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The South Korean T-50 Trainer Wins In Southeast Asia

July 21, 2017

Thailand is the latest customer for Korea Aerospace Industries‘ impressive light attack jet. Though often recognized as a trainer the FA-50 variant of the original T-50 Golden Eagle earned valuable combat experience performing close air support in the Southern Philippines.

On July 11 the Thai government announced a further acquisition of eight T-50’s to augment four ordered in 2015. The eight T-50’s cost a total of $258 million that will be paid via yearly tranches until 2019. This gives the Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF) a dozen new trainer-light attack aircraft by the 2020s with ample leeway for additional orders.

The official justification of the purchase is a much needed replacement for aging Czech L-39 trainers. The L-39 Albatros is a model dating to the Cold War and was used in combat as an ad hoc bomber.

The FA-50 isn’t a slouch. As a collaboration between KAI and Lockheed Martin it combined a small airframe with a powerful turbofan engine that gives it a top speed of Mach 1.5. The FA-50 is a credible replacement for both old trainers and languishing first and second-generation jets. In Southeast Asia, for example, the FA-50’s existing customers all posses, or used to posses, the obsolescent Northrop F-5E Tiger from the 1960s.

Thailand joins a growing list of T-50 operators whose air forces are stuck with modest budgets. So far Indonesia, Iraq, and the Philippines have placed orders for FA-50’s–these are the twin-seaters–as interim models to bolster their depleted fleets.

The FA-50 can be credited with reviving the nearly defunct Philippine Air Force (PAF), which had lost its remaining fighter aircraft in 2005 for lack of maintenance. The Philippine government ordered a dozen in 2014, paying $420 million (an approximate sum according to KAI), and the entire batch was delivered from 2015 to 2017. These FA-50’s were quickly put to use in Mindanao during battles against terrorists. FA-50’s saw further action in July 2017 as the military struggled to retake Marawi. Its performance in that theater offers valuable insight on how converting non-combat assets can be useful in unconventional warafre.

The success of the FA-50 in the Philippines is not only encouraging for KAI but a positive indicator how air forces are willing to settle on cheaper jets. Given the exorbitant costs of third and fourth-generation multirole fighters, high performance trainers souped up with the right avionics could be the way out. Besides, countries that have bet on KAI’s hybrid trainer can always afford to buy more.

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