If KFX costs $41 million a copy, South Korea might export 300-500 to countries such as Indonesia and Turkey, it suggests. Indonesia signed a letter of intent with South Korea to participate in the KFX study last March (photo : Forum Keypublishing)
South Korea will focus on developing a Generation-4.5 fighter under a proposed program that previously aimed at an equivalent of the fifth-generation Lockheed Martin F-35.
The government is due to decide in November whether to proceed with the program, called KFX, which industrialists hope will meet the air force’s distant F-XX fighter requirement for the 2020s.
Lockheed Martin and Boeing are battling for another prize called F-X Phase III, under which the air force proposes to buy 60 fighters next decade.
Downgrading of ambitions for KFX follows condemnation last year of the original specification from the Korea Development Institute state think tank.
An officially commissioned study from another think tank now urges that Gen-4.5 technology would meet South Korean needs.
If KFX goes ahead, the next major decision would be whether the fighter should have a new design or be an upgrade of a type already in production. Boeing, Lockheed Martin, EADS (representing Eurofighter), Saab and Korea Aerospace Industries have submitted proposals.
With this program, South Korea is facing an especially stark choice between its industrial and strategic interests.
On the one hand, it wants to maintain a fighter-development capability that it built up with the T-50 supersonic trainer.
And yet, the South Korean air force, more than many others, faces a serious military threat and needs to field the most effective equipment its budget can provide. The F-35 has attracted political support in South Korea as better value for the money than KFX and is favored by a strong lobby within the air force.
A think tank from Konkuk University says a Gen-4.5 fighter would be enough, partly because stand-off missiles make maximum stealth redundant.Still, a Gen-4.5 fighter entering service early in the 2020s would probably have modest export prospects, which seems to minimize the chances of South Korea adopting an all-new design, even if KFX goes ahead at all.
Indeed, the F-35 might be ordered under F-X Phase III, raising the awkward possibility that South Korea could field a Gen-5 fighter in one decade and a Gen-4.5 in the following decade.
The Konkuk think tank’s KFX report was due to the government last week, but its recommendations have already been widely discussed.
The new KFX specification calls for an empty weight of 10.4 metric tons (23,000 lb.), reduced observability and either one or two engines. It would have an active electronically scanned array radar and an infrared search-and-tracking sensor.
Development cost is estimated at 5-6 trillion won ($4.1-4.9 billion) and production at 50 billion won per unit, with entry into service in 2021.
The highly stealthy KFX would have cost 10 trillion won to develop, according to the Korea Development Institute.
The report recommends that as many as 250 KFXs be built to push down the unit cost. The first 120 aircraft would replace the country’s McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantoms and Northrop F-5 Tigers. A further 130 KFXs would replace Lockheed Martin F-16C and D Block 52s.
If KFX costs $41 million a copy, South Korea might export 300-500 to countries such as Indonesia and Turkey, it suggests. Indonesia signed a letter of intent with South Korea to participate in the KFX study last March.
The proposed size of the aircraft would suit a development of the Typhoon. EADS promoted the Typhoon type to meet the earlier KFX specification, for which Saab suggested designs descended from Gripen.
Boeing said last year that the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and completely new designs were on offer for KFX. The company is pitching the F-15SE Silent Eagle, a stealthier derivative of the F-15E, as the F-X Phase III requirement but that fighter is much larger than the latest specification for KFX.