KF-X Fighter: Korea’s Future Homegrown Jet
Feb 23/15: KAL partners with Airbus.
On February 22, Yonhap reported that KAL indeed signed an MOU with Airbus to present a join offer.
Jan 27/15: KAL prospects dim. After proposals were sought on December 23, one government official was quoted as saying that price may be a controlling factor. That probably presupposes that KAL’s international partners, like Boeing, were staying with them, as they can help make up for the leaner engineering department at KAL. But one report indicated that Boeing was pulling out. The consortium, also to have included Airbus, is pushing a revised F-18 model.
South Korea has been thinking seriously about designing its own fighter jet since 2008. The ROK defense sector has made impressive progress, and has become a notable exporter of aerospace, land, and naval equipment. The idea of a plane that helps advance their aerospace industry, while making it easy to add new Korean-designed weapons, is very appealing. On the flip side, a new jet fighter is a massive endeavor at the best of times, and wildly unrealistic technical expectations didn’t help the project. KF-X has progressed in fits and starts, and became a multinational program when Indonesia joined in June 2010. As of March 2013, however, South Korea has decided to put the KF-X program on hold for 18 months, while the government and Parliament decide whether it’s worth continuing.
Indonesia has reportedly contributed IDR 1.6 trillion since they joined in July 2010 – but that’s just $165 million of the DAPA’s estimated WON 6 billion (about $5.5 billion) development cost, and there’s good reason to believe that even this development budget is too low. This article discusses the KFX/IFX fighter’s proposed designs and features, and chronicles the project’s progress and setbacks since 2008…
Changing Stories: The “F-33/ Boramae” KF-X Fighter
Unrealistic early visions of an F-35 class stealth aircraft developed on the cheap produced some attention-getting models, but they appear to have given way to the idea of a fighter with slightly better kinematic performance than an F-16C/D Block 50, along with more advanced electronics that include a made-in-Korea AESA radar, the ability to carry a range of new South Korean weapons under development, and a better radar signature. The Jakarta Globe adds that the plane is eventually slated to get the designation F-33.
The project goes ahead, the 1st step will involve picking a foreign development partner, and the next step will involve choosing between 1 of 2 competing designs. The C103 design’s conventional fighter layout would look somewhat like the F-35, while the C203 design follows the European approach and uses forward canards in a stealth-shaped airframe. It’s likely that the choice of their foreign development partner will determine the design choice pursued.
Either aircraft would be a twin-engine fighter weighing around 10.4 tonnes, with stealth shaping. In order to keep ambitions within the bounds of realism, KFX Bock 1 fighters would only have to meet the radar cross-section of the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet or Eurofighter Typhoon. Sources have used figures of 0.1 – 1.0 square meters.
Note that even this specification amounts to developing a plane similar to or more advanced than the JAS-39E/F Gripen, from a lower technological base, with less international help on key components, all for less development money than a more experienced firm needed to spend. South Korea’s own KIDA takes a similar view, questioning the country’s technical readiness for something this complicated, and noting an overall cost per aircraft that’s twice as much as similar imported fighters.
KFX Block 2 would add internal weapon bays. Present plans call for Block 1 would be compatible with the bays, and hence upgradeable to Block 2 status, but Block 1 planes wouldn’t begin with internal bays. The fighter’s size and twin-engine design offer added space compared to a plan like the Gripen, but this feature will still be a notable design challenge. Additional tolerance and coating improvements are envisioned to reduce stealth to the level of an F-117: about 0.025 square meters.
KFX Block 3 would aim for further stealth improvements to the level of the B-2 bomber or F-35.
No timeline has been discussed for Block 2 and Block 3 improvements. At this stage of the program, any dates given would be wildly unreliable anyway.
KF-X: Program & Prospects
The KF-X project remains a “paper airplane,” without even a prototype under construction. The program was reportedly postponed until April 2011 due to financial and technological difficulties, and now a second postponement appears to extend to June 2014. If South Korea elects to proceed at all. The ROK Agency for Defense Development says that if full-scale development begins in October 2014, the 1st KF-X Block 1 prototype flight wouldn’t take place until September 2020. Based on the history of other programs, the new plane would be hard pressed to enter service before 2025.
