Strike one for JSF
Jon Lake looks at Lockheed Martin's Joint Strike Fighter and its role in the region's defence.
Turkey has become progressively more important to the joint strike fighter (JSF) programme, which remains mired in difficulty, with technical problems and development delays.
Rising costs and prices that have seen several of the partner nations delaying their purchases and/or scaling back the number of aircraft that they intend to purchase. Even the US has delayed the purchase of 179 of its F-35s by five years.
So it was good news when, on January 5, Turkey prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, chairing the defence industry executive committee (SSK), authorised the under secretariat for defence industries (SSM) to open negotiations with Lockheed Martin for the purchase of two F-35 Joint Strike Fighters for delivery by 2015.
This represented a halving of Turkey’s original planned order for F-35 test aircraft but defence minister Ismet Yilmaz confirmed that Turkey still plans to buy a total of 100 F-35s, at a total cost of about $16 billion.
Turkish JSF numbers have fluctuated between 100 and 120 since the country joined the programme in 2002. The confirmation of 100 represented a reduction in aircraft numbers compared to Turkey’s original plan to procure 116 aircraft, but the planned budget has expanded from $11 billion.
Turkey is one of eight international partners in the JSF programme and undertook to contribute US $195 million towards development of the aircraft (though it has now spent more than $315 million), as one of five so-called ‘level three’ partners along with Australia, Canada, Denmark and Norway.
The UK is the sole ‘level one’ partner, while Italy and the Netherlands are classed as ‘level two’.
Turkey’s ‘level three’ partner status entitles it to bid for work on the programme, provides some guarantee of technical transfer, and should ensure some priority in the order in which countries can obtain production aircraft.
Turkey hopes to assemble its F-35As under licence in country and also hopes to manufacture parts and sub-assemblies. This would follow on from Turkey’s industrial participation in the F-16 programme, which saw Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) at Akinci (formerly Mürted) assemble 148 of the 156 F-16 aircraft delivered to the Turkish Air Force under Peace Onyx 1, 80 more from Peace Onyx II, 40 from Peace Onyx III and 30 from Peace Onyx IV.
TAI also assembled 46 Block 40 F-16C/Ds for the Egyptian Air Force under Peace Vector IV and carried out structural modifications and an upgrade of the electronic warfare system on Turkish Air Force F-16s, MLU, Falcon-Up and Falcon Star Modifications on Royal Jordanian Air Force (RJAF) F-16s and the upgrade of 42 Pakistan Air Force Block 15 F-16s to Block-50 standards.
TAI and Northrop-Grumman have already signed a letter of intent that will see the Turkish company becoming the second source for the F-35 centre fuselage, for which it is already producing components.
The number of centre fuselages to be produced by TAI will depend on how many F-35s that Turkey procures and on the overall number of F-35s built, though it has been said that Turkey already stands to benefit from about $4 billion of work on the programme.
Turkey remains one of the most committed members of the NATO alliance and its air force has an enviable reputation for professionalism and enjoys long-standing links with the US Air Force.
Turkey was home to US nuclear weapons for decades held under dual key arrangements – and some of them would have been delivered by Turkish pilots had the Cold War ever turned ‘hot’.
It is also a valued customer for Lockheed Martin, having received 270 F-16s under the four-phase Peace Onyx programme. Turkey’s validation of the F-35 is, thus, seen as being valuable and its rejection of the type would be a significant setback.
Against this background to both Lockheed Martin and the US Government, Turkey’s order for two aircraft represents a valuable ‘vote of confidence’ in the F-35.
Turkey also promises to offer a low-cost second source of production and assembly, since it enjoys lower labour costs than the USA and since the cost of producing advanced composites in Turkey is also lower than it is in the USA.
Lockheed Martin has had a long-term relationship with TAI on the F-16 and views the Turkish company as a reliable and valuable partner.
Numerically, the overall Turkish requirement for 100 aircraft means that Turkey is likely to be a bigger customer than each of the ‘level one’ and ‘level two partners’, and probably the biggest of the ‘level three’ group as well.
