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Turkey’s TF-X Fighter Throws A Lifeline to UK Military Aerospace


On 28 January British Prime Minister Theresa May, on an official visit to Istanbul, Turkey, to meet with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, announced that the UK’s BAE Systems, in partnership with Turkish Aerospace Industries, (TAI) would help design a new ‘fifth generation’ stealth fighter - the TF-X. This agreement, for BAE Systems to help design the TF-X for service in the mid-2020s is a potential lifeline for the UK’s combat aircraft design expertise. 


So what is Turkey’s TF-X? Although the configuration is not yet set in stone, Turkey’s goal is to develop its own indigenous (as far as practical) stealth fighter which will replace the Lockheed Martin F-16 in service.


While the Turkish Air Force (which was heavily involved in the 2016 coup attempt) currently flies F-16s and some F-4s and is set to receive around 100 F-35s, the concept for TF-X is that it would be more heavily tilted towards the air superiority mission – as a F-22-class combat aircraft for the mid-2020s. Currently there are three configurations mooted for TF-X – a single engine design, a twin-engine fighter and a highly agile version with canards.


While there is a requirement for a predicted 250 TF-X fighters for the Turkish Air Force itself, reports suggest that TF-X will also be aimed at the wider export market. With F-22 production halted, the F-35 optimised for strike and the other options being mid-life upgrades of the Eurocanards (Eurofighter, Rafale and Gripen) it is possible that the TF-X could turn into an export success in the mid-2020s and beyond for countries looking for a fifth generation air dominance fighter.


While BAE Systems will help with design and development, this participation could also open doors to other parts of UK industry for specific systems or components that Turkey is unable to produce in-house. The Rolls-Royce EJ200 engines from the Eurofighter have already been tipped as the powerplant and were the subject of an MoU in 2015. A true stealth fighter may well require a matching engine, and this may also be an opportunity for Rolls-Royce to acquire the necessary expertise.


Other opportunities for UK industry may be in ejection seats (Martin-Baker), HUDs or HMDs (BAE Striker II) - indeed, BAE Systems already supplies its LiteHUD for TAI’s Hurkus basic trainer.


While Turkish defence electronics company ASELAN has already reportedly started work on an AESA radar, there could potentially be other opportunities for UK’s Selex ES (now Leonardo MW) which produces AESA radars for Eurofighter and Gripen as well as EO IRST and EW systems.


Finally, while Turkey’s own state missile house Roketsan boasts an impressive range of weapons, including stand-off missiles, precision bombs and anti-tank missiles, MBDA’s air-to-air portfolio  ASRAAM and in particular the game-changing Meteor, would be an ideal fit for a fifth-gen air superiority combat aircraft.    


The collaboration may be significant for the UK, with BAE winning this design work over rival bids from Airbus Defence and Space and Saab, but it also represents a smart move by Turkey in selecting a European partner that has a long history in low-observable projects.


In the 1990s, for example, BAE Systems developed a secret stealth fighter concept called Replica that reached mock-up stage– partly as a back-up plan to collaboration with the larger US JSF programme. This home-grown stealth fighter, then showcasing the UK’s LO expertise, was Britain’s entry ticket to JSF at the highest level. Since then, the company has developed further with collaboration on F-35, and LO UAV projects, with the most recent being the Taranis UCAV demonstrator – seen by some knowledgeable observers as one of the most stealthy air vehicles ever.  BAE is also working on a follow-on Anglo-French UCAV demonstrator in partnership with Dassault.


While strict firewalls and US ITAR knowledge sharing restrictions will mean that BAE will not be able to share or transfer all of its stealth knowledge developed with international partners, its hard-won in-house LO experience since Replica means that TAI has access to a highly competent industrial partner – especially when it comes to airframe, sensor and weapons integration.   


The problem – what next for UK military aerospace?

The announcement comes at a critical time for Britain’s military aviation sector – as design and development work for new UK platforms becomes scarce. It is notable of that the five air key platforms (F-35, P-8, AH-64E, Protector and Zephyr) highlighted in the 2015 SDSR, only one (Zephyr) is actually designed and built in the UK.  


While BAE Systems is currently busy adding capability to the Eurofighter Typhoon, the end of production may be in sight unless new customers are found. A mid-life Typhoon update in the 2020s means the best is yet to come, but it will still not require the full engineering capability or design expertise of a clean-sheet military aircraft.


Meanwhile, on the F-35 – which despite having entered service with the US Marines in 2015 and the USAF in 2016, first flew some 17 years ago in 2000 as the X-35. The UK, as Tier 1 partner on the project, has contributed heavily to the design, particularly for the STOVL ‘B’ variant. Now in full production and ramping up, UK industry is expected to benefit massively from its investment in the future. However, while future opportunities for support and ongoing upgrades will continue – again the initial design and engineering work is well in the past.      


So too, for the BAE Hawk advanced trainer. First flying in 1974, the Hawk has been a spectacular British sales success, with over 1,000 sold. However, despite BAE updating it to latest T2 standard for the RAF, it was ditched by partner Northrop Grumman for the USAF T-X trainer requirement for a fresh design from Scaled Composites. Any hope that BAE’s design work would continue has now been dashed when NG/BAE took the decision earlier this month to not bid a proposal. The Hawk lives on, in the Advanced Hawk (previously ‘Combat Hawk’), developed in co-operation with HAL.