Indonesia is currently the only KF-X foreign development partner, with 20% of the project. The project is sometimes referred to as “IFX” (Indonesia Fighter eXperimental) in that country, whose huge archipelago leads them to value range. That could create a problem if the KF-X design shrinks, in order to present a lower cost profile.
Turkey is a big defense customer for South Korea, and discussions have been held concerning KF-X, but Turkey wanted more control over the project than a 20% share, and no agreement has been forthcoming. The TuAF is already committed to buying about 100 F-35As to replace its F-4 Phantoms, and many of its F-16s as well. They’re also investigating the idea of designing their own fighter, and have enlisted Sweden’s Saab to assist (vid. March 20/13 entry).
In the interim, KAI’s FA-50 is emerging as a low-end fighter to replace existing ROKAF F-5s and F-4s, and South Korea is scheduled to have its F-X-3 competition decided before the KF-X resumes. That could leave them with a high-end fleet plan of 80-100 stealth-enhanced F-15SE Strike Eagles, split between new buys and upgrades. It’s fair to ask where an expensive KF-X program would fit in that mix, especially when even on-budget performance of WON 14 billion for development and production could buy and equip over 110 more F-15SEs, instead of 130-150 “F-33s”.
Moreover, if KF-X was developed, how big would the 2025 – 2040 export market really be? The Teal Group’s Richard Aboulafia is right that “The world fighter market needs a modern, F-16-class mid-market fighter.” With that said, even in a hypothetical market where F-16, F/A-18 family, Eurofighter, and Rafale production lines had all shut down, that would still leave South Korea competing for mid-tier purchases against China’s J-10, J-11, and “J-31″, Russia’s SU-35 and possibly its MiG-35, and Sweden’s JAS-39E/F.
On the other hand, KAI needs development work after the FA-50 is done. As one 2009 article asked, how far can industrial nationalism go? The next 18 months will offer an answer to that question.
Contracts & Key Events
Feb 23/15: KAL partners with Airbus.
On February 22, Yonhap reported that KAL indeed signed an MOU with Airbus to present a join offer.
Jan 27/15: KAL prospects dim. After proposals were sought on December 23, one government official was quoted as saying that price may be a controlling factor. That probably presupposes that KAL’s international partners, like Boeing, were staying with them, as they can help make up for the leaner engineering department at KAL. But one report indicated that Boeing was pulling out. The consortium, also to have included Airbus, would have pushed a revised F-18 model.
Oct 15/14: F-35 & KF-16. Korean media report that a proposed $753 million price hike for BAE’s KF-16 upgrade deal could result in cancellation. Lockheed Martin waits in the wings, and is reportedly extending an offer that would include more technical help with the multinational KF-X fighter program if the ROKAF switches.
The US government is reportedly demanding another WON 500 billion (about $471 million) for unspecified added “risk management,” while BAE is reportedly requesting another WON 300 million ($282 million) to cover a 1-year program delay. The Koreans are becoming visibly frustrated and distrustful, and have said openly that the deal may be canceled.
Lockheed Martin’s angle is a spinoff from their recent F-35A deal, which will supply 40 aircraft to the ROKAF. Part of their industrial offsets involved 300 man-years of help designing the proposed KF-X. They were cautious about providing too much help, but they reportedly see enough benefit in badly wounding an F-16 upgrade competitor to offer another 400 man-years of support for KF-X (total: 700) if the ROKAF switches. Sources: Chosun Ilbo, “U.S. in Massive Price Hike for Fighter Jet Upgrade” | Defense News, “F-16 Upgrade: Problems With S. Korea-BAE Deal Could Open Door to Lockheed” | Korea Times, “Korea may nix BAE’s KF-16 upgrade deal”.
Sept 24/14: F-35A. DAPA agrees on a WON 7.3 trillion deal for 40 F-35A fighters. including technology transfer in 17 sectors for use in KF-X. Transfers will include flight control and fire suppression technologies, and this appears to have been the final part of the KF-X puzzle. DAPA is said to have finalized their WON 8.5 trillion KF-X development plan, but it still has to be approved.
Subsequent reports indicate that Lockheed Martin has limited its proposed help with KF-X to just 300 man-years, rather than the 800 desired. In exchange, they offered a very unusual offset: they would buy a military communications satellite for South Korea, and launch it by 2017. Lockheed Martin isn’t saying anything, but Thales is favored as the source, as they provided the payload for South Korea’s Kopmsat-5 radar observation satellite, and have played a major role in KT Sat’s Koreasat commercial telecommunications satellites.
