US-Turkish Cruise Missile SOM-J May be a Victim of F-35 No-sale Fallout

Back in 2015 Roketsan, Turkey’s premier producer of air-launched weapons signed a deal with Lockheed Martin to co-develop a variant of the former’s SOM cruise missile. This variant, SOM-J, would be designed specifically to fit in the confining weapon bays of the F-35 which was going to enter Turkish service in the following decade. However, with the delivery of Russian S-400 systems and Turkey’s subsequent ejection from the F-35 program in July, SOM-Js future is in doubt.

A test launch has not yet been conducted and continued cooperation is unlikely unless Lockheed Martin can avoid sanctions. There remains an export potential for SOM-J as it’s one of only two cruise missiles that will fit into the F-35’s bays. The other is Raytheon/Kongsberg’s Joint Strike Missile (JSM), itself derived from the very successful Naval Strike Missile (NSM) which the USMC and USN have both adopted.

3D model of SOM-J, note how wing and tail surfaces fold to allow it to be stored. Photo: Akela Freedom

Turkish officials have stated that even though they are out of the F-35 program they can still market SOM-J to other F-35 users. They also stated the missile will be deployed by the locally developed 5th gen fighter, TF-X. At the Paris Air Show TF-X was shown with a model of SOM-J as well as it’s larger brother SOM-B. Whether the aircraft will be able to store SOM-J internally is unknown. In contrast to F-35, TF-X seems to have begun life with a greater focus on air superiority over strike missions. The layout of TF-X appears more inspired by F-22 than F-35, notably being twin-engined and lacking an EOTS turret under the nose (at least on the model). F-22’s weapon bays aren’t optimized for larger ordnance and are incapable of stowing SOM-J or JSM.

A concept model of TF-X with an assortment of weapons that are planned to be integrated. These include SOM B, SOM-J, and MBDA’s Meteor. Photo: John Newton

Not being able to perform the same mission as F-35 is one problem, but the more pressing issue is availability. Turkey still operates upgraded F-4Es which they are intent on retiring in the 2020s along with the older portion of their F-16 fleet. F-35 was to replace them but now Turkey must find another solution. TF-X can’t help this as it’s not expected to reach serial production until the late 2020s at best though engine development could push this into the early 2030s. Russia has offered Su-35s to Turkey though this is hardly an ideal solution as Su-35 is incompatible with weapon systems in inventory and would require procurement of a weapon set strictly for use on Su-35. Eurofighter Typhoon has been offered and makes more sense given BAE’s involvement in TF-X. The TF-X model at the Paris Air Show was shown with an MBDA Meteor missile, which is already equipping RAF Typhoons. Perhaps a stopgap solution would be to lease Typhoons until TF-X gets off the ground. The move isn’t unprecedented, Italy leased ex-USAF F-16s from 2001 to 2012 until Typhoon finally arrived in numbers.

SOM-J model tucked into the bay of an F-35.