In South Korea, Delays Drag a Project to Build Homegrown Fighter Jets
Published: November 24, 2013
SEOUL — Facing the threat of North Korea and feeling squeezed by China and Japan on its flanks, South Korea has always dreamed of a “self-reliant” defense force.
The catchphrase dates to the days of President Park Geun-hye’s father, the military strongman Park Chung-hee, who ruled the country from 1961 to 1979. But in the 21st century, the country faces a crucial hurdle on its road to that goal, as it contemplates its most ambitious and risky defense acquisition project ever: developing an advanced jet fighter and producing 120 units for its air force in addition to many more for export, possibly to the Middle East, Latin America and Southeast Asian countries that want to bolster their air defense against China’s growing military power and territorial claims but cannot afford high-end American jets for cost and other reasons.
The Korea Fighter Experimental program, or KFX, has been delayed several times in the last decade, and time is running out for a decision.
“President Park must make up her mind,” said Cho Jin-soo, president of the Korean Society for Aeronautical and Space Sciences. “South Korea must choose between building its own skills by developing an indigenous model for the first time or settling for a more economic jet by copying the model of an American partner. It can’t have both at the first try.”
South Korea was the world’s fourth-largest arms importer from 2008 to 2012, consuming 5 percent of imports in the global arms market, which was estimated to be at least $43 billion in 2011, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. With the KFX project, it hopes to leap into the ranks of major arms exporters.
“The KFX may prove that smaller nations, when combining funds and resources, can produce a near fifth-generation aircraft that approaches the capability of a fighter produced by countries with far greater resources, such as the U.S., Russia and China. But this is unlikely,” Richard Weitz, director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute, said in an email. “The KFX, if completed, may be appealing to less wealthy nations who cannot afford the F-35.”
The KFX was born of an urgent need: The country’s Air Force is aging rapidly. It will start retiring 300 F-4s, F-5s and other jets — all designed more than 50 years ago — in a few years and must replace them fast.
Under its separate FX-III program, the country announced on Friday that it would buy 40 fifth-generation fighters with “high-capability stealth” radar-evading features, hoping for the first deliveries in 2018. That left Lockheed Martin’s F-35 the only viable contender for the project, which is worth at least 8.3 trillion won, or $7.8 billion, military officials in South Korea said. In September, South Korea ruled that Boeing’s F-15 Silent Eagle, an upgraded version of F-15Ks South Korea already owns, was not sophisticated enough. The Eurofighter Typhoon had also vied for the project.
The nation’s air force also began receiving 60 FA-50 fighters this year. They are basic, light attack jets based on the T-50 Golden Eagle supersonic trainer that Korea Aerospace Industries, the country’s sole maker of military aircraft, developed with Lockheed.
But South Korea must fill the rest of the fighter jet gap through its KFX program. It envisions a fleet of higher-technology fighters with partial stealth functions, something comparable to “an F-16 designed in the 21st century,” that will fly alongside the country’s F-16s and F-15Ks, plus top-of-the-line fighters purchased under the FX-III program.
Just how it will do that is a question that has divided the government for more than 10 years.
Budget planners and the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, the country’s main defense research organization, cautioned against developing a brand-new airplane. Instead, it suggested a cheaper, faster and safer alternative: selecting as a partner a “technically advanced country” with a proven model, like the F-16, F-18 or Eurofighter Typhoon, and building a KFX version based on that. Boeing, Lockheed and the Eurofighter consortium have offered updates of those planes as a KFX platform as part of their bidding for the FX-III program.
The Air Force and the Agency for Defense Development, the country’s main defense technology research center, meanwhile, said it was time to develop an indigenous model. South Korea will require whoever wins the FX-III contract to transfer, as part of the deal, some of the technology to the KFX program. In January, the agency unveiled a twin-engine conceptual model for the KFX named C103.
It estimated that 6 trillion won, or $5.6 billion, would be needed to develop such a plane and an additional 8 trillion won, or $7.5 billion, to build 120 units, while the government’s Korea Institute of Science and Technology Evaluation and Planning estimated that the development alone would cost 9.3 trillion won, or $8.8 billion. To disperse the financial risk and lower the unit cost, it invited Indonesia to join the program as a 20 percent partner last year. If South Korea goes ahead with the model, Indonesia will buy 50 planes.
Korea Aerospace Industries proposed the KFX-Economy, a cheaper, single-engine option that draws upon technology developed for its FA-50 light fighter, while retaining certain stealth features from the C103. It remains unclear how indigenous the plane will be, given Lockheed’s involvement.
“The challenges are finding a technology partner that will share enough of the high-end tech that South Korea will want — and that is a key part of the relationship between FX-III and KFX,” said James Hardy, Asia-Pacific editor at IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly. “South Korea is a very good example of a country that has done a good job of turning transfer of technology into viable defense products.”
South Korea wants to accelerate its defense industry the same way it built its export industries in shipbuilding, car manufacturing and electronics: by first acquiring technological know-how from foreign exporters, then rejiggering or improving upon it.
The T-50 and FA-50 are the most recent examples. The country is delivering 16 T-50s to Indonesia this year. The Philippines, one of the countries seeking to bolster itself in the face of any perceived threats from China, is close to a deal to buy 12 FA-50s.
The global fighter jet industry abounds with failed national jet fighter programs, like Israel’s Lavi, Japan’s F-2 and Taiwan’s Ching Kuo. But Richard Aboulafia, vice president for analysis at the Teal Group, an aviation industry consulting firm, said the KFX could take aim at the global export market for midprice jets in which current models, like the F-16, were leaving production.
“Everyone is designing expensive, top-end models for a relatively limited pool of customers,” he said. “The world fighter market needs a modern, F-16-class mid-market fighter.”
If it lands the FX-III contract, Lockheed Martin “will provide over several hundred man-years of engineering expertise to assist Korea in the KFX design and development,” said Randy Howard, who is managing the F-35’s campaign for FX-III.
Traditionally, South Korea has bought most of its military aircraft, and all of its fighter jets, from the United States, which keeps 28,500 troops in the country. But it has recently tried to diversify beyond American suppliers and encourage domestic production.
“They are frustrated with the restrictions and terms typically associated with U.S. defense imports, especially limitations on the transfer and resale of U.S. technologies,” Mr. Weitz said in a paper presented at the Korea Economic Institute, based in Washington, this month.
For many South Koreans, the KFX is an object of pride.
“We have been too dependent on the United States,” Mr. Cho said. “The top priority in the KFX program should be gaining independence in fighter jet technology from the United States.”
semoga kfx tidak bergantung kepada teknologi US, semoga