Why wouldn’t Lockheed Martin, which makes these satellites itself, just built one? Because this way, it doesn’t have to deal with any American weapon export approval processes and restrictions, which would have delayed overall negotiations and might have endangered them. That’s a lot of effort and money, in order to avoid ITAR laws. Or added help for KF-X. Sources: Yonhap, “Seoul to buy 40 F-35A fighters from Lockheed Martin in 7.3 tln won deal” | Defense News, “F-16 Upgrade: Problems With S. Korea-BAE Deal Could Open Door to Lockheed” | Reuters, “Exclusive: Lockheed to buy European satellite for South Korea in F-35 deal”.
Aug 31/14: DAPA gave public notice of KF-X bids this month, with plans to pick the preferred bidder (likely KAI) in November 2014, and sign a system development contract in December 2014.
The estimated WON 20 trillion development and production cost for 120 fighters is giving South Korea pause, especially with the ROKAF’s coming fighter fleet shortage (q.v. March 26/14). Sources: Korea Herald, “Fighter procurement projects pick up speed”.
Aug 21/14: Engines. GE declares their interest in equipping the ROKAF’s KF-X. The firm already equips some ROKAF F-15Ks (F110), Korea’s own T/TA/FA-50 fighter family (F404), Surion helicopters (T700-701K), and many ROK naval ships (LM2500). The F404, LM2500, and T700 are all assembled locally in South Korea. GE is promising to expand aero engine technology cooperation, increase the component localization rate, and support KF-X exports via joint marketing, while ensuring that over half of KF-X’s engine components are locally assembled.
GE’s F404, F414, and F110 jet engines are all viable possibilities. The key questions will involve matching their engineering specifications to the new platform: space, weight and balance, fuel consumption vs. onboard fuel, and twin-engine thrust vs. expected weight.
GE competitor Pratt & Whitney’s F100 engine equips some ROKAF F-15Ks, and all of its F-16s. Sources: Yonhap, “GE eyes S. Korea’s fighter jet development project” | Joong An Daily, “GE wants in on new fighter jets”.
July 18/14: Twin-engines. South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff endorse the plan to develop KF-X as a twin-engine fighter by 2025. That seems to pick the C-103/ C-501 (q.v. Feb 6/14), a twin-engine design that’s similar to the F-35 in overall shape. This decision an important step, but it isn’t a contract, or even a budget.
The state-funded Korea Institute for Defense Analysis (KIDA) didn’t favor the twin-engine option, because they believed it would increase the fighter’s cost, and wouldn’t have a competitive edge. There actually is an edge for twin-engine fighters in a number of markets, because they’re less likely to crash due to engine failure. A country with large or remote areas to cover – Indonesia, for instance – will benefit from that choice. As for increases in cost, fighters like the Anglo-French Jaguar and Taiwan’s F-CK are smaller twin-engine planes that were successfully developed at reasonable cost. The key cost factor isn’t engines, it’s overall specifications.
With that said, this choice does rule out KF-X’s least-cost, least-risk C-501/ KFX-E design, which would have been derived from the single-engined FA-50 that’s currently in production at KAI. Sources: Defense News, “S. Korea Opts for Twin-Engine Fighter Development” | Reuters, “S.Korea military chiefs endorse $8.2 bln development plan for home-built fighters”.
JCS picks twin-engine C-103 design
March 26/14: Fill-ins. The ROKAF needs to retire its fleets of 136 or so F-5E/F Tiger light fighters, and about 30 F-4 Phantom fighter-bombers. Meanwhile, The F-16 fleet is about to begin a major upgrade program that will keep part of that fleet out of service. The F-X-3 buy of F-35As is expected to be both late, and 20 jets short of earlier plans. The KF-X mid-level fighter project will be even later – it isn’t likely to arrive until 2025, if it arrives at all. The ROKAF is buying 60 FA-50s to help offset some of the F-5 retirements, but the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses (KIDA) sees this combination of events leaving South Korea about 80 planes short.