The UK requirement still stands officially at 138, though a cut of unspecified size has been confirmed by official spokesmen and senior RAF sources have hinted at a force of around 40 aircraft. Australia, too, still has an official requirement for 100 aircraft, but seems likely to reduce this to around 75.
Turkey’s commitment to the JSF has sometimes looked shaky, especially in March 2011, when the government announced that it was putting the planned F-35 purchase on hold over concerns about technology transfer, and especially source codes.
Without the source code, Turkish engineers wouldn’t be able to make any changes to the aircraft’s software and would not have a full autonomous and independent ability to support, upgrade or modify the aircraft.
Turkey will also be looking back to similar arguments about the F-16’s source code, when it had to argue long and hard to get access to identification friend or foe (IFF) software codes, in order to give greater national control over the aircraft’s systems. In the end Aselsan, a Turkish corporation that produces tactical military radios and defence electronic systems, developed a new IFF system, which is now operational on Turkey’s F-16 fleet. This allows Turkish pilots to determine whether their IFF should recognise Israeli fighters as either friendly or hostile, where the original US IFF equipment had a default setting that recognised Israeli aircraft as ‘always friendly’.
Today, Turkish F-16s use many indigenously designed and developed systems and Turkey has retrofitted and modernised its F-16s without needing Lockheed Martin’s assistance. Some sources suggest that Turkey is the only export customer to have been given full source codes for the F-16. This may have raised Turkey’s expectations in relation to the F-35.
The Turkish government decision to approve in principal the order for two F-35As has been taken in some quarters as formally ending the debate over software source codes. But such an interpretation of events is probably over-optimistic and the US position is likely to be challenged further before Turkey orders the rest of its F-35s. The US position is that any national need for operational independence can be met by interfacing with the software at the application level, rather than through interfacing with the lower level source code, any changes to which could compromise flight safety.
The purchase of F-35As by Israel and Japan without any guarantee of access to source codes may reassure the doubters, though this is uncertain. In Turkey’s case, though, the Israeli procurement may provide an additional impetus, as the Turks have always tended to keep abreast of Israeli capabilities and if the IDF/AF operates a low observable tactical fighter, capable of ‘first day of the war’, ‘kick down the door’ type missions, Turkey is sure to want to be able to do the same.
But many potential F-35 operators and customers suspect that without access to the source code, they cannot guarantee that there will not be some means by which the USA could effectively disable their aircraft, or prevent them from flying particular types of mission.
And in some ways, Turkey is more important to the F-35 than the other way around. The F-35 will not be the sole combat aircraft platform in Turkey’s air force inventory when it is introduced, nor will it be the most numerous Turkish Air Force fighter type.
The 100 F-35As will be augmented by about 200-240 advanced Block 50+ F-16s, and by another 200 tactical fighters.
These could be built as part of an autonomous and independent Turkish TF-X fighter aircraft programme, or could be newly purchased fighters from non-US sources. If the F-35 purchase were to be abandoned or curtailed, Turkey could simply buy more TF-X fighters.
Turkey formally announced that it intended to develop a stealthy multi-role fighter in December 2010 and the TF-X programme was formally started in August 2011, aiming at a service entry date in the 2020 timeframe.
The government is known to have favoured a mixed purchase pairing the JSF with the Eurofighter Typhoon, and a purchase of Typhoons after 2020 remains a possibility.
But in case Turkey does continue with a new indigenous fighter design, a number of major aerospace manufacturers are assiduously courting the Turks, pushing themselves forward as potential partners. These include Embraer of Brazil, KAI of South Korea and Sweden’s Saab, as well as Italy’s Finmeccanica.
Finmeccanica has proposed a wide-ranging co-operation, including extensive technology transfer, building on the Italian-Turkish relationship that has seen AgustaWestland’s A129 Mangusta helicopter being built in Turkey as the T129.
Finmeccanica’s ‘trump card’ may lie in its ability to offer a number of the advanced technologies used in the Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft.