South Korea is seeking a niche market for its semi-stealth fighter jets praised for their high agility and low maintenance costs, which are likely to emerge as a cost-effective alternative to Chinese warplanes, analysts in the country have said.
The KF-21 “Boramae”, meaning “Hawk” in Korean, is likely to provide stiff competition for China’s J10 CE and FC31 fighters in the global market, especially in Africa, the observers said.
In the latest development surrounding the KF-21, South Korea is seeking to begin mass production of the jets by 2026, with the air force to acquire 40 planes. By 2026, the high-end fighter will focus on having air-to-air combat capabilities.
Chinese observers have previously said the new jets were far from comparable to advanced fifth-generation fighters like China’s Chengdu J-20 but noted that if mass deployed, the KF-21 could still alter the regional air force power balance.
Built by the Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI), the jet took six-and-a-half years to develop and went on its maiden flight last month, after initial criticism that the 8.8 trillion won (US$6.7 billion) project was too costly.
The South Korean Air Force plans to deploy 120 units of the KF-21, a “4.5-generation” fighter, by 2032 to replace its ageing fleet of F-4 and F-5 fighters, as well as the country’s fourth-generation F-16s and F-15Ks.
“As we step closer to the successful development of the home-grown fighter, this symbolises a new leap in domestic aviation technology and a rise of the strong hi-tech military,” the Defence Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) said of the maiden flight last month.
The air force plans to obtain another 80 jets by 2030 after the military aircraft evolves to have air-to-ground and air-to-ship combat capabilities by 2028.
“KF-21 is likely to emerge as a strong competitor for China’s J-10 and FC-31 in developing countries, especially in Africa,” said Lee Il-woo, a defence analyst at the Korea Defence Network.
With the cost of each jet somewhere between US$80 million and US$100 million, it has a good price competitiveness and could find clients in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, Lee added.
When armed with the European Meteor air-to-air missiles and home-grown radars, the KF-21 could even match China’s J20 stealth fighter in combat capabilities, said Yang Uk, a defence analyst at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.
The fighter will be equipped with high-end Meteor air-to-air missiles manufactured by Europe’s MBDA. Separately from F-21 fighters, South Korea already operates 40 F-35 stealth fighters and will acquire another 20 F-35 fighters from 2023 to 2028.
“South Korea’s air force is becoming a force to be reckoned with in the region, not only for North Korea but for China as well,” Yang said.
South Korea’s substantial defence build-up is backed by its fast-growing defence industry, whose exports are expected to top US$10 billion in 2022, more than triple the amount it sold annually between 2010 and 2020.
Last year, its defence exports exceeded defence imports for the first time in history.
As a sign of its fast-growing presence in the global defence market, South Korea last month signed arms deals with Poland, potentially worth a whopping US$15 billion. Some of the largest orders would include 48 South Korea-developed FA-50 light attack fighters, 980 K2 main battle tanks and 648 K9 self-propelled howitzers.
The contracts come as Poland strives to refill its armoury after it sent weapons to neighbouring Ukraine to fight Russian forces.
“Poland has expressed interest in participating in the KF-21 second-phase project for joint development and production” that could start from 2029, Lee said.
This news may raise some eyebrows in Indonesia, which participated as a partner shouldering 20 per cent of the 8.8 trillion won costs in the first phase of the KF-21 development project.
Indonesia has been in arrears for 800 billion won (US$613 million) for its share.
When Indonesian leader Joko Widodo met President Yoon Suk-yeol in Seoul last month, the two reaffirmed their commitment to closely cooperating until the completion of the F-21 project but they did not mention the arrears.
South Korea initially sought to secure key technologies for four critical pieces of equipment – an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar system, infrared search and track (IRST) system, electro-optical tracking pod (EO TGP) and radio frequency (RF) jammer – from its ally, the United States.
The US turned it down in 2015, forcing South Korea to rely on local firms to develop the highly sophisticated technologies including the AESA radar that can detect and track multiple targets simultaneously and extensively.
DAPA consequently signed a fighter development contract with KAI, the country’s sole aircraft maker, in December 2015.
Hanwha Systems Co. successfully developed the AESA radar system, with its prototype unveiled in August 2020, four years after the launch of the radar development effort.
Hanwha Systems has also been in charge of developing the IRST and EO TGP. The IRST system is designed to detect and track objects that give off infrared radiation, while EO TGP is for identifying targets and guiding precision munitions like laser-guided bombs.
LIG Nex1 has been working on developing the fighter’s electronic warfare suite, including the RF jammer designed for the disruption of radio signals, Yonhap news agency said.