Admire the sleekness of Turkey’s TF-X fighter jet as much as you wish, but there’s no getting away from the fact that it still lacks the engine that would give it a shot at becoming a genuine fifth-generation stealth aircraft that could compete in the skies.
Not that Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is likely to concede as much as he goes up and down the country on the campaign trail praising the prowess that he claims the country’s defence industry has developed on his watch. However, the TF-X “National Combat Aircraft” in fact demonstrates just how far that industry has to go before it can claim to be at the top of the game—the project to develop the fighter was commenced in 2010 but 13 years later the developer, Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI), is yet to locally develop a turbofan engine fit for the “5G stealth” class.
The prototype aircraft that was rolled out of its hangar at the weekend—on the anniversary of a key World War I Turkish victory at Gallipoli and as part of Erdogan’s campaign for re-election on May 14—appears to have been equipped with a General Electric F110 engine at least sufficient for developmental exercises such as taxiing and ground running tests, but a long way short of what is required for a top-of-the-range combat aircraft.
Flashback to November 2018. Erdogan opens the world's "largest" airport.
Anyone who tells you otherwise is engaging in a ‘Potemkin village’ distraction. And Erdogan has form on that front. In November 2018 outside Istanbul, Turkey’s leader of two decades opened “the world’s largest airport”, when it was far from ready for full operations (despite scores of workers perishing during the construction of the mega-infrastructure). Even today, it is still not the largest.
Lately, Turkey's new domestic automaker, TOGG, has been taking pre-orders for its first car—the battery-electric TOGG T10X SUV, developed as part of the Erdogan administration’s national car project but substantially reliant on technology developed outside of Turkey including an engine from Germany’s Bosch.
The car announcement came with much fanfare, but it is far from clear that TOGG’s production and sales targets are realistic. The state-backed automaker does not yet have a sales infrastructure beyond an app.
Back to that “national” fighter jet. Turkey’s defence procurement agency last year officially commenced a competition for the provision of a Turkish-developed and built turbofan engine to power it. It is far from clear which bidders will be in the mix. Defence industry reports suggest the UK’s Rolls-Royce aligned with Turkey’s Kale Group could eventually prove to be the supplier but a proper update on this long-discussed possibility is awaited.
In the meantime, the Republic of Turkey, this year celebrating its centennial, has a demeaning problem on its hands. Having upset the US by buying S-400 missile defence systems from the Kremlin, Ankara had its order for scores of the world’s most advanced stealth fighter jet, the Lockheed Martin F-35, ripped up by Washington officials. Turkey is even struggling to convince the US to sell it some lower-performance F-16s. In the meantime, regional arch-rival Greece is charging ahead with its bids to acquire both F-16s and F-35s. Not something that’s going to play well with the Turkish nationalist voter.