The TAI TF-X KAAN - What Just Happened

Return of the Khans

This week, Türkiye became the latest nation in the exclusive club at the top of the military aviation hierarchy: the countries that have designed, built, and flown a domestic, modern jet fighter prototype. 

Turkish Aerospace Industries, a state-owned manufacturer and designer, flew their TF-X prototype (nicknamed and stylized KAAN, meaning ruler or king; see “Khan”) for the first time. It's a serious accomplishment, all the more impressive for how new Türkiye's military aviation industry is. In the last two decades, they've leapfrogged from small drones to multirole manned jets. There's a lot of reason to take Türkiye's military aviation industry seriously, for all that it’s new. The multirole, jet-powered manned fighter is a serious step forward for Türkiye - not least because of its relationship in design heritage and operational framework to the (in my opinion) more impressive Kızılelma multirole, jet-powered unmanned aircraft. 

Not Quite What It Seems

But don't buy the hype. The KAAN is not all that its devotees would have you believe. Perhaps the biggest point people get wrong - it is not entirely Turkish-made. Nor is the Kızılelma, for that matter. Both use American-made engines, and though a domestic replacement is in the works, it is not expected to power production units until later batches. You could argue this is more strength than weakness, though - it shows that Türkiye is not allowing their drive for domestic production to compromise their schedule.

More controversial is the KAAN's generation. The lines between fourth and fifth generation fighters have been blurred substantially since the largely-European "4.5" generation fighters entered service in the 2000s. Those aircraft incorporated some fifth generation features - passive phased array radars, radar cross section reduction, high-capability onboard computers - and even pioneered new features lacking on the first 5th gen, the F-22, like airborne IRST and active phased arrays. Most people, however, do not consider these aircraft "true" fifth gen thanks to one key missing feature - stealth. Many 4.5 gen fighters were designed for reduced radar cross sections, but a key shibboleth of a 5th gen is true radar stealth - more accurately known as low observability. 

Of late, the Korean KAI KF-21 prototype has confused these distinctions even further, incorporating many stealth features (radar detection resistant-shaping) but not others (internal weapons bay). Korean Aerospace Industries, the KF-21's design lead and manufacturer, has termed the aircraft a 4.5 generation fighter but maintained that later versions will be 5th generation, despite doubts. 

I think that this category is where the KAAN belongs. While hard to judge, as information on stealth materials, coatings, and shaping is largely classified, it is highly likely that all-aspect radar stealth is beyond Türkiye's domestic aircraft industry - as, it seems, it is beyond every nation's but the United States, Russia, and China

Fighter Jet Diplomacy

Perhaps the true purpose of the KAAN is not the prestige of joining the elite club of nations with a domestic fighter jet, or the military capability it will bring after Türkiye was excluded from the F-35 program. Instead, most likely, its primary purpose will be the same as that of the famed Bayraktar TB2: export diplomacy. The TB2 and its less-trumpeted but equally successful larger cousin Akıncı have together garnered billions of dollars of exports to dozens of countries. Türkiye and its relatively new but well-supported defense industrial base can produce high-capability platforms for low costs, making them especially popular in the Middle East and Asia - both already targets for KAAN exports, which will likely compete with South Korea’s KF-21 for the share of the market that can’t afford the F-35 (or to whom, like Türkiye, America won’t sell). This will not only allow TAI to defray development costs and support a more robust production line, but it will (like Türkiye's drone exports already have) give Türkiye valuable leverage in trade and security agreements - a lesson they learned from the way the US used F-16 exports as a bargaining chip in Sweden’s NATO accession talks. 

Even though the KAAN may not be a true fifth generation fighter, much like the KF-21, it has the potential to grow into one. And paired with Türkiye’s formidable catalog of air-launched weapons, future loyal wingman programs, and existing unmanned vehicle customers, the KAAN has immense potential as the successor to high-capability, low-cost 4th generation fighters like the F-16 or MiG-29 - exactly as TAI and the Turkish government are pitching it domestically and abroad.


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