Crowning Achievement? Kaan and the Turkish Defense Industry


 In February 2024, Turkey successfully completed the maiden test flight of its prototype Kaan fighter. The plane’s name is taken from an ancient Central Asian royal title, and Turkish media declared that its performance made “the legacy of our ancestors proud.” This then naturally raises the question: is the Kaan really a king of kings or just a pretender to the throne?

Turkey now claims membership of a small, technologically advanced club of countries that have flown a fifth-generation aircraft of their own design: the United States, Russia and China. It is the culmination of long-term investment in the country’s defense technology and industrial base. However, the resulting hype around Kaan is not entirely justified. Turkey relied heavily on foreign support to develop Kaan, undercutting government claims that it is a triumph of indigenous design and raising questions about its ability to progress beyond a prototype.

That said, focusing only on the technical credentials of Kaan may miss the broader aims of Turkish defense-industrial investment. Demonstrating the industrial and technological capability needed to develop a fifth-generation fighter also enhances Turkey’s strategic position and appeals to a domestic audience. Equally importantly, Kaan serves as a “shop window” for Turkey’s growing capability in unmanned aerial vehicles like the Bayraktar TB2. These achievements are the result of a purposeful and long-term strategic industrial effort, of which Kaan is a key component.



A Quest for Independence

Turkey’s modern development of its defense technology and industrial base began following U.S.-imposed sanctions for its invasion of Cyprus in 1974. Unable to acquire the equipment it needed to confront a threat to its national security, the Turkish government focused inwards.

Turkey’s determination to build defense equipment at home accelerated in the 1980s, when Ankara believed that suppliers were delaying equipment it needed to combat the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. This push continued into the 1990s, a decade that saw substantial growth in Turkish defense companies and research and development institutions. Turkey focused on drones deemed critical to Ankara’s fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and put at risk as relations with Israel deteriorated.

Defense investment continued to grow after the Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi (Justice and Development Party or AKP) came to power in 2003. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan describes the defense industry as “both security insurance and a technology locomotive.” To this end, according to official figures, government defense research and development spending tripled between 2007 and 2019. This focus on self-sufficiency and indigenous development was emboldened by concerns that the United States remained reluctant to sell Turkey the equipment it needed to address pressing security threats.

Turkey’s defense industry has therefore expanded greatly over the last two decades. Four Turkish businesses now feature among the world’s top 100 largest defense firms. And according to figures from the Swedish International Peace Research Institute, as of 2023 Turkey is the world’s 11th largest exporter of defense products, up from 16th only a few years ago. Turkey’s military also increasingly acquires indigenous equipment, rather than foreign-made.

Despite this, Turkey still remains dependent on international partners for components and technical expertise to manufacture its outputs at scale. Its imports are now qualitatively different: Instead of importing complete platforms to equip its armed forces, it primarily imports subsystems and components for manufacturing. However, the country still remains among the world’s top importers of defense equipment. While this is not a problem unique to Turkey, it means that the country has not achieved its primary stated goal of self-sufficiency and remains vulnerable to external constraints.

To reduce import dependencies while maintaining access to advanced foreign technologies, Turkey takes a two-pronged approach. First, it has one of the world’s most robust industrial cooperation or “offset” policies, ensuring foreign suppliers must invest in Turkish industry to win defense contracts. Second, it diversifies the source of its defense imports as much as possible. Turkey today receives 15 percent of its defense imports from Russia, despite its NATO membership. Its partners and suppliers also include a range of smaller states with niche areas of competence. Engine technologies from Ukraine and tank components from South Korea are two recently reported examples. This approach, distinctive within NATO, has enabled Turkey to advance its capabilities and reduce import dependencies, exemplified by Kaan.

However, this approach still has limitations. Turkey’s formal removal from the U.S.-led F-35 program in mid-2019 following its purchase of Russia’s S-400 air defense system demonstrated this vividly. The program would have been a capability and economic win for Turkey but the U.S. government judged that an ally operating both F-35s and an air-defense system designed to counter it was an unacceptable risk. Turkey’s ejection from the F-35 program exposed a significant shortfall in capability planning by demonstrating the limitations of its in-house combat air capabilities at the time and highlighting its reliance on foreign-supplied combat aircraft.

Yet this episode did not persuade Ankara to change its approach. On the contrary, it appears to have only reinforced the lesson Turkey took from the 1970s: Self-sufficiency is critical. Turkey’s determination to remain politically independent within NATO despite its underlying technological dependencies continues to present challenges. Last year, defense cooperation with the United States stalled again when Congress held up a $20 billion package to revitalize Turkey’s F-16 fleet until Ankara ratified Sweden’s NATO accession. Germany also refused to support a U.K.-led measure to supply Turkey with Eurofighter Typhoons. Capability shortfalls now exist across Turkey’s entire combat air force, which Kaan cannot yet plug.

