A full-size TF-X mockup. Photo: TRT World

Turkey and Pakistan are teaming up to develop a 5th generation stealth fighter in a bid to replace their aging US-made F-16 fleets. 

In a Pakistani TV interview this month, Turkish Aerospace Industries (TUSAS) CEO Temel Kotil announced the Turkish Fighter Experimental (TF-X) will be a joint Turkish-Pakistan project. 

The TF-X, first announced in 2016, is envisioned to be a twin-engine multirole aircraft focused on air-to-air capabilities but will also have air-to-surface roles.

It is also planned to use a mixture of US and Russian technologies, as Turkey license-produces the US General Electric F118 engine, and Russia can provide the necessary avionics, propulsion system, radar, sensors, ejection seat and data link systems.

Describing how the fighter jet will be developed, Pakistani Air Vice-Marshal Rizwan Riaz said the Turkey-based development team offloads smaller pieces of work to students and researchers based in Pakistan. Project components are divided into smaller tasks, after which they are integrated. 

CEO Kotil added that some of TUSAS’ operations will move to Pakistan this year as part of activities to further improve defense industry cooperation between the two countries. 

Pakistan has its own indigenous 5th generation fighter jet project under its ambitious Project Azm, which aims to establish an aviation industrial base in the country. It was formally announced in 2017 and aims to produce a fighter that can carry heavier payloads and boast a greater range than the JF-17. 

Analysts believe the type will be a clean-sheet design powered by an advanced derivative of the Chinese WS-10 jet engine, possess low-observable characteristics and will be optimized for offensive counter-air (OCA), maritime and deep-strike platforms.

It is intended to replace Pakistan’s aging F-16s and Mirage IIIs. However, both Turkey and Pakistan face issues in developing their own 5th generation fighters. 

A Turkish Air Force F-16 flying during the Pakistan Day parade in Islamabad. Photo: Farooq Naeem / AFP

For Turkey, the choice of a US engine for the TF-X may be too optimistic, as the US Congress will most likely block jet engine technology transfers to Turkey as part of sanctions imposed over its purchase of Russian S-400 air defense systems in 2017.

That Russian hardware purchase also caused Turkey to be removed from the US’ F-35 program and raised concerns of possible restrictions on US parts and technical assistance for its large F-16 fleet.

In the case of Pakistan, Project Azm’s stated objectives and deadlines are imprecise and frequently changing, which hints at questionable budget and technological resources. While Pakistan has produced the JF-17 in collaboration with China, it has never produced an aircraft by itself.

Pakistan’s struggling economy and depleted finances also means it has limited resources to spare for such an ambitious project. Moreover, both countries have a limited technology base, which may be insufficient for the development of 5th generation fighters. 

Despite all these challenges, both Turkey and Pakistan have their reasons for pursuing the joint fighter project. As Pakistan is slated to operate the J-10C fighter, Turkey may be poised to pursue collaboration with Islamabad to gain access to China’s fighter technology.

Apart from fighter jets, China has supplied Pakistan with other advanced military equipment including tanks, rocket artillery, surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), radar, submarines and frigates. 

In 2015, Turkey chose China Precision Machinery Import and Export Corporation as a partner to develop a long-range SAM system in a US$3.4 billion deal, but later canceled it due to Chinese concerns of unauthorized Turkish copying and NATO pressure.

Some analysts have suggested the proposed but later scuppered deal may have been a bluff to pressure the US over its support of the Kurds in Syria.

By using Pakistan as a third intermediary party, Turkey may aim to circumvent the sensitivities of the US and NATO by directly engaging China to acquire sophisticated military technology.

This joint project also aims to enhance already substantial Turkish-Pakistani defense cooperation, as Turkey is building four MILGEM frigates for Pakistan and has modernized Pakistan’s French-built Agosta class submarines.

Turkey’s Bayraktar drones have a proven track record in Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh. Photo: AFP / Muhammed Enes Yildirim / Anadolu Agency

Such collaboration would showcase Turkey as an emerging alternative weapons supplier. Notable high-end Turkish defense products include Bayraktar drones, which have been exported to Azerbaijan and Ukraine, and its STM-500 mini-submarines, which are planned for export.

In addition, the TF-X program is being billed as the “First Big Fighter of the Islamic World.” This can mean that the TF-X program can be joined by other countries apart from Pakistan.

Notably, the UAE can possibly choose the TF-X over co-producing the Su-57 with Russia, and Malaysia can supply the necessary composite materials for the airframe.

This may aim to project Turkey and Pakistan as emerging powers in the Islamic World, over their rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia.