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Procurement Debate Delays Turkey's Indigenous Fighter Jet Program

March 3, 2016 (Photo Credit: AFP)

ANKARA, Turkey — Administrative snags and differences of opinion between procurement and military officials are delaying Turkey’s most ambitious indigenous program for the design, development and production of a fighter jet.

The program, dubbed TF-X, aims to fly the Turkish fighter jet by 2023, the centenary of the country’s foundation. But some analysts are skeptical about that goal.

“In all likelihood, the Turkish fighter jet program will face major delays. In the worst case scenario it will fail and metamorphose into something else,” an aerospace industry specialist said. “If things go better there should be a Turkish jet in the skies long after 2023.”

Last year Turkey opened “pre-contract negotiations” with BAE Systems, which it ranked “first” in a three-way competition to select a foreign partner in the TF-X program. BAE defeated Airbus and Saab in the Turkish contest.

“The fact that we are talking to BAE does not mean that this is a done deal [with that company],” a senior procurement official familiar with the program said. “All options are open, including outside of the three contenders.”

The official admitted that talks with BAE are in progress without authorization from the Defense Industry Executive Committee, the ultimate panel that oversees procurement decisions. The committee is chaired by the prime minister. Its other members are the defense minister, chief of the military general staff and the chief procurement official.

“That may be problematic administratively,” he said.

The procurement official said that another reason why the program is not progressing as it should is a difference of opinion between military and procurement officials about which foreign partner would best fulfill Turkey’s criteria about technology transfer, export licences and price.

“An understanding over the best option has not yet emerged between the civilian management of the program and the end user,” he said.

A military official familiar with the program said: “There are major divergences [of opinion]. … This program is not progressing as we hoped it should.”

The Ankara government officially plans for Tusas Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI), maker of what will eventually become Turkey’s first indigenous fighter jet, to pen a design contract for the aircraft in the first half of 2016.

TAI is in talks with the procurement agency — the Undersecretariat for Defense Industries (SSM) — over the design phase of the program.

TAI recently narrowed design options to three models, one of which will be chosen by the end user — the Turkish Air Force.

The short-listed design options feature both single-engine and twin-engine models, according to Muharrem Dortkasli, TAI’s general manager.

“The choice over the engine will be key to finalize the decision on the design concept,” Dortkasli said. “All of the chosen three model options are good enough to meet the operational requirements of the end user.”

He said that TAI’s work aims to benefit from the capabilities of the local industry “at full.”

“Subsystems will be as national as possible,” Dortkasli said.

TAI plans that the maiden flight will be followed by 300 to 500 sorties before certification of the aircraft.

The selection of an engine is one of the most critical step in the current stage of the program.

The Turkish government has been in talks with engine makers to assess engine options and modality. 

In December, Rolls-Royce said it was offering its EJ200 engine to power the Turkish-made fighter jet. Procurement officials said they are in talks with Rolls-Royce over the terms of production, know-how and export licenses.

Eurojet Turbo, a partner of Rolls-Royce, MTU, and ITP & Avio, is offering the EJ200 for the TF-X program. Rolls-Royce said the technology of the EJ200 makes it smaller and simpler in layout than current engines of a similar thrust class, while giving it lower fuel consumption and an unprecedented power-to-weight ratio.

The first series production Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft, powered by the EJ200, were flown in February 2003. The Typhoon flew operational missions over Libya as part of Operation Ellamy, totaling 6,000 engine hours without a reject.

Rolls-Royce has so far delivered more than 1,100 EJ2000 engines. It has a thrust range from 13,500 pounds force dry to 20,000 pounds force with reheat.

Turks are keen on stealth and believe that the engine technology to be chosen would be very critical in attaining the desired stealth capability.

Analysts say internal problems also may delay the two critical decisions on the TF-X program, one on the choice of engine and the other on the model.

“Once things get complicated on a macro-management level, milestone micro-level decisions get complicated too,” an Ankara-based analyst said.

But one TAI official said that the program is not facing any “game-changing” obstacles: “It is normal that there are ups and downs in a program of this size and significance. It [the program] will go through no matter what.”

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