Kaan therefore represents a paradox: both reflecting Turkey’s determination to overcome dependence on foreign suppliers, whilst underscoring the depth of this reliance. This reveals a recurring dilemma facing most aspiring defense-industrial powers: Accessing first-class equipment and technology often requires technology transfer and other relationships with established manufacturers to enhance capability. Defense economists suggest countries must progressthrough a process of reducing foreign dependency, from the wholesale acquisition of technology from more sophisticated developers, through assimilation, until achieving indigenous research. This path in practice requires a level of political alignment with either the United States and NATO or, arguably, other defense-industrial powers such as Russia and China, to which Turkey has not yet been willing to commit.

Turkey has pursued a raft of technically ambitious flagship projects in recent years, with drones and aviation in continued focus. Media coverage has focused on Bayraktar TB2s and their performance on the battlefields of Libya, Azerbaijan, and Ukraine, while development efforts in Turkey have focused on Kaan as a technological standard-bearer program.

Ambitions Take Flight

 Kaan successfully completed a 13-minute test flight on Feb. 21, 2024, an event that attracted a great deal of notice domestically and overseas. NATO’s Joint Air Power Competence Centre defines a fifth-generation platform as one that is “capable of operating effectively in highly contested combat environments, defined by the presence of the most capable current air and ground threats.” This means a focus on stealth features and a high degree of data processing, enabling integration with future autonomous platforms.

This is a daunting technical undertaking. Achieving the required low observability credentials requires the development of a raft of materials, coatings, and treatments, only some of which can draw on Turkey’s well-established composite materials industry. These will then need to be integrated with sensors, flight control systems, and a jet engine that retains the low radar signature required for such an advanced platform. These functions rely on regular, highly advanced data updates to ensure that Kaan’s electronic warfare and targeting systems remain at the cutting edge — akin to the regular technology block updates that are rolled out to the F-35. This entire manufacturing process then needs to be repeatable and scaleable to allow Turkey to field fifth-generation capability.

As recently as 2019, critics suggested that Turkey was likely over-stretching with Kaan, based on the country’s limited technical experience in key areas including propulsion systems. Completing a test flight only goes some of the way to proving detractors wrong.

But the fact remains that building a fifth-generation fighter is hard. The United States, with its wealth of defense funding and technological capability, is the only other NATO ally to have attempted fully indigenous fifth-generation aircraft programs, in the form of the F-22 and the F-35 (though the latter did involve some foreign design participation). Even nationally independent fourth-generation aircraft such as France’s Rafale and Sweden’s Gripen are few and far between. Moreover, their “independence” often disguises their reliance on key externally supplied systems. There are myriad, well-publicized case studies from around the world that demonstrate that indigenous combat air programs are difficult and expensive.

In the case of Kaan, questions remain around the extent to which international partners were intrinsic to this achievement. Notably these include technical advice from the British BAE Systems, delivered as part of a U.K.-Turkish agreement signed in 2017, and General Electric of the United States, integral to the propulsion of the Kaan platform to date via their F110 engine (though work is underway to develop a domestic alternative). This, in turn, raises questions around Turkey’s ability to transition a successful one-time test flight of a fifth-generation aircraft into a repeatable, exportable, and sustained program in-service. Inherent export restrictions may, in turn, restrict Turkey’s choices going forward.

Whether or not Turkey’s successful, albeit short and operationally limited, test flight of Kaan will pull through into a militarily and commercially successful fifth-generation aircraft franchise remains to be seen. And to an extent, it still relies on the goodwill of external partners such as the United States. However, to view its success in technical terms alone is to miss the broader purpose of Turkey’s development efforts in defense, namely international and domestic prestige and as a technical “gateway” to its more immediately commercially viable drones.

Turkey’s True Aims

Turkey watchers have long noted that Turkey seeks to use its defense industry to do more than just supply its own armed forces. As with many other exporting nations, Turkey has frequently seen its defense industry as a way to further strategic policy aims and demonstrate its independence and strength. In comments to a Turkish newspaper, the CEO of Baykar, the company behind the Bayraktar drones, described his country’s business as a “national technology endeavor” and described how the TB2 enabled the country to “campaign in an unprecedented way in the world.” Erdoğan frequently talks about how the performance of Turkey’s defense industry strengthens its international reputation. Turkey’s defense industry provides a source of international prestige, serving as “a symbol of Turkish technological innovation and self-sufficiency.”