FA-50 deliveries only began in August 2013, and foreign FA-50 orders from Iraq and the Philippines are beginning to take up additional slots on the production line. As such, the ROKAF may be leaning toward a quicker stopgap:
“The Air Force is considering leasing used combat jets as part of ways to provide the interim defense capability because replacement of aging F-4s and F-5s wouldn’t take place in a timely manner,” a senior Air Force official said, asking for anonymity. “As midlevel combat jets are mostly in shortage, the Air Force is considering renting 16 to 20 used F-16s from the U.S. Air Force…. “The U.S. Air Force stood down some F-16s in the wake of the defense spending cut affected by the sequestration,” another Air Force official said, asking not to be named. “Under current circumstances, we can rent F-16s or buy used ones.”
It will be interesting to see if the USAF will let the ROKAF lease, or just have them buy the jets at cut-rate prices. Sources: Yonhap, “S. Korea considers F-16 lease deal to replace aging jets”.
Jan 5/14: Budget. The Korea Times reports that the 2014 defense budget has appropriated KRW 20 billion (about $19 million) to finalize KF-X’s design. A subsequent report from Aviation Week describes conditions that might be difficult for KF-X to meet:
“The latest South Korean budget provides 20 billion won ($19 million) to continue KF-X studies in 2014, hedged by two major conditions—development cost must be capped at just under $8 billion and be complete by 2025, and the aircraft must be approved for export by the U.S. An international partner must be found and contribute a 15% investment.”
A decision between the available design options is possible by February, and would be followed by detail design work. With respect to US export approval, AW confirms that “Eurofighter is still trying to offer South Korea 40 Typhoons, along with support for KF-X.” Unlike Lockheed Martin’s expected assistance, the vast majority of Eurofighter GmbH technology would be beyond American export approvals. Unfortunately, the ROK military’s short-circuiting of DAPA’s fighter competition (q.v. Nov 22/13) will expand the scope of possible American KF-X export clearance interference. Korea Times, “Military to flesh own fighter jet plan” | Aviation Week, “Fast-Changing Trends In Asia Fighter Market”.
Feb 6/14: KAI’s official blog talks about the prospects for the K-FX. It clarifies that the design decision will be between the C-103, which is a twin-engine design similar to the F-35 in overall shape, and the FA-50 derived C-501/ KFX-E. Sources: KAI Blog.
2011 – 2013
Program halt lifted, as specs get clearer; Indonesia confirms, then faces a delayed program again; Turkey invited, but seem to be going their own way.
Nov 22/13: KF-X moved up. South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff add urgency to proposed development of the local KF-X fighter, moving it from a long-range project to an intermediate-term project for development by 2020. Past timelines have given 7 years from the beginning of development to the end, which is already pretty fast. Even if KF-X receives follow-on approval and budgets, 7 years means development doesn’t end until 2022 or so.
They also announce that there will be no competition for F-X Phase III – the F-35 is the only option. As a result, Lockheed Martin is expected to lend its expertise to KAI for KF-X, as part of an industrial offsets program that will also include a new military communications satellite and a cyber-warfare training center. ROK’s Yonhap, “(LEAD) S. Korea decides to buy 40 Lockheed F-35s from 2018″ | Aviation Week, “South Korea To Order 40 F-35s, Maybe 20 More Later” | E&T, “South Korea confirms F-35 fighter jet deal” | NY Times, “In South Korea, Delays Drag a Project to Build Homegrown Fighter Jets” | China’s Xinhua, “S. Korea picks Lockheed Martin’s F-35 as main fighter jet”.
Nov 5/13: Sub-contractors. Rockwell Collins is expressing interest in KF-X. They’re already a significant avionics supplier for existing T-50 family jets and Surion helicopters. Honeywell’s senior director of APAC Customer Business Mark Burgess:
“We are in discussions with KAI and Samsung Techwin to explore how Honeywell can contribute to the KF-X program.”
Oct 28/13: KF-X shrunk? Aviation Week reports that KAI has responded to the KF-X’s program’s stall with a smaller, single-engine “KFX-E/ C501″ design that uses the F-35-style C103 design as a base, and proposes to reuse some systems from the FA-50. Overall weight would drop from around 11 tonnes to 9.3t (an F-16 is 8.9t), removing advance provision for an internal weapon bay, and leaving 2 underbody stations unused if a centerline fuel tank is carried.
