Procurement: Turkish Armaments Industry Takes Flight


March 6, 2024: The first Turkish designed and developed jet fighter made its first flight on February 21st, 2024. The fighter, currently referred to as the Kaan or TF-X, is a 27 ton, twin-engine fighter that is designed to achieve air superiority. Its first models won’t be equipped to carry bombs or missiles for ground attack missions. Kaan will allegedly be ready for mass production in six or seven years and Turkey plans to produce 250 of these aircraft between 2029 and 2040. A major reason for the Turks spending a lot of money, time, and effort to build their own jet fighters was because of the problems they have caused and had in procuring Americans jets.

Turkey has been unable to buy F-35 fighters because they insisted on buying Russian S400 air defense systems that are designed to defeat NATO jet fighters, including the new F-35. Earlier Turkey was refused an order for 40 new F-16s and upgrade kits for 80 of the 263 F-16s that are the core of their fighter force. The U.S. turned them down because of illegal Turkish activities in Libya that made possible Turkish claims to offshore waters controlled by Greece, a fellow member of NATO. Turkey has also been threatening to attack disputed Greek held islands in self-defense. Turkey has angered a lot of American legislators and government officials with their bad behavior and refusal to change. Turkey had enough defenders in the American government to get their F-16 upgrades request included in the 2023 defense budget. That program was eventually allowed to proceed.

Mindful of the possibility that their upgrade effort might still be blocked, Turkey announced an F-16 upgrade program using Turkish resources. This upgrade includes airframe upgrades that will extend the flight time of the F-16s from 8,000 to 12,000 flight hours. Turkey is also installing new cockpits that incorporate improved electronics manufactured in Turkey. Turkey included a new Turkish-developed AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array) radar in the F-16 upgrade. The Turkish AESA claims to be similar in performance to the American APG-83 that is used in the F-22 and F-35 as well as the latest model of the F-16. Turkey would not release the cost of this upgrade program because of security reasons and that probably means that it is a more expensive and more uncertain upgrade the Turks would get from the United States.

Turkey sees any additional AESA cost as a good investment because Turkey has been a major international center for upgrading F-16s, and originally wanted the new Turkish AESA for its new, larger 1.45 ton UAV, the TB3. This UAV is designed to operate from Turkey’s first aircraft carrier, which was originally supposed to use F-35B VTOL (vertical takeoff and landing) stealth fighters. The TB3 has folding wings and a much more powerful compact turbo-diesel engine that enables it to take off and land on the short deck of the Turkish carrier, which looks like amphibious support ships that all appear to be small aircraft carriers and usually carry only helicopters to carry the thousand soldiers or marines to shore.

The Turkish AESA took longer than expected to perfect. For over a decade, more and more air forces have been adopting AESA radars for warplanes. Now AESA radars have become standard equipment in modern warplanes. Before that the only nations putting AESA in their jet fighters were those that could afford them and appreciate their power and versatility. An American F-15C jet fighter began upgrading to AESA in 1999. This is largely because AESA is more reliable and, increasingly, no more expensive than the older mechanical radar that had a small dish that moved around inside a dome. AESA is also easier and cheaper to maintain, which makes a more expensive AESA cheaper, over its lifetime, than a cheaper mechanically scanned radar.

AESA type radars have been around a long time and are popular mainly for their ability to deal with lots of targets simultaneously and produce a more accurate picture of what is out there. For a long time, AESA was also a lot more expensive, and less reliable, than older radar technologies. That gradually changed and AESA now has the edge in affordability. Now more uses have been found for AESA, which has developed into more than just an improved radar. AESA is now used for electronic defensive and offensive warfare as well as becoming increasingly difficult for enemy radar warning detectors to detect. This capability makes the F-22 and F-35 stealthier and more lethal against enemy fighters.

AESA radar consists of thousands of tiny radars that can be independently aimed in different directions. An AESA radar made the JSTARS aircraft possible, as it enabled it to locate vehicles moving on the ground. That was followed by a smaller MP-RTIP AESA radar for the RQ-4 UAV that can also spot smaller objects on the ground. As a result, with the RQ-4 UAV equipped with AESA, the U.S. Air Force has a choice between extending the life of the E-8 aircraft or replacing them with UAVs.

