Questions arise over first Turkish jet’s ‘Turkishness’

Questions arise over first Turkish jet’s ‘Turkishness’

Burak Bekdil
Questions arise over first Turkish jet’s ‘Turkishness’

DHA photo

Turkey proudly announced plans in June to design, develop and produce an indigenous Turkish regional jet, a first time in the country’s history, but aviation experts and defense industry are now questioning the first Turkish jet’s “Turkishness.”

Under the plan, U.S.-based Sierra Nevada Corp., owned by a Turkish family, and the Ankara-based defense technologies firm STM created the joint venture company TRJet that would build the dual-use (civilian and military) Turkish regional jet. 

Ankara did not disclose the price tag that will come with the ambitious program but defense procurement officials expect it may come “close to $2 billion.” 

The indigenous Turkish jet will come in four variants: a TRJ-328 jet and TR-328 turboprop, each with 32 seats, and a TRJ-628 jet and TR-628 turboprop, each with 60 to 70 seats. But take out the “TRJ” prefixes, and the Turkish jet is in fact a Dornier 328 and Dornier 628. 

To proceed with the program, Turkey purchased the intellectual property rights for the Dornier jets. It also said it placed an initial order for a batch of 50 TRJ platforms. 

One procurement official admitted that the military is not very enthusiastic about the planned jet. “They [the generals] are not very keen of spending their budget in this program,” he said on condition of strict anonymity. 

An Air Force source confirmed that mood. “We do not think the Turkish 328s or the 628s will climb up in our priority shopping list in the coming years. We have other priority programs in which we should be spending our money,” he said. 

One industry source said the military’s initial intention is to place an order of just three aircraft. 

One aerospace source said the first six of the “all indigenous Turkish” jets would be modified in the United States. 

“We fear this will end up being an assembly line project,” he said. “The Turkish ‘production’ plants will work more like an assembly line. The aircraft’s certification will be done in Germany. Some parts will be produced abroad. It will have a U.S.-made engine. Avionics and other critical parts will come from foreign suppliers. And it will be a 100 percent Turkish jet!” the source said. 

Marketing is another potential snag. Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group, Fairfax, Virginia, is skeptical that the program will pan out for Turkey. He notes that about 15 years ago Turkey tried something similar, but never found a real market for regional jets the same size as is being suggested in the new deal.

In fact, Aboulafia told prominent U.S. weekly Defense News, the only real reason to do this program is a desire by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to bolster Turkey’s domestic industry. And given the internal turmoil in Turkey over Erdoğan’s continued governance, that means any program might have a limited lifespan.

“This is what happens with nationalist-driven visions of industry – it’ll last as long as he does,” Aboulafia said.

SNC has experience integrating smaller aircraft for military solutions and would be a logical partner to militarize some of these planes, but their role in the overall TRJet program does not make a lot of sense to Aboulafia.

“This is effectively a civil aircraft that might have military applications,” he added. “SNC is a military company. Civil aircraft are not what they do.”

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu has said the regional jet and an indigenous fighter would be in the air by 2023 – the country’s centenary. Under the regional jet program, STM will coordinate all subsystem production work. 

Designated local subcontractors are Tusaş Turkish Aerospace Industries, Tusaş Turkish Engine Industries, military electronics specialist Aselsan, military software specialist Havelsan, private aviation companies Alp Havacılık and Kale Havacılık, and THY Teknik, the maintenance and repairs subsidiary of Turkey’s national carrier, Turkish Airlines.

Turkish officials publicly have said all aircraft will be produced in Turkey. After technology transfers, both jet and turboprop engines also will be produced locally.