Bets open on Turkey’s first fighter aircraft

Bets open on Turkey’s first fighter aircraft

Burak Bekdil ANKARA - Hürriyet Daily News
Bets open on Turkey’s first fighter aircraft

A JAS - 39 Gripen fighter, manufactured by Swedish aerospace and defense company Saab, is seen. Turkish Aerospace (TAI) has signed a preliminary deal with Saab to work on developing a Turkish fighter.

It is no secret that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been passionate about two “made in Turkey” vehicles: a car and a fighter aircraft. Interestingly, Turkish officials have found one company that builds both and could help Turkey design and develop indigenous models. Talks with Sweden’s Saab for a Turkish fighter jet are inching forward but industry sources and analysts remain skeptical.

Turkish officials have been in talks with Saab (and with Korean Aerospace Industries) to find the best modality for this ambitious project since 2010 and 2011. In August 2011, the Undersecretariat for Defense Industries (SSM), signed a deal with Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) to carry out the conceptual design work for fighter and jet trainer aircraft Turkey hopes to build.

In recent months a Turkish delegation, including SSM officials, visited Saab headquarters and production facilities in Sweden. And more recently, TAI and Saab penned a preliminary agreement for technical assistance which will pave the way for a subsequent support deal. As part of the planned agreement, TAI is expected to acquire Saab’s aircraft design tools.

Designing the first ever Turkish fighter, according to defense analysts, is a necessary but not critical step. “What is crucial here is whether this project would enable Turkey to earn capabilities to successfully integrate avionics, electronics and weapon systems into the chosen platform,” a London-based analyst said.

Saab is the maker of the JAS 39 Gripen, a lightweight single-engine multi-role fighter. It was designed to replace the Saab 35 Draken and 37 Viggen in the Swedish Air Force (Flygvapnet). Saab has cooperated with other aerospace companies in marketing the aircraft internationally, and has achieved moderate success in Central Europe, South Africa and Southeast Asia. More than 240 Gripens have been delivered or ordered.

In 2010, Sweden awarded Saab a four-year contract to improve the Gripen’s equipment, integrate new weapons, and lower its operating costs. In August, Sweden announced it planned to buy 40 to 60 Gripen NG. The Swedish order followed Switzerland’s decision to buy 22 of the E/F variants.

US dependency on fighters

For its fighter program, dubbed the TF-X, Turkey hopes to copy the modality it had devised to co-produce the T-129 attack helicopters with the Italian-British AgustaWestland. “We think this model has worked successfully and could be a template for our fighter program,” said one aviation official. But defense sources here said the program was exposed to the risk of a prolonged conceptual design and this would make the whole project “not very meaningful.”

“Turkey hopes to fly its national fighter by 2023. This is not a realistic target,” said one source. “If the conceptual design work takes about seven to eight years from now on, the technology on which the design will be based would be too old at the production stage. You may need a time machine to efficiently use the aircraft.”

Major weapons makers are also cautious and skeptical. “We wanted to help Turkey out with its ambitions to design and develop its own fighter jet. But we had to step back when we understood that the technical requirements for the aircraft are far from being realistic,” said a top official from a Western aircraft maker.

Another Western defense executive commented: “We have been working with the Turks for decades. And we fear Turkey may end up keeping an arsenal of second-class weapons systems built at home at exorbitant prices.”

Turkey, whose present fighter fleet is made up of U.S.-made aircraft, also plans to buy the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a next-generation, multinational program also led by the United States. But Turkish officials say they want to develop another future jet fighter with a country other than the United States to reduce Turkey’s overdependence on Washington.