Türkiye's homegrown fifth-generation fighter jet KAAN is seen on a runway, Ankara, Türkiye, Feb. 21, 2024. (AA Photo)

KAAN and Türkiye’s aerospace renaissance

The Turkish aerospace and defense sector has achieved a significant milestone with the first flight of the indigenous fighter jet KAAN. The fifth-generation aircraft "reached an altitude of 8,000 feet and achieved a speed of 230 knots," according to a statement on the website of Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI), the company producing KAAN. The flight lasted a total of 13 minutes.

The Turkish aerospace and defense sector has achieved a significant milestone with the first flight of the indigenous fighter jet KAAN. The fifth-generation aircraft “reached an altitude of 8,000 feet and achieved a speed of 230 knots,” according to a statement on the website of Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI), the company producing KAAN. The flight lasted a total of 13 minutes.

This event marks a historic moment that underscores Türkiye’s growing capabilities in developing advanced military technologies and solidifies its emerging position as a key player in the global defense landscape. Importantly, it holds great potential to revitalize Türkiye’s regional power status and military innovation strategies. While it may take several years for KAAN to enter the inventory of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), it will reinforce the pursuit of “autonomy” that has shaped Türkiye’s grand strategy in defense industry technologies and will provide Ankara with strategic maneuverability in its foreign and security policy. In addition, it will solidify Türkiye’s competitiveness and engagement with other countries in the global defense arena.

What’s the project?

KAAN is a project initiated to produce a fighter aircraft designed and developed with domestic capabilities to replace the F-16 aircraft, which is planned to be phased out of the Turkish Air Force’s inventory starting in the 2030s and to create the manpower and infrastructure to design and develop this aircraft. Although the cooperation agreement between TAI and BAE Systems was signed and entered into force on Aug. 25, 2017, Türkiye’s quest to build a fighter jet dates back even further. This history extends to the goals set by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Republic of Türkiye, for a fighter aircraft and the 1936 production of the Nu.D-36 training and fighter aircraft produced by Nuri Demirağ in 1936 with the support of Turkish engineers, Vecihi Hürkuş’s steps in the history of aviation and the difficulties caused by the very limited air operation capability during the Cyprus operation had led Türkiye to develop its own means and capabilities in the field of defense. In 1984, with the establishment of the Undersecretariat for Defense Industries, there was a historical shift in defense industry policies and the Turkish military innovation strategy, with a greater emphasis on R&D and concept development projects in addition to off-the-shelf procurement policies.

However, no development has been as influential in the field of Turkish military innovation as what happened after President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan came to power in 2002. Erdoğan implemented a technology policy centered on domestic and national projects, abandoned projects that created political and geopolitical dependence on foreign countries, and placed defense industry developments at the center of his development-first policy. The success of the steps taken in the defense industry and Türkiye’s transformation into a player to be taken seriously were made possible by the absence of developments that radically shook the Middle East security environment. As Türkiye indigenized its military power and expanded its autonomous capabilities, its military operational effectiveness increased and it gained the ability to maneuver in foreign policy. Thus, Türkiye has become a real geopolitical player. As its military operational capability increased, military innovation in the defense industry accelerated and Türkiye moved toward bigger projects. Türkiye’s inability to access the military systems it needed to meet its security needs due to deteriorating relations with the West also acted as a catalyst for military innovation and Türkiye developed an ambitious defense portfolio. Thus, Türkiye has achieved a holistic defense ecosystem, building its own military-industrial logic.

The approach to KAAN’s design has taken shape, and the project has accelerated since Türkiye’s withdrawal from the F-35 consortium following the purchase of the S-400 defense system. KAAN, formerly known as TF-X, was originally planned as an air superiority asset. Now, it has been transformed into a multi-purpose aircraft. With the capabilities to be gained in technology areas such as low visibility, internal weapons bay, high maneuverability, increased situational awareness and sensor fusion, Türkiye has the potential to take its place among the limited number of countries in the world, such as the U.S., Russia, China, etc., that have the infrastructure and technology to produce a fifth-generation fighter aircraft.

Innovation strategy

This is also the DNA model for the philosophy of Türkiye’s military-innovation strategy. For example, with Baykar’s Kızılelma, which is currently undergoing test flights and will soon be included in the Turkish Army’s inventory, and the ANKA-3, which was recently test-flown, the concept of the “loyal wingman” seems to have emerged as a new doctrinal understanding for Turkish air power. In this sense, the armed flight activities and operational models of KAAN, Kızılelma and ANKA-3 fighter jets could be a game-changing development in terms of projecting Türkiye’s military power in the near future. Thus, KAAN not only represents the future DNA of the Turkish military innovation model but also transforms Türkiye into a military power capable of producing its own fighter aircraft.

KAAN is not limited to being a capability that strengthens Türkiye’s military power and defense-industrial complex. Similar to the impact Türkiye’s TB2 drone has had in Libya, Syria, Ukraine and Karabakh, it could also become a capability for Türkiye’s military diplomacy. In this sense, KAAN is important not only for Türkiye but also for Azerbaijan and Pakistan. Indeed, the fact that both countries have decided to participate in the KAAN project at certain levels in recent months strengthens Türkiye’s potential to become a real geopolitical player in the field of defense sector. If the project is successfully completed, it will have a multiplier effect on the potential for defense exports in aviation, making Türkiye a strategic partner in the global defense market. This not only facilitates Türkiye’s integration into the European defense architecture but also makes Türkiye an attractive supplier in the alternative defense market.

KAAN also strengthens Türkiye’s technological sovereignty in line with Erdoğan’s long-standing policy of a strong and autonomous defense industry and paves the way for a new ecosystem of political socialization, becoming the cement of Turkish state identity. As I mentioned in my article before, “From a sociopolitical perspective, developments in the defense industry are renewing the narrative that underpins traditional nationalism, giving rise to a new derivative, techno-nationalism. This does not entail the sidelining of traditional nationalism; instead, it underscores the hybrid nature of nationalism in which technology is at the forefront. Erdoğan’s extension of the perception of the domestic and national defense industry to the entire Turkish political geography reinforces the strategic impact of these defense industry achievements.” KAAN, therefore, offers a new public diplomacy tool as well as a revolutionary stamp on the military innovation of the Turkish military-industrial complex.

KAAN’s journey has been difficult, long and full of challenges. However, when it is successfully concluded, the level reached by the Turkish defense industry will not only consolidate Türkiye’s strategic autonomy but also transform Türkiye into a major military power.

[Daily Sabah, February 23, 2024]

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