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South Korea Wants Customers For Its Boramae

May 8, 2022
Via Wikimedia Commons.

After its heavily promoted revival last year Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) is eager to find customers for its twin engine stealthy fighter jet that can reach speeds of Mach 2.3 and perform teaming missions with drones. Although nowhere near as sophisticated as the US-made F-22 the KF-21 Boramae’s success in the coming years will determine South Korea’s ranking in global aerospace the same way consumer electronics and shipbuilding became prestigious sectors of the national economy. Time is of the essence as the competition is daunting–Lockheed Martin’s F-35A/B will enjoy very strong exports to Asia this decade–and funds must be shared between the South Korean government agencies involved and, possibly, a foreign benefactor.

The KF-21 is not in production yet and South Korean media indicate the model shown by KAI is a prototype that’s flyable but is scheduled for additional testing. The important figures KAI wants to push regarding the KF-21 are its ferry range, which goes as far as 2,870 kilometers, and a payload reaching 7.7 tons of ordnance and external fuel tanks. There are a total of 10 hardpoints on the KF-21, with four of them under the fuselage or in the aircraft’s belly, while each wing has three hardpoints. (The KF-21 doesn’t have an internal weapons bay.) The type of ordnance that other South Korean suppliers can provide for the KF-21 includes an air-launched cruise missile and many different small diameter glide bombs. The full range of Western air-launched munitions are compatible with the KF-21. KAI is working on improvements such as an AESA radar, aerial refueling, and network “teaming” with jet-powered drones in the medium-term. This is why it’s crucial for new partners to materialize who are ready to pour additional funding into the KF-21.

At this point along its development, which now stretches 20 years, the KF-21 remains a prototype and has a lot to prove as a viable endeavor when its armaments and engines are supplied by Western aerospace manufacturers. General Electric in particular is irrevocably tied to the program as the supplier for each of the KF-21’s F400-414K engines. Matters have been complicated by Indonesia’s ambiguous role in its development timetable even if South Korea’s government likes to emphasize the joint venture aspect of the KF-21. Now that the Dassault Rafale and the Boeing F-15ID are in direct competition to become the next 4.5+ generation premium “heavy” fighter jets of the air force the KF-21’s only foreign operator is not a sure bet anymore.

Faced with this much uncertainty, it’s not surprising how KAI promotes the KF-21 in whatever medium and venue. Its main selling point, in the marketing copy of KAI, is a complete package all in an “affordable air system.” Of course, this is an unintended dig at other Western fighter jets when a single F-35A costs an estimated $110 to $120 million per unit when exported together with critical spare parts and munitions. This is contrary to American journalism that reports it only costs less than $80 million when fresh off Lockheed Martin’s production line. (It appears the trick for achieving lower costs is the timeworn method of ballooning orders from the US Air Force and allies.) But exactly how much a single KF-21 costs is a matter of interpretation when low-cost fighter jets and surplus legacy fighter jets are in abundance. One of the biggest surprises in global military aerospace was Russia’s single engine Su-75 “Checkmate” fighter that was unveiled during the MAKS 2021 air show and then at the Dubai Air Show a few months later. The problem is the Checkmate, a collaboration involving Rostec and UAC, is only a mock up and further information about what it can do and what it has is a question mark.

A more realistic competitor to the KF-21 isn’t far from home; this year China finished deliveries for a batch of single engine J-10C’s to Pakistan’s highly trained air force. The J-10C isn’t hyped for “stealthiness” or other nebulous characteristics but the state-owned CATIC is able to manufacture these fighters at scale and empower friendly air forces across three continents. China’s successful diplomacy in Africa and the Middle East has cultivated a big enough pool of end users for its combat aircraft whose production can be shared and localized. Meanwhile, South Korea and KAI’s minor successes with exporting their well-known trainer jet the FA-50 is no guarantee of bulk orders for the KF-21–air force’s sustained by shoestring budgets can only dream of acquiring 4.5-generation fighters. If it’s any consolation, in a market dominated by F-35A/B exports other Asian countries struggling to build stealth fighters–India, Japan, and Turkey–don’t have a clear path ahead of them as the needed financing and supply chains are very complicated.

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