Engine choices would involve the same PW F100 or GE F110 choice available to F-16s, leaving KFX-E vulnerable to US export bans. Avionics would come from LIG Nex1, and a Korean AESA radar with about 1,000 T/R modules and a claimed performance similar to the F-16E/F’s AN/APG-80 would be fitted. Unlike the F-35, the targeting pod would have to be carried externally, and self-protection antennas will be part of a carried package, rather than conformal. South Korea believes they can develop the targeting pod themselves, and they’ve already developed an ALQ-200K ECM pod that could be adapted for internal carriage.
The problem with all of this is that the design math is adverse. KFX-E’s ceiling offers poorer acceleration and range versus the F-16, a design that doesn’t appear to be optimized for maneuverability, and a radar that’s likely to be technically behind the ROKAF’s upgraded KF-16 fighters, all without the benefits of stealth in its initial configuration. The product would due to enter service the mid-2020s, and costs are difficult to predict but are unlikely to be less than a current F-16. This would augur poorly for exports, and makes the case for internal ROKAF adoption more difficult. Worse, launch partner Indonesia in particular values range, which would endanger their continued participation. KFX-E seems to be a formula that minimizes one type of risk, while increasing others. Sources: Aviation Week, “KAI Proposes Smaller KF-X Design” | IHS Jane’s, “ADEX 2013: KAI unveils new version of KFX fighter” (incl. picture).
July 30/13: Turkey. Hurriyet quotes “a senior official familiar with the program” who says that $11 – $13 billion would be a realistic development cost for Turkey’s planned TF-X fighter. That actually is a reasonable estimate for a 4.5+ generation machine, but even this figure adds $50 million per plane to a large national order of 200 fighters. Keeping costs within the official’s $100 million per plane target will be challenging, which means a 200 jet program would cost Turkey $31 – $33 billion if everything goes well. Which won’t happen, especially if Turkey pushes for ambitious specifications.
That math offers daunting odds for a national jet program, and much of the same math can be expected to apply to KF-X. Will sticker shock cause Turkey to take another look at collaboration with Korea? Push them to abandon TF-X and buy something else? Or just be ignored by local politicians looking to make big promises? Hurriyet Daily News.
May 23/13: EADS. EADS Cassidian reportedly announces that they would invest $2 billion in the K-FX fighter development project, and help market the plane internationally, if the Eurofighter is chosen for F-X-3. Investments would include a maintenance repair and overhaul (MRO) facility that could extend to the KF-X, and an aerospace software center.
It isn’t a bad idea for EADS. Barring multiple orders from new sources, it’s very unlikely that the Eurofighter will still be in production by 2022. Upgrades and maintenance will continue for some time, but the C-203 KF-X design could offer EADS a new option to sell, with a fundamental design that can improve toward stealth fighter status. The question is whether South Korea wants to go forward. Yonhap News.
May 16/13: Indonesia. Indonesian Defense Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro says that they remain committed to the KFX/IFX program. The Jakarta Post:
“We have told our South Korean counterparts that we will continue doing our part. Whatever their decision is, and whatever technology they focus on, we will follow their lead and our 20 percent of share will remain,” Purnomo said…. TB Hasanuddin of House Commission I on defense and foreign affairs, said that about Rp 1.6 trillion ($164.8 million) was already spent on the project.”
The question is whether South Korea chooses to pick up the project again, after the 18-month delay is over.
April 29/13: Details. Aviation Week recaps the ROK ADD’s KF-X plan (q.v. Feb 18/13 entry), and quotes “a former air force officer who has been involved in planning for KF-X” to say that radar cross-section for Block 1 will be between 0.1 – 1.0 square meters. It adds that the choice between the conventional layout C103 and C203 canard design probably comes down to the development partner Korea chooses: C103 if American, C203 if European.
Candidate engines for the twin-engine design are reportedly the GR F404 used in the FA-50, Eurojet’s EJ200 used in the Eurofighter, or GE’s F414 used in the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, JAS-39E/F Gripen NG, and India’s Tejas Mk.II. Snecma’s M88, used in Dassault’s Rafale, reportedly isn’t a candidate. Aviation Week.