While AESA makes fighters much more effective, it's the many other uses of AESA that make this technology so attractive to warplane designers. For example, the U.S. Air Force has been equipping some of its fighters with electronic ray type weapons. Not quite the death ray of science fiction fame, but an electric ray type weapon none the less. In this case, the weapon uses the high-powered microwave (HPM) effects found in AESA radar technology. AESA is able to focus on a concentrated beam of radio energy that could scramble electronic components of a distant target. Sort of like the EMP or Electromagnetic Pulse created by nuclear weapons.

The Air Force will not discuss the exact kill range of the of the various models of AESA radars on American warplanes like the F-35 and F-22. However, it is known that range in this case is an elastic thing. Depending on how well the target electronics are hardened against EMP, more electrical power will be required to do damage. Moreover, the electrical power of the various AESA radars in service varies as well. The air force has said that the larger AESA radars it is developing would be able to zap cruise missile guidance systems up to 180 kilometers away. For most AESA equipped aircraft, the stealthiness of AESA is more important because it enables American fighters, and not just the F-22 and F-35, to detect and fire on hostile aircraft before their radars or radar warning receivers have detected their lethal foe.

Turkey currently manufactures most of the electronics used in jet fighters and that was one of the reasons why they developed and built their own Kaan jet fighter. The one component the Turks do not build are the engines. Few countries are able to produce their own engines for jet fighters. Jet engines are complex and difficult to master, especially the engine used for combat aircraft. Turkey wanted to buy the new American F-35 but that was also prohibited because Turkey insisted on keeping its Russian S-400 anti-aircraft systems. That could turn out to be a costly decision. The F-35s are an exceptional air supremacy aircraft and in that respect more useful than S-400 systems.

The F-35 was designed to rely on BVR or Beyond Visual Range weapons and tactics at the expense of traditional close range air combat. BVR tactics are untried in large scale combat, while traditional close range dogfight has been around since 1914. But everyone agrees that BVR tactics using superior sensors and long-range missiles are the future. Not everyone agreed that the future was here yet until the war in Ukraine demonstrated that the future had arrived, and the F-35 is one of the few new fighters ready to handle BVR combat effectively. The 27-ton F-35 is armed with an internal 25mm cannon and four internal air-to-air missiles or two missiles and two smart bombs. The F-35 can also carry four external smart bombs and two missiles, but this degrades stealth. All sensors are carried internally, and max weapon load is 6.8 tons.

The F-35 is based on the changes in air-to-air combat over the last few decades. The classic aerial dogfight has been on the way out and most journalists haven't really noticed. For the first half century of air-to-air combat, chasing enemy fighters and maneuvering to get a good shot with machine-guns or cannon was the most effective form of combat. This was the classic style of air warfare. But starting in the 1960s, missiles entered the picture. At first, most of the missiles were used much like the earlier weapons; get on the enemy's tail and put a missile up his jet exhaust pipe. The first, and most successful, of these tail chasing missiles was the U.S. Sidewinder. After half a century of upgrades, the Sidewinder is still one of the most widely used and successful dogfight missiles. The modern Sidewinder is far more capable and is now capable of being very effective without the classic dogfight tactics.

The missile of the future, the AIM-9 Sparrow appeared at the same time as the AIM-7 Sidewinder. The Sparrow was a longer-range missile that was radar-guided. The pilot picked up a target on his radar and fired the Sparrow in the general direction of the target, guiding it with the aircraft’s fire control radar most of the way. When within a few thousand meters of the target, a sensor in the Sparrow’s radar took over, closing in for the kill. One shortcoming of this was the need for the attacking aircraft to keep the enemy aircraft on his radar screen until the Sparrow finally connected with the target. The Sparrow worked, but not as well nor as often as expected, at least initially. The first aircraft brought down by the Sparrow was over Vietnam in 1965. For the next two decades, long-range missiles were unable to overcome its one major problem; pilots didn't trust their ability to identify an enemy aircraft at BVR distances. Fear of hitting a friendly aircraft caused pilots to prefer going in close, confirming the identity of the target and using autocannon or Sidewinders to attack.

