Turkey’s TF-X Stealth Fighter: A Replacement For The F-35?

Ankara may have hoped that President Joe Biden might reverse course on sanctions imposed on Turkey, and even allow the NATO nation to rejoin the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. However, during his confirmation hearings with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Secretary of State Antony Blinken suggested a review of the sanctions was in order.

Additionally, he added that the State Department would even have to determine whether there was more that needs to be done, following Ankara’s purchase of the Russian-built S-400 Triumf.

Given those facts, it is likely Turkey won’t be getting the F-35 anytime soon and thus will move ahead with its domestically-built TAI TF-X fighter instead. As of last August, a factory to manufacture the fifth-generation was completed and could soon be used to produce the aircraft, which Turkey has said could be ready to take its first flight by late summer 2023.

The new facility reportedly consists of some nine blocks that comprise around 63,000 square meters, while a working area just for the engineering team takes up about 25,000 square meters or just over a third of the total space. The facility features the latest manufacturing techniques, including the ability to employ 3D printing using titanium alloys.

TF-X, Explained

The TF-X was developed by Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) in collaboration with BEA Systems and was designed to replace the F-16 Fighting Falcons currently in service with the Turkish Air Force. Additionally, Ankara has announced that the still-to-be-built aircraft would be offered for export.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said that building the TF-X was “the best response to those threatening to end Turkey’s involvement in the F-35 program.”

pre-production prototype of the Turkish aircraft, which resembled the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor, was presented at the 2019 Paris Air Show. At the time TAI claimed it could reach a top speed of Mach 2, have a 600-mile effective combat radius, and could have hardware specifications similar to the F-35 – but without the F-35’s advanced avionics.

Mock-up at Paris Air Show 2019

That could result in an aircraft that may look impressive but fail to perform. And it could be very expensive to build, even as Turkey has attempted to build up its armament industry and become a player on the main stage. As has been noted many times, developing a stealth fighter is so expensive that only a small handful of nations have the capability to do so without spending themselves into a crisis.

Turkey has sought to call in foreign assistance in developing that aircraft and not just from BAE Systems. It was a little over a year ago in January 2020 that the state-owned TAI reached out to Malaysia to work on developing the advanced aircraft, while Ankara had eyed Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Kazakhstan as potential partners or buyers of the fighter.

It has also been suggested that Turkey could turn to Russia to help push forward with the TF-X, but Moscow has had enough problems to overcome in developing its own Su-57 that it may not want to get saddled with a nation that is part of a de facto anti-Russian alliance. Not to mention that Russia and Turkey are backing different sides in Syria while the two nations share a long and complicated history. Turkey will thus likely have to go it alone with the TF-X, but the end result has yet to be seen.

In the meantime, Ankara has announced that it will upgrade those aging F-16s, which is perhaps another sign that the TF-X is little more than a pipedream.

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.

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