KAAN’s maiden flight sparks Ukrainian optimism against Russia

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Turkey is making strides in the field of aviation with its indigenous 5th generation fighter jet named KAAN, which successfully completed its first flight on January 21. The name KAAN denotes ‘Supreme Ruler’ and ‘Sovereign’. 

Other countries, such as Azerbaijan, Pakistan, and Ukraine, have noted Turkey’s determined efforts to operationalize this 5th generation of fighter jet. They admire Turkey’s ambitious, yet realistic timeline. With the successful test flight of KAAN, Turkey joins the elite group of countries capable of manufacturing 5th-generation fighter jets. Interestingly, it has been noted that the United States has approved Turkey’s requests for additional F-16s. However, they also greenlit the sale of F-35 fighter jets to Greece, a longstanding rival of Turkey. 

Despite Turkey’s progress with KAAN, also referred to as TF-X, potential roadblocks exist. Challenges such as high inflation and an escalated external debt of approximately US $476 billion as of March 2023 could hinder progress. In a March 2021 interview, Temel Kotil estimated that a single unit of the TF-X fighter jet would cost almost US $100 million. 

Photo credit: DIA

Reports reveal that the test pilot Barbaros Demirbas flew KAAN to a height of 8,000 feet and at a speed of 230 knots for a swift 13-minute flight. TAI, the primary contractor responsible for developing this 5th-generation fighter jet, completed its taxi trials in March. It aims to deliver 20 KAAN Block 10 fighter jets to the Turkish Air Force by 2028. 

The strategy is to have the second and third prototypes ready by 2025 and 2026, respectively, with the remaining blocks being dispatched by 2034. The Block 20 aircraft will showcase the full capabilities of a fifth-generation fighter, featuring cutting-edge equipment. 

The TF-X is being constructed with a lightweight carbon composite fuselage at TAI’s advanced facility. As a NATO member, Turkey launched this project in 2016 to design a national combat aircraft. Eventually, TAI partnered with Britain’s BAE Systems through a $125 million agreement. 

Photo credit: DIA

KAAN is being designed primarily for air-to-air combat but will also have capabilities for ground attack. Its arsenal will include MBDA’s Meteor and MICA, Raytheon’s AIM-120 AMRAAM, and the locally-developed Gökdoğan missile, as well as short-range weapons like the AIM-9X, ASRAAM, and Turkey’s Bozdoğan missile. For ground attacks, the jet will utilize a new reconnaissance pod and will be able to carry up to a 1,000 lb weapon load, primarily of precision-guided munitions. The aircraft will also be equipped with TÜBİTAK SAGE’s SOM-J cruise missile, boasting a stand-off range of 60 miles.

Opportunities

In 2023, Turkey and Azerbaijan agreed on a significant deal to co-develop Turkey’s TF-X fifth-generation fighter jet. What’s more, it wasn’t just them – Pakistan also seemed poised to participate, according to Turkish Defense Minister Yasar Guler.  

Photo credit: Star Turkey

Induced by tensions with NATO nations, Turkey has been seeking allies. The financial support from Azerbaijan and Pakistan will surely be advantageous. The looming debut flight of the KAAN will further solidify this partnership. Even though neither country is a notable power in aerospace technology, their large-scale economies can notably decrease the per-unit cost of these advanced jets. 

The next potential collaborator is Ukraine. Vasyl Bodnar, the Ukrainian Ambassador to Turkey, suggested that Ukraine wants more than merely purchasing the KAAN fighter when he stated, “We [Ukraine] have a well-thought-out plan for its use.” He further mentioned that Ukraine is quite hopeful about the KAAN, believing it can compete against other heavyweight 5th-gen aircraft like the American F-35 and F-22. Moreover, Ukrainian teams have been actively involved in the development of KAAN.  

Despite these positive strides, some experts express concerns about the speed of the project’s evolution. Turkey has been moving at a swift pace, which might impede their aircraft technology’s progress. The key players [Russia, the US, and China], who already possess fifth-gen jets, are still struggling with issues related to their fighter jets.  

Video screenshot

As a brief historical reminder, the US built the first 5th-gen fighter, the F-22 Raptor, which was later followed by the F-35 Lightning II. Russia created the Su-57 Felon, and China, the J-20. Even though these are marketed as 5th-gen, they are still striving to meet the standards.  

To be classified as a fifth-gen fighter, an aircraft needs to exhibit stealth capabilities and achieve supersonic speeds without afterburners. The major challenges most 5th-gen development programs encounter involve stealth technology, engine development, and maintenance.  

Experts anticipate that Turkey’s urgency might intensify these issues. The initial plan is to power the KAAN with two General Electric F-110 engines, also deployed in the 4th-gen Lockheed Martin F-16 jets. They might later transition to a domestic TEI engine. Once the first flight takes place, all eyes will be watching closely to see whether Turkey can make the KAAN stealthy enough to be a bona fide 5th-gen fighter.

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