LE BOURGET, France — Turkish Aerospace Industries unveiled a full-scale model of its indigenous fifth-generation fighter Monday at the Paris Air Show, a display meant to signal the rise of Turkey’s domestic defense-industrial capabilities.
But the tensions between Turkey and the United States loomed over the much-hyped event, which occurred as the U.S. takes steps to unfurl Turkey’s participation in the F-35 fighter jet program over Ankara’s planned purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system.
The TF-X is set to be the country’s first homemade fighter. If Turkey’s access to the F-35 is permanently restricted, it could be the country’s best hope of developing its aerospace industrial base — even though some observers have raised questions about Turkey’s ability to generate a truly fifth-gen plane.
Throughout the ceremony, TAI officials referenced Turkey’s work on the F-35 program and repeated a pledge to make TF-X the best fighter in Europe.
“On the F-35, actually, my company is building the center fuselage,” TAI President and CEO Temel Kotil said while speaking of the company’s role as a secondary supplier augmenting Northrop Grumman, which manufactures the majority of F-35 center fuselages.
“So this means, in terms of manufacturing, Turkish Aerospace has enough strength to build this fighter,” he added. “Our machine is a mock-up, but in 2023 there will be a real machine, and first flight is in 2025, and [it will be in] service in 2028.”
A promotional video for the TF-X stated a top speed of Mach 2, a maximum takeoff weight of 60,000 pounds and a combat radius of 600 nautical miles. While the shape of the mock-up’s fuselage and canted tails looked very similar to the F-35, the TF-X appears to have a narrower body than the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and will be powered by two engines with 20,000 pounds of thrust.
Temel also stressed the importance of allies, pointing to TAI’s collaboration with British defense firm BAE Systems on the program.
“This will be the best fighter in Europe, able to carry the Meteor missile — which is the best European missile — in the weapon bay,” he said. "Hopefully this will be also a good fighter for NATO and the NATO allies."
Earlier this month, acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan signed off on a letter laying out initial steps to remove Turkey from the F-35 program, including a mandate for Turkish officials connected with the program — pilots, maintainers and personnel based at the F-35 Joint Program Office — to vacate the United States by July 31.
Since then, the commander at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, which trains international F-35 pilots, has ordered a pause to training for Turkish operators, citing security concerns, according to Foreign Policy. Training of Turkish maintainers at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, will continue, as students do not have access to classified material.
Ellen Lord, the Pentagon’s top acquisition official, said Monday that there had been “no significant progress” with Turkey since Shanahan’s action, but noted that the U.S. Defense Department still hopes Turkey will reverse its decision to buy the S-400.
Lord declined to respond to a question on whether she perceived the TF-X reveal as a signal that Turkey was stepping away from the F-35.
She also hinted there could be further consequences to Turkey’s aerospace industry if the S-400 deal moves forward.
“Turkey has been a very good NATO ally and they are an excellent supplier. High quality, good cost, on time delivery and we are very well aware of the other programs where they form a critical part of the supply chain,” Lord told reporters at the air show.
“Right now we have bifurcated the S-400 and F-35, impact from impact, to the rest of our defense and commercial industry. We have been very clear about the structured wind down of the F-35 supply chain. Everything outside of the F-35 from a defense perspective we have reviewed within the department, and that would be subject to any CAATSA sanctions,” she said, referring to the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which penalizes U.S. partners that purchase Russian military equipment.
“There have been no decisions made on that at this point, however it would be very, very significant for Turkey.”
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.