April 5/13: South Korean media detail a proposal from EADS to produce 80% of F-X Phase 3’s 60 fighters at KAI, if DAPA picks their Eurofighter. The Yonhap report also discusses this potential industrial boost for KAI in the context of the KF-X program,:
“Many have been calling on the Park Geun-hye administration to promptly make a decision to either go ahead with the large-scale airplane development project or put on the brakes if it is deemed economically unsustainable.”
The rest of the Yonhap report may be switching contexts to the F-X-3 high-end fighter acquisition, as it describes a decision to be made by June 2013, as part of a renewed emphasis on major defense projects in light of North Korea’s actions. That doesn’t entirely track with previous reports that place resumption of KF-X at June 2014, if it happens at all. It does track with reports concerning the F-X-3 program, so the confusion could just be poor writing. What is true is that provocations from North Korea are very much a double-edged sword for KF-X. On the one hand, they boost the idea of defense spending generally. On the other hand, they raise needs like anti-submarine warfare, missile defense improvements, etc. that will be higher priorities than KF-X. Yonhap News Service | Hankoryeh.
March 20/13: Turkey. The Turks appear to be picking an independent course toward their future fighter aircraft, in line with rumors that they wanted more control than the KF-X program could give them. Their SSM signed an August 2011 deal with Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) to carry out the conceptual design work, and recent reports add a preliminary agreement between TAI and Saab Group for technical assistance. Reports add that TAI is expected to acquire Saab’s aircraft design tools, which would make cooperation much easier.
These moves don’t completely rule out KF-X participation, but they do weight the odds the other way. Defense Industry Undersecretary Murad Bayar says that Turkey’s project began in 2012, adding that after some modeling trials, one of the designs has matured. After completing the design phase, the undersecretary will offer a program plan to Turkey’s Defense Industry Executive Committee.
Turkey faces some of the same dilemmas as South Korea. If 2023 is the first flight date for a 4.5 generation fighter, there’s a real risk that the design will be outmoded from the outset. On the other hand, designing and prototyping an indigenous jet from scratch takes time, and technical overreach versus current capabilities is incredibly risky. One “top official from a Western aircraft maker” told Hurriyet that Turkey may already be headed down that path: “…we had to step back when we understood that the technical requirements for the aircraft are far from being realistic.” Hurriyet | Hurriyet follow-on | AIN.
March 1/13: 2nd Delay. Indonesian Defense Ministry official Pos Hutabarat confirms that KF-X has been postponed by 18 months to June 2014, while President Park Geun-hye decides whether to continue the project, and secures Parliamentary approval for that choice. Indonesia signed a 2010 MoU to become part of the project. Reports indicate an investment to date of IDR 1.6 trillion (about $165 million), with 30 PT Dirgantara Indonesia engineers at KAI working on the project.
UPI says that the KFX/IFX fighter’s price has already risen to $50-$60 million per aircraft, and this is before a prototype even exists. That’s already comparable to a modern F/A-18E/F Super Hornet or JAS-39 Gripen, in return for hopes of similar performance many years from now. Jakarta Globe | UPI.
2nd program delay
Feb 18/13: Details. Aviation Week reports that the Korea Institute for Defense Analysis has given KF-X a sharp negative review, even though it’s a defense ministry think-tank. In brief: the ROK isn’t technologically ready, and the project’s KRW 10+ trillion cost will be about twice as much as similar imported fighters. The 2013 budget is just KRW 4.5 billion, to continue studies.
Those studies are coming to some conclusions. The ROK ADD would still have a pick a design if they go ahead: either the conventional C103 fighter layout, or the C203 design with forward canards. Either aircraft would be a twin-engine fighter weighing around 10.4 tonnes, with stealth shaping. Bock 1 would only have to meet the radar cross-section of the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet or Eurofighter Typhoon. Block 2 would add internal weapon bays, which Block 1 would be compatible with but not have. Additional tolerance and coating improvements would reduce stealth to the level of an F-117. Block 3 would aim for further improvements to the level of the B-2 bomber or F-35.
The ROK Agency for Defense Development says that if full-scale development begins in October 2014, the 1st KF-X Block 1 prototype flight would take until September 2020. Based on the history of other programs, the new plane would be hard pressed to enter service before 2025. Aviation Week.