This is neither a new phenomenon, nor one unique to Turkey. The value of defense industries extends beyond the straightforward economic value. Certainly, defense equipment offers countries the ability to protect their interests and deter war. But perhaps equally importantly, it has a reputational benefit: Countries create and foster defense industries out of a belief that domestic defense-industrial capability is a prerequisite for a country’s status and success, a belief described as “technonationalism.”

Perhaps the most striking example of this has been the amount of attention generated around the performance of Bayraktar TB2 in Azerbaijan, Libya, and Ukraine. Baykar has sold the TB2 to 24 countries at last count, including co-production agreements with Azerbaijan and Ukraine. This can then be used to concrete political ends. The rise in exports — on Turkey’s terms and conditions — has driven Turkey’s use of “drone diplomacy” that has expanded Turkey’s  “sphere of influence.”

The TB2 is only one example of Turkey’s use of defense exports and co-production agreements to achieve strategic gains. Turkey’s government hopes that its defense exports will increase its ability to dictate the terms of international relationships with countries it supplies. Here, one could point to Turkey’s own experience of other countries trying to leverage its dependence on imports to affect policy decisions. Additionally, the provision of the TB2 to other countries makes those countries dependent on Turkey for maintenance and repair and creates a dependency on Turkish support if they seek to integrate TB2 with other battlefield assets.

This also appeals to a domestic audience: Defense-industrial performance holds broad cross-partisan appeal, as demonstrated in the continuity across party lines of the defense-industrial development strategy. Actors across the political spectrum continue to praise defense-industrial development. The Justice and Development Party in particular includes it in government media, while platform names such as Kızılelma and Malazgirt explicitly appeal to Turkish nationalism.

The development of Kaan has been no exception to either the pattern of significant press coverage, or Turkey’s efforts to use defense-industrial relationships to achieve strategic ends. Future plans for Kaan’s development seek to further leverage its fame: Public statements suggest that Turkey is actively exploring partnerships with Azerbaijan and Pakistan for further development. Given Turkey’s use of defense-industrial cooperation to date, its ambitions with Kaan may go beyond the technical and form the basis of a strategy of alliance building.

Unfortunately for its NATO allies, Turkey does not seem concerned that these may not be relationships that serve the alliance’s agenda: Pakistan enjoys significant defense-industrial cooperation with China, while Azerbaijan continues deepening its ties with Russia. As with the S-400 acquisition, NATO allies such as the United States and the United Kingdom may feel this puts their technological contributions at risk. However, such partnerships also may limit the extent to which NATO can retain influence over Turkey’s acquisition of advanced combat aircraft.


Kaan is certainly an impressive national achievement for Turkey. However, its significant reliance on foreign components and expertise is indicative of a broader challenge in the Turkish defense industry.

Turkey clearly has more development and testing work to do if Kaan is to reach its potential, including developing indigenous solutions for several key components and designing the technical wrap-around that truly make a fifth-generation platform. As a result, Kaan is unlikely to make a meaningful contribution to Turkey’s frontline combat air requirements gap this decade. Meanwhile the geopolitical landscape continues to shift rapidly, and threats abound. Arguably, then, Turkey’s requirements for combat mass at pace will only be met through off-the-shelf purchases such as the F-16 or Eurofighter Typhoon. This reliance on a foreign-supplied platforms may disappoint Turkey’s political leaders.

Still, the continued development of Turkey’s defense-industrial base marks potential opportunities for the country, as well as potential headaches for NATO allies. Co-development agreements and collaboration with countries such as Pakistan and Azerbaijan on Kaan, and no-strings-attached sales of Bayraktar drones, aid Turkey’s regional posture in some areas. However, they come at the expense of its relationship with the United States, whose technologies may be fundamental to realizing Turkey’s fifth-generation ambitions.

Regardless of its long-term viability, Kaan’s maiden flight has achieved significant strategic objectives. The aircraft program supports a posture of independence and resilience, whilst stoking a sense of national pride. It also serves as an advertisement for Turkey’s more commercially viable aerospace capabilities, namely a growing fleet of drones. If Turkey’s true objective is regional leadership, the military utility of complex platforms such as Kaan may be only a secondary consideration.



Rebecca Lucas is a senior analyst in defense and security with RAND Europe and is heavily involved with RAND’s Centre for Defence Economics and Acquisition. Her research focuses on the defense-industrial base, acquisition policy, and supply-chain analysis, as well as a regional focus on Turkey.  

Stuart Dee is a research leader in the defense and security research group at RAND Europe, focusing primarily on defense economics and acquisition, as well as issues relating to the U.K. industrial base and defense exports. He is also a member of RAND’s Centre for Defence Economics and Acquisition.

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