If Ankara genuinely wants to produce a fighter aircraft, it needs to think hard about collaborating with other countries.
Turkey has the ninth largest standing army in the word and, within NATO, an air force third only to that of the US and the UK. Keeping that air force up to date is of major importance to any government in Ankara. Thirteen years ago, a $45-billion plan was launched to modernize it. The program includes more F16s, which Turkey builds itself, as well as 100 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters. Like Saudi Arabia, Turkey also looked at acquiring Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft. But now Turkish Defense Minister Vecdi Gönül says that a Eurofighter purchase is “off the agenda”.
What is surprising is the minister’s statement that, as an alternative, Turkey will design and produce its own jet fighter.
Turkey has a growing aerospace industry. As well as coproducing F-16s and modifying and refitting fighter aircraft for itself and other countries, it is currently building an attack helicopter and a training aircraft — the former still in the testing stage and the prototype of the latter due for its first flight in mid-2011. Both have been expensive undertakings. They will be as nothing compared to a jet fighter.
As long ago as 2003, the development and construction costs of the Eurofighter were put at $32 billion. Since then the figure is reported to have risen by another $16 billion. It is highly unlikely that Turkey could produce a comparable fighter for any less, all the more so given that its aerospace industry is in relative infancy compared to those of the countries in the Eurofighter consortium — the UK, Germany, Italy and Spain.
It has to be asked whether Turkey can afford its own jet fighter. Its economy is doing relatively well but it is not exactly in the China or India league. Based on Eurofighter costs, a homegrown jet fighter is going to cost far more than the $45 billion budgeted for the entire Turkish Air Force modernization program, much of which has already been committed elsewhere. The purchase of the J-35s alone is at least $10 billion.
It is possible that the defense minister came up with the homegrown plan as a diplomatic way of getting out of the Eurofighter option in order to save money. But if Turkey genuinely wants to produce a fighter aircraft, it needs to think hard about collaborating with other countries. South Korea and Indonesia have already been suggested. So far, Gönül has ruled this out. But it is difficult seeing Turkey sticking to that line. The costs will be crippling. That — and only that — is why Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK decided to work on the Eurofighter project together.
If and when Turkey decides to look at partners, it should look nearer home than the Far East. It is building up ever-closer links with its Arab neighbors, with which there are deep historic and cultural ties. Only a couple of days ago, Syrian President Bashar Assad described it as playing an increasingly important role in the Middle East. Moreover, the Arab world is looking to develop its own aviation industry. Why not in collaboration with Turkey? Turkey has the skills, the Arabs the capital. They could go well together.