Oct 27/11: KF-X specs. Fight International:
“In 2013, South Korea and two national partners will start developing a medium-sized and probably twin-engined fighter. It will be more agile than a Lockheed Martin F-16, with an advanced sensor suite and fusion software on a par with the US company’s new-generation F-35. Aiming to enter operations in 2021, the new design will also carry a bespoke arsenal of indigenous missiles and precision-guided munitions. That is the vision for the KF-X programme, outlined on 21 October at the Seoul air show by South Korean government and academic officials.”
DAPA’s technical requirements reportedly include an AESA radar and onboard IRST (InfraRed Search and Track) sensors, standard fly-by-wire flight and HOTAS (hands on throttle and stick) pilot controls, an NVG-compatible helmet-mounted display, and sensor fusion to the large screen single display. That last bit is especially challenging, and DAPA acknowledged that foreign partners will be needed. They hope to begin flight tests in 2016-2017, with an 8-year system development phase and a 7-plane test fleet (up from 5 prototypes at the Indonesian MoU).
Under this vision, South Korea’s LiG Nex1 would also develop a compatible line of short and medium range air-to-air missiles, strike missiles, and precision weapons to complement DAPA’s 500 pound Korea GPS guided bomb (KGGB). That array will expand global weapon choices if DAPA follows through, but the challenge will be getting them integrated with other countries’ aircraft. Ask the French how that goes.
July 14/11: Indonesia confirmed. About a year after the MoU, The secretary general of Indonesia’s defence ministry, Erris Heriyanto, confirms the MoU’s terms to Indonesia’s official Antara news agency. KAI EVP Enes Park had called Indonesia’s involvement unconfirmed at the November 2010 Indo Defence show, but the Antara report appears to confirm it.
Turkey unveiled indigenous fighter plans of its own in December 2010, with the aim of fielding a fighter by 2023, but they haven’t made any commitments to KF-X. Flight International.
April 2011: Postponement of the KF-X project is reportedly lifted, as South Korea gets a bit clearer about their requirements.
2008 – 2010
Reality check scales back specs, before indecision suspends program; Indonesia signs MoU.
Dec 27/10: Yo-yo. South Korea’s Yonhap News agency reports that South Korea’s military is trying to swing KF-X back to a stealth fighter program, in the wake of North Korea’s Nov. 23 shelling on Yeonpyeong Island.
Subsequent reports indicate that the uncertainty about KF-X requirements leads to a program halt, until things can get sorted out. Yonhap.
Aug 9/10: Turkey. DAPA aircraft programs director Maj. Gen. Choi Cha-kyu says that Turkey is actively considering the K-FX fighter program, and would bear the same 20% project share as Indonesia if they come on board.
There are reports that in return, Turkey wants the ROK to pick the T-129 ATAK helicopter under the AH-X heavy attack helicopter program. Turkey bought the A129 Mangusta design from AgustaWestland, as part of a September 2007 contract to build 51-92 helicopters for the Turkish Army. Korea Times | Hurriyet.
July 15/10: Indonesia. Indonesia signs a Memorandum of Understanding to participate in KF-X. They’ll pay 20% of the estimated WON 5.1 trillion (about $4.1 billion) development effort, with 5 prototypes to be built before 2020, and commit to buying 50 of the fighters. South Korea has only committed to 60% of the development cost, which leaves 20% in limbo. DAPA’s KF-X program director Col. Lee Jong-hee says:
“There are two options on the table. One is to lure financial investments from other nations, such as Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. The other is to receive investments from Western aircraft makers wishing to participate in the KF-X.”
The Indonesian agreement follows a March 2009 Letter of Intent that was co-signed by South Korean President Lee Myung-bak. Indonesian MPs urged the government to conduct a feasibility test beforehand, but that wasn’t done. Key issues from Indonesia’s point of view include KF-X’s adequacy for the TNI-AU’s needs; technical and fiscal feasibility; technology and cost risk; the benefits to Indonesia’s aviation industry, given a break-even set by Aviation Week at 250-300 fighters for under $41 million each; and the role of 3rd country tech for engines. etc. which could still leave the fighters subject to foreign embargoes. Defense News | Jakarta Post.
