Ambitious Turkey Seeking To Sync National Air and Space Firepower

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ANKARA, Turkey — Turkey aims to maximize its aerial firepower through several simultaneous programs, mostly indigenous, that better synchronize air and space assets.

The most ambitious program is locally designing, developing and building, with foreign technical support, the country’s first “national” fighter jet, dubbed the F-X.

Turkey’s procurement authorities recently decided to employ Sweden’s Saab, maker of the JAS 39 Gripen, to help shape their plans to manufacture the F-X. Turkish engineers, with help from Saab, have drafted three models that will be presented to top management at the Undersecretariat for Defense Industries (SSM) procurement agency and the air force in September. 

According to a draft plan, Turkey aims for its national fighter jet to make its maiden flight in 2023, the Turkish Republic’s centennial. Production will commence in 2021 and deliveries to the Air Force are planned between 2025 and 2035. 

Turkey, whose fighter fleet is composed of U.S.-made aircraft, plans to buy the F-35 joint strike fighter. 

“The F-35 will be the principal air power asset, with the Turkish fighter complementing it,” one procurement official said. 

In January, SSM announced that it put off plans to order an initial two F-35s, citing rising costs and technological failures, although it said it still intends to buy 100 more in the long run. Turkey is one of nine countries that are part of the U.S.-led F-35 consortium. 

Turkey’s plans heavily rely on several unmanned aerial vehicle variants that Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) has been striving to develop. TAI will soon finalize a contract with SSM for the sale of 10 locally made Anka drone systems. The last of these passed acceptance tests in January, including a full endurance, 18-hour flight, successful automatic landing and data link performance at a distance of 200 kilometers. 

Anka is the first medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicle to be produced by TAI.  

A more ambitious program involves development of an unmanned combat aerial vehicle, which would have longer range and function as a strategic bomber. TAI officials declined to provide details, citing confidentiality. 

A Turkish air force official said these aircraft programs would be synchronized with numerous planned satellite programs. 

“We aim to achieve an excellent interoperability between our aerial and space assets,” the official said. 

One highly ambitious program aims to build a missile with a maximum range of 2,500 kilometers. In 2011, the Turkish government announced plans to develop that missile, not revealing whether it would be ballistic or cruise. 

Although little information about the program has been released, a Turkish Cabinet minister in January confirmed that Turkey can produce a missile with a range of 800 kilometers.

State scientific institute Tubitak-Sage has been awarded the development contract and said it intends to test a prototype in the next two years. But while Turkish officials have indicated a desire for an independent capability to launch satellites, the military aspects of the missile program have not been released. 

Earlier this year, the Air Force devised a national roadmap that will eventually lead to the launching of Turkish space command within its structure, a move that may be a boon for space-related procurement in the country. The space command will become fully operational by 2023. 

As a first step, the air force is founding a space group command, or a de facto “aerospace force” unit that will comprise reconnaissance, early warning, electronic support, satellite command and satellite launching center departments. 

Air force officials said the work and procurement under the roadmap would enable the service to perform reconnaissance and observation through imagery intelligence regardless of weather and geographical conditions; build a communications system for secure command and control; provide early detection of ballistic missile threats; and conduct electronic support for operational and warfare purposes.

The system will enable the air force to monitor Turkish and non-Turkish satellite activity and upgrade Turkish satellite programs. 

Defense Minister Ismet Yilmaz said Jan. 3 that the government would start negotiations with state-run missile maker Roketsan for the early design phase of a new launch system “to ensure that military and civilian satellites can be sent into space.” 

Also in January, Turkey’s top decision-maker in procurement, the Defense Industry Executive Committee, approved starting talks with TAI for domestic development of a synthetic aperture radar (SAR) spacecraft dubbed Gokturk-3, with support from defense electronics manufacturer Aselsan and Tubitak. 

With a space segment composed of a single satellite equipped with a SAR payload, a fixed main ground terminal and mobile backup station, Gokturk-3 will provide high-resolution radar images from anywhere in the world in day/night, all-weather conditions, according to Defense Ministry requirements. 

The Turkish military’s space-based assets are geared more toward intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions. 

Placed in orbit late in December was Gokturk-2, an Earth observation satellite designed and built by Tubitak’s space technologies research unit, Tubitak-Uzay, in cooperation with TAI. 

Gokturk-2, launched Dec. 18 from China, encompasses 80 percent indigenously developed technology and 100 percent domestically developed software. It provides day imagery of 2.5 meters’ resolution. It is Turkey’s second national satellite. 

The intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance data gathered by national assets, including Gokturk-2 and an unknown number of operational and planned unmanned aerial vehicles, will be integrated into Turkey’s command and control network. 

Turkey plans to launch the next satellite in the series, Gokturk-1, in the next few years. Gokturk-1, under construction through a deal with Telespazio and Thales Alenia Space, is a larger and more powerful optical imaging spacecraft capable of sub-meter resolution. Under the government roadmap, Turkey plans to send 16 satellites into orbit by 2020. 

A space industry expert based here said the next five years’ satellite contracts could amount to $2 billion.