10.06.2013 By Tony Osborne
Turkey's aviation industry has come a long way since it began building F-16 Fighting Falcons in the 1980s. Now it is confident that it can produce an aircraft in-country that will not only replace the F-16 but complement the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter in years to come.
Turkish Aviation Industries (TAI) has been working quietly on ideas for a fifth-generation fighter, dubbed the F-X, for several years, but 2013 represents a critical year in the decision-making process for the project. A $20 million two-year concept phase, started in August 2011, will end this September, and a meeting of Turkey's Defense Industry Executive Committee, which takes place at year-end, will define how the program will begin to take shape.
At the IDEF defense show in Istanbul last month, TAI displayed three potential single-seat design concepts for the aircraft: two conventional monoplane layouts, one with a single engine, not dissimilar to the F-35, and one with two engines, while the third featured canard foreplanes and a large delta wing. Each of the concepts features elements of design associated with fifth-generation fighter aircraft, such as faceted fuselages to reduce radar cross-section, internal weapons bays, super-cruise capability as well as advanced avionics and an active, electronically scanned array (AESA) radar system. Engineers have received input from Saab, which was drafted to consult on the program.
TAI officials suggest that the two single-engine concepts will have maximum takeoff weights (MTOW) of 50,000-60,000 lb., while the twin-engine version will have an MTOW of 60,000-70,000 lb. Diagrammatic drawings of the twin-engine aircraft show two weapons bays, one located between the air intakes that can house a pair of small short-range air-to-air missiles, and the other in front of the engines housing four larger missiles around the size of the AIM-120 Amraam.
According to industry officials, the requirements defined by the Turkish air force have changed at least three times, with the specification narrowing to what TAI and Turkish industry will be able to achieve in the coming years. Of the designs shown at IDEF, the twin-engine concept meets the requirements set by the air force, say industry officials, but the service prefers a single-engine aircraft to reduce cost and complexity. Although envisaged as a multirole fighter, TAI officials say the air force may give the resulting aircraft more of an air-to-air/air-dominance role as a primary mission.
Under the current timetable, Turkey will develop the aircraft at the same time as it is paying for the F-35. TAI wants to achieve a first flight for the F-X within 10 years. While the F-35 is set to replace the F-4 Phantoms and early F-16s in the air force inventory, the service sees the F-X replacing later models of the F-16 fleet purchased through various iterations of the Peace Onyx program. The last F-16 produced by TAI was delivered to the air force in December as part of the Peace Onyx IV program.
A number of technologies are being envisioned for the aircraft. Ozcan Ertem, executive vice president for aircraft at TAI, tells Aviation Week, “we are looking at options for two crew to zero crew members.” He suggests that in aircraft with two crew, one pilot could be working separately as a mission commander in control of a fleet of unmanned combat air vehicles, for instance.
Perhaps the biggest obstacle to the aircraft's development will be finding a powerplant, particularly if the air force sticks to its single-engine requirement. TAI began talks at last year's Farnborough air show with major engine manufacturers from the U.S., Europe and Russia
“We are looking for the next generation up in performance and we are in contact with all the major engine suppliers,” says Ediz Tarhan, program manager for F-X at TAI. “It might be possible to develop something jointly with TEI,” he notes, referring to Tusas Engine Industries.
Tarhan adds that the company is exploring a number of development models, including teaming with a foreign partner that could help fund the program based on a common baseline set of requirements. A second model could be a partnership with a country that has similar goals in producing a fifth-generation aircraft and would be willing to cooperate in developing, building and ultimately marketing the aircraft for export. South Korea was named in the Turkish press as being interested in joining the project when the concept phase began in 2011. The third model could involve a country or a company partner with experience in fighter design and development to provide technical assistance with the project, in a similar way as Saab is doing at the concept stage.
Turkey has a long way to go before it can realize its ambitions, but the resulting investment and spin-offs from the program could give the country's aviation industry significant credibility in the coming years as well as a product that could be widely exportable to nations unable to join the Joint Strike Fighter program.