Indonesia joins the program
Sept 12/09: KF-X drivers. Aviation Week offers their take on KFX’s positioning and industrial drivers:
“South Korea has decided that it can’t afford to build a cutting-edge stealth fighter…. it is considering building a gen-4.5 fighter, which might emerge as a jazzed up Typhoon or Super Hornet…. KFX would go into service in the early 2020s, perhaps a quarter of a century behind its technology level.
….Korea Aerospace will run out of fighter development work in a few years when the FA-50 is finished. It presumably does not have the technology to step straight from that to a combat drone. And it can’t spend next decade building up skills with an improved, single-seat FA-50, because the air force wants bigger aircraft…. the KFX would perhaps be an extreme example of sacrifices made in the name of self reliance or, perhaps, nationalism.”
July 23/09: KF-X. Defense News reports that “South Korea Drops 5th-Generation Fighter Plan,” but the title is misleading. The Weapon Systems Concept Development and Application Research Center of Konkuk University asked Boeing, Eurofighter, Lockheed Martin and Saab about their views on the per-plane cost estimate of $50 million, as well as budget-sharing ideas and technology transfer.
The problem is that South Korea’s specifications as described most closely mirror the ($150-180 million each, and $10+ billion development) F-22 Raptor, indicating that some reconciliation with reality is still necessary. The center will wrap up the feasibility study by October 2009, and DAPA is supposed to issue a decision on the KF-X initiative by year’s end. That will determine whether KF-X competes with/ supplants F-X-3, or proceeds as a separate program.
May 12/09: Changing gears. The Korea Times reports that the ROKAF’s Studies and Analyses Wing made an interim decision KF-X operational requirements in March 2009:
“Basic requirements call for a F-18E/F Super Hornet-class aircraft equipped with 4.5-generation semi-stealth functions, a domestically-built active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar [“based on accrued technologies from Israel”], a 32,000-pound of engine thrust and fully integrated weapons and sensors systems…. The KF-X aircraft would be either a single-engine fighter or a twin-engine one, [the source] added. It is the first time that KF-X operational requirements have been revealed.”
DAPA expects a final program decision around the end of 2009, and KF-X is expected to be part of the military’s 2010-14 force improvement package.
Jan 28/08: Reality check. The current program was scheduled to be followed by a KF-X program to develop and indigenous 5th generation/ stealth fighter to replace all F-5E Tiger IIs and F-4E Phantom IIs. After a feasibility study in 2008, the project would aim to produce the next-generation jets by 2020, with the goal of building 120 planes in a bid to secure proprietary technology and strengthen the country’s medium level fighter jet capacity. The goal is reportedly a single-seat, twin-engine plane with about 40,000 pounds of thrust from its engines, with more stealth than the Eurofighter Typhoon or Dassault Rafale, but less stealth than the F-35.
Now the Korea Development Institute has delivered a report concluding that the economic and industrial returns would be weak in proportion to its cost: about 3 trillion won/ $3 billion in returns, on a 10 trillion won investment. Papers quote foreign experts who estimate development costs of up to $12 billion. Korea’s Defense Acquisition Program Administration said the KDI report was for reference only, and the project decision would include other factors such as export prospects and technological capacity.
$7 billion is not a sum to be thrown away casually, and the difference would be very noticeable within South Korea’s defense budgets. Options like partnering with EADS on a stealthier version of the Eurofighter, for instance, might lower development costs and offer an additional option. Nevertheless, with F-X-3 likely to select a stealthy platform, a merger with the K-FX program and negotiation of an industrial deal seems more likely. Especially given South Korea’s demographic crunch, which will begin to bite by 2020. Chosun Ilbo | Korea Times.
The KF-X Program
- Aviation Week – KFX Timeline. To 2013.
- Aviation Week (Feb 3/14) – Fast-Changing Trends In Asia Fighter Market
- Flight International (Oct 27/11) – IN FOCUS: South Korea outlines strategy for indigenous fighter.
- World Politics Review (Aug 13/10) – Global Insider: Indonesia-South Korea Joint Fighter Project (subscription). Says that KF-X will be based on KAI’s T-50, and aims to produce a fighter on par with the F-16C/D Block 50.
- Defense News (July 15/10) – Indonesia Joins South Korean Fighter Effort
- The Jakarta Post (July 12/10) – RI-S. Korea KFX cooperation: The second best option?
- Aviation Week (Sept 21/09) – A Generation 4.5 Fighter for the 2020s