Pilot fears were finally addressed in the 1980s with the introduction of the AWACS aircraft. The large, four engine AWACS carried a radar that could keep an eye on all aircraft for several hundred kilometers around. While not perfect, it added enough clarity to the situation to make pilots confident that their BVR attacks were not going to bring down friendly aircraft. At this point Sparrow was much improved and there was a new generation of BVR missiles appearing.

During the 1991 Gulf War the change was clearly underway. There were 39 U.S. air-to-air kills. The Sidewinder got 25 of them and the Sparrow 11. An F-15 destroyed one Iraqi helicopter with a dropped bomb. The traditional air-to-air weapon, 12.7mm machine-gun and 20-30mm autocannon, got none. The A-10 ground attack aircraft nailed two helicopters with its 30mm anti-tank cannon, and one Iraqi aircraft was maneuvered into the ground, not an unusual method over the history of air warfare. While only 12.6 percent of the Sidewinders fired scored a hit, 28 percent of the Sparrows did.

After the Gulf War, the Sparrow was replaced by the AMRAAM, a missile that was essentially fire and forget because, during the final few kilometers, the attacking aircraft did not have to keep a radar lock on the target. A new generation of pilots were flying who fully expected to do most of the air combat BVR. This was becoming the U.S. Air Force doctrine. Despite that, the dogfight wasn't dead yet. Most modern fighters, including the new F-22 and F-35, still carry autocannon and Sidewinders. This is not the result of excessive caution, but knowledge of how unpredictable air combat can get. The Wild Blue Yonder is a big place and no radar is perfect. Enemy aircraft can sneak in from behind mountains, hills, forests, or radar jamming. The chance of finding yourself within visual and Sidewinder range of enemy aircraft is still a very likely possibility. Moreover, short range missiles like the Sidewinder have acquired new abilities. Until the 1980s, you had to be in a narrow arc behind an enemy aircraft before the heat sensing seeker on the Sidewinder spotted the hot exhaust of the target aircraft. But that arc has gotten wider and wider as better heat sensors were developed. Now you can be flying past an enemy aircraft and your missile will pick up not just the jet exhaust, but the warmed-up surfaces on the aircraft. Launch your missile and it will do a 180 and take off after the target. New fire control equipment includes a helmet mounted sight that will let the missile know what you are looking at. Hit the fire button and your Sidewinder-on-Steroids goes wherever you were looking and chases after the target.

Naturally, it's not as simple as that. As missiles became smarter and more capable, devices were developed to give the target a better chance of survival. For the short-range heat seekers, flares have been a popular, and often effective, antidote. If you are being chased by a Sidewinder, pop a few flares and the missile will go after the hotter heat source, which is the flare. Some missiles now have microcomputers in them and a library of various heat sources. This will cause the missile to ignore most flares and continue after the aircraft. This, in turn, has produced more types of flares. Bottom line is that there is no perfect weapon, there are always countermeasures. Even without flares, pilots can sometimes outmaneuver a heat-seeking missile such as the Sidewinder. Electronic countermeasures are effective against BVR missiles, as is violent maneuvering. As with heat seekers, there's a constant tug of war between the seeker technology and countermeasures.

Victory will still go to the better trained, not the better armed pilots. Even BVR missiles require a pilot who knows how to best use his radar and get into a position to fire the most effective shot. This is even more the case with close range heat seekers. But well trained and well-equipped pilots have a tremendous edge. While not all air forces agree with the USAF on the dominance of BVR missiles, it takes skilled and lucky pilots to get close enough to American aircraft to dogfight. And the better trained American pilots still have an edge in that department. They simply spend more time in the air practicing, and this is an edge that can only be matched by equally diligent training.

Dogfighting isn't quite dead yet and it probably never will be. But more and more, victory goes to the side that can reach out BVR and touch the enemy first with an AMRAAM. The F-35 was optimized for BVR combat because that has been the future of air-to-air warfare for some time now. The Turkish Kaan is described as a superior dogfighting aircraft with some stealth and the ability to fight at BVR ranges as well.

Turkey has been hard at work since the 1990s to become a major producer of weapons for its own forces and for export as well. At first the Turks thought they would have an edge because they were the first Moslem nation that was a major weapons producer. It turned out that Moslem nations wanted the most effective weapons and didn’t care where they came from as long as the weapons worked and were affordable.




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