On the positive side of the equation, BAE is involved with the most challenging and potentially significant combat aircraft programme in Europe, the UCAS (unmanned combat air system) with Dassualt. This £1.5bn programme builds on the expertise and experience of Britain and France with their own demonstrators (Taranis and Neuron), for a low observable UCAV. With feasibility study complete, a demonstration programme, to begin in late 2017, will see two UCAS flight demonstrators by 2025, with operational stealth drones in the 2030s and beyond.


Yet, despite this cutting-edge aerospace technology, the jury is still out on how many UCAVs air forces will need in the future. The timescales to operational platforms (another 13 years away at least – and more likely 18) also mean that there is a significant gap in production between the end of Eurofighter at the end of this decade and the start of any UCAV manufacturing.   


The fear, is that the reduction in UK defence programmes is gradually whittling away at the  front-end of the UK’s end-to-end design, development, manufacturing and support base – with key capabilities, skills and expertise being lost over time. Indeed, there is much evidence from recent programmes (T-45, Astute and Nimrod MRA4) that suggests this has already happened.


Brexit may also deprive BAE Systems of access to the burgeoning EU defence R&D programme, which, if French lobbying has any impact, will feature combat aircraft relevant technology acquisition. The deal with Turkey would also help to fill this potential gap.


The deal to help design the TF-X, represents a major coup for BAE Systems in keeping a critical part of the UK’s combat aircrat design capability alive. 


Same problem, elsewhere in Europe

But a shortage of combat aircraft design projects is not just a problem facing the UK industry either – but across the whole of Europe’s defence sector.


The most significant recent clean-sheet pan-European combat aircraft to enter service, the A400M, had its first flight eight years go and its original requirement dates back to the 1980s. Outside UAVs, other ‘new’ European combat aircraft are either upgrades or modifications of existing types.  The European defence sector has also singularly failed to dethrone US and Israeli leadership in UAVs – particularly in the MALE sector.


Saab, for example, has just rolled out its Gripen NG, and has future unfunded concepts beyond that, but has found its own lifeline working with Boeing to help design its T-X trainer.


Like Eurofighter, France’s Dassault can look forward to a mid-life Rafale upgrade in the mid-2020s – and is partnered with the UK on the Anglo-French UCAV.


Worst off, arguably, is AirbusDS, which in concert with other European companies has faced an uphill battle to attract political interest in a European MALE UAV platform. Last year AirbusDS revealed a proposal for a stealth fighter replacement for Germany’s Tornado fleet, but it faces the disadvantage of being outside both F-35 and the Anglo-French UCAS programmes as well as Berlin’s lukewarm approach to defence procurement. 


Turkey’s growing ambition

But not all countries are struggling with declining design work for their military sectors. Turkey has one of the most active and ambitious aerospace and defence industries and is working steadily to develop its indigenous capability – with a flurry of activity in recent years. State-owned TAI has moved from license-built production of F-16s and other aircraft, to designing and manufacturing its own aircraft. It has developed a basic trainer and light attack aircraft, the Hurkus, as well as the Anka MALE UAV. TAI has also produced an upgraded version of the A129 Mangusta attack helicopter, the T129 ATAK, in co-operation with original manufacturer, Leonardo.


The country has also ambitions in the civil aerospace sector – with a Turkish Regional Jet project being launched in 2015, to develop a family of regional airliners, beginning with a design based on the Dornier 328JET.


Space and a healthy missiles systems sector through the state-owned Roketsan round out Turkey’s growing aerospace sector. For aerospace companies willing to help Istanbul develop its aerospace industry further, there could therefore be other potential opportunities in the future. 



The prospect of a growing UK defence partnership with Turkish strongman Erdogan, post the 2016 coup attempt, may be unpalatable in some quarters - but the deal is critical in that it helps the UK maintain an irreplaceable combat aircraft design capability – at a time when rival European defence companies are also scratching around for work. The prize is a juicy one – a large 200+ aircraft buy, potential export sales and a ‘European F-22’ style air dominance fighter that complements the F-35. The UK, too, through its experience in Replica, Taranis, F-35 and FCAS, is perhaps arguably the most advanced aerospace sector outside the US in LO technology – and thus safeguarding and protecting this expertise with as much design and technical work as possible, should be a clear strategic goal for UK Plc.


The, is also significant in that is an agreement to help develop a fighter aircraft with a non-EU, but NATO country (that is not the US (or Canada)) – and is thus a boost for those who see the UK striking deals with the wider world post-Brexit. The Turkish AF – twice the size of the RAF - is also a major power player on NATO’s southern flank – despite recent political upheavals.


However, it is important not to overstate this deal too much. The stated size of the contract, ‘£100m or more’ is insignificant in total development budgets for an advanced stealth project like this – which may top $25bn or more in total. Turkey, of course, will want to manufacture and develop as much technology in-house as possible and it is possible that TF-X itself may fall victim to outside forces or budget squeezes.


Yet despite these caveats, the partnership has major implications in helping maintain critical UK combat aircraft design capability, that without a spread of new projects to work on, might otherwise wither and die.

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