor said, “The TF-X powerplant is still at its concept design phase.” Until an engine is selected, the design of the fighter cannot progress.
During IDEF 2019, Turkey’s President Erdogan spoke of his defence industry stepping up its game, allowing the country’s military to go 100 percent indigenous, because of the threats of sanctions on ITAR products. TAI led by CEO Temel Kotil is playing a big part in his dream, with the development of several new platforms. Many are helicopter projects, including the T129 Tactical Reconnaissance and Attack (ATAK), the T625 Gokbey, a six ton unmanned electric powered T629 and the Multi Role Heavy Combat Helicopter (MHCH) currently referred to as ATAK-2. There is also the Hurjet jet trainer, Hurkus-B turboprop trainer, Hurkus-C close air support aircraft, new generation TF fighter, a stand-off jammer (SOJ) and several UAVs such as the Anka-Aksungur and Anka-S that draw strength from all aspects of the defence industry. You name it and Turkey’s SSB (Undersecretariat for Defence Industries) is looking to have a Turkish solution within the foreseeable future.
On 25 February, TAI delivered the first T129 ATAK to the Polis, in the Phase-2 configuration, with enhanced Aselsan electronic warfare and countermeasures capabilities. Two more of six ordered in March 2017 were set to be delivered in March. Ismail Demir, the SSB chairperson said: “We are proud to see the delivery of this helicopter which will further strengthen the police forces.”
By June last year, 57 of the 59 T129s on order by the Turkish Land Forces had been delivered, while the Gendarmerie has received at least six of 18 on order. To date 83 T129s have been ordered, with another three are on option, possibly for the Gendarmerie.
Mr Demir also pointed out the plan was not to just build platforms, but also domestically develop subsystems and critical components. The TEI TS1400 powerplant currently being developed to power helicopters, is one of the most important steps in this process.
The first six-ton T625 Gökbey, TC-HLP flew on 6 September, 2018 but this was essentially an ‘iron bird’ – a ground test vehicle modified with new avionics and engine. Its flight marked the fifth anniversary of the contract being signed to develop the aircraft. Civilian certification should be completed this year when serial production is also expected to commence.
With a requirement of up to 600 military T625 Gökbeys to replace the ageing Bell UH-1H Hueys, AB212ASWs and Sikorsky S-70B Seahawks, there is an important need to develop the indigenous engine that will power it. An important milestone came on 5 December, 2020 when TAI took delivery of the first TEI TS1400 to integrate into a T625. The civilian prototype relies on a LHTEC-800, the same powerplant the ATAK uses, and could easily be sanctioned by the US.
According to a TAI source, there will be two military T625 prototypes, one in an attack configuration and another in a Search and Rescue (SAR) role fitted with a hoist. The naval T625 version will have a new radar and folding rotors allowing it to operate from ships. While the Army is looking for a requirement of up to 160 Gökbeys to fulfil both the SAR, utility (with 16 seats) and attack versions, other services including the TuAFA, Jandarma and Gendarmerie will have their own requirements. Many of TAI’s senior management see the Gökbey as a departure from working exclusively with the military, because the six-ton helicopter will be available to the civilian market too.
At Farnborough 2018, TAI launched the Hurjet jet trainer in mock-up form, which was presented again at IDEF 2019. That’s where Mr Öztürk told the author, “We have started manufacturing the parts and the first flight will be in late-2022.” When it comes to the prototypes, Mr Öztürk said, “There could be four or five in different configurations, but not all will fly. There will be static rig tests, dynamic ground tests and one could be used for wind tunnels, checking systems and performance before flight. This is the minimum, there could be more!”
The Hurjet is expected to make its first public appearance on 18 March, 2023 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Ataturk’s secular Islamic state being founded. No decision has been made on the Hurjet’s powerplant although both the Eurojet EJ200 and General Electric F404 are candidates. The jet trainer will eventually replace the 40 TuAF T-38 Talons that TAI upgraded between 2011-16, and there are big aspirations to export the aircraft and even develop a light attack version.
The 10 ton Multirole Heavy Combat Helicopter (MHCH), also unofficially known as ATAK-2, was seen in mock-up form at IDEF 19. TAI sees the MHCH as the ideal alternative to the Boeing AH-64 Apache. Öztürk commented: “We want the MHCH to be more manoeuvrable than the Apache, more functional and armed with more Turkish-designed weapons.”
TEI has now started work on a more powerful TS3000 for heavy class helicopters, and are also working on jet engines. TEI faces the biggest task among the local aerospace companies, by developing engines for most of the new platforms.
This year should see the Academy at Cigli receive the first of 52 MFI-17 Super Mushshaks being built by Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) Kamra. In a deal signed on 10 May, 2017, the trainers are being fitted with new Garmin 950 avionics. They will replace the air force’s fleet of SF260s and Cessna T-41s based at Izmir-Kaklic and Istanbul-Yesilkoy respectively for student pilot/undergraduate training. The first two prototypes left the PAC paint shop in December 2020.
Also making its debut at IDEF 19 was the Aksungur Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), with a staggering 24 metre wingspan and a maximum take-off weight of 7,300lbs. The twin boomed UAS is powered by two locally developed TEI PD1700 turbo diesel engines, which flew for the first time on the smaller Anka on 27 December, 2018.
The Aksungur’s first flight on 20 March, 2019 lasted four hours and 20 minutes, and in September 2020 flew for the first time with a payload of 12 MAM-Ls (smart micro munition – laser) for 28 hours. There are six hard points under its massive wings to accommodate a diverse range of weapons, among them the Aselsan Small Diameter Bomb, Roketsan Teber 81 (Mk 81 bomb fitted with a Tubitak SAGE [Defence Industry Research and Development Institute] HGK-3 laser guidance kit), Teber 82 (Mk 82 bomb fitted with HGK-5 laser guidance kit), and MAM-L (smart micro munition – laser) plus Tübitak SAGE HGK 82. A sonobuoy pod was also seen fitted under the wing to optimise maritime surveillance operations.
Another popular UAV is the Bayraktar TB2 armed drone, which has been supporting Turkey’s efforts in Libya and Syria so well and helped Azerbaijan claim victory in the Nagorno Karabkh conflict against Armenia in October/November 2020. It’s unclear how many have been delivered to both the Army and Navy, but armed with MAM-Ls and MAM-Cs they have done a formidable job.
Bayraktar also launched the heavyweight Akinci combat UAV in May 2017, leading to the first flight on 6 December, 2019 followed by a second prototype on 13 August, 2020. The 12.5m drone currently powered by two Ivchenko-Progress Motor Sich AI-450T turboprop engines can fly up to 40,000 feet (12,100m), has an impressive 195 knot (361km/h) cruising speed, an endurance of 24 hours and a range of 3,100 miles (5,000kms). With a 20m wing span, there is a provision for eight hard points that can accommodate a multitude of Turkish-developed weapons. The first serial production example for the TuAFA was being built in early 2021. It’s unclear how many the TuAF has ordered.
It is evident that the Turkish military is looking to replace most of its mainly US aircraft with ‘Made In Turkey’ products. Undoubtedly there are many challenges but the Turkish aerospace industry, since being launched as part of the US F-16 purchase off-set deal in the mid-80s, is a shining example of what can be done with a huge amount of government investment. Undoubtedly the likes of UAE and Saudi Arabia, which also have similar aspirations will be looking on.
by Alan Warnes