Fighter Debuts: A South Korean FA-50 fighter jet is displayed during an airshow at a military air base in Cheongju on Oct. 24. South Korea's KF-X fighter could be based on a derivative of the FA-50. (JUNG YEON-JE/AFP)
SEOUL — Western defense contractors participating in South Korea’s biennial arms exhibition tried to convince their hosts they would offer assistance to help build the country’s indigenous fighter jet, code-named KF-X.
The KF-X effort drew keen attention during the Seoul International Aerospace & Defense Exhibition (ADEX) from Oct. 29-Nov. 3, amid growing calls here for upgrading the country’s fighter fleet more sustainably and coming up with plans to fill a fighter gap over the next decade.
Worries about a lack of fighter jets in the future have been fanned by the government’s latest decision to delay the selection of its F-X program to acquire 60 foreign combat jets. The Seoul government decided to re-tender the F-X in coming months.
The KF-X is linked to the F-X, whose offset programs are focused on technology transfer for the former. The KF-X is aimed at developing an F-16-class aircraft with foreign partners after 2020 and producing at least 120 planes. A state-owned economic think tank is conducting a final study on the feasibility of the KF-X development program, which has only Indonesia as an international partner at the moment.
Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI), the country’s largest aircraft maker, is to lead the KF-X program in cooperation with the state-run Agency for Defense Development (ADD).
“We have offered the technical data, technical assistance for whatever KF-X design that Korea chooses,” said David Scott, F-35 Joint Strike Fighter campaign director for Lockheed Martin. “On one hand, it’s a derivative of an airplane like a derivative of the FA-50 with a single engine perhaps, and on the other hand, [it] is maybe a clean-sheet design, a twin-engine design.
“Obviously, a derivative airplane will be cheaper and faster to develop than a clean-sheet, brand-new airplane,” he added, referring to the FA-50, a light attack variant of the T-50 Golden Eagle supersonic trainer aircraft, which was jointly developed by KAI and Lockheed.
During ADEX, KAI unveiled two conceptual designs of the “KFX-E” — one with a single engine and the other with two.
“A single-engine concept is in pursuance of both affordability and combat performance, based on the advanced FA-50 technologies by KAI,” a KAI official said.
The plane, powered by a 29,000-pound engine, is designed to be fitted with a limited low-observable configuration, advanced avionics and an air refueling system, according to the official.
The twin-engine platform has external similarities with the tail-aft “C103” design drawn by up the ADD. The aircraft is to be powered by two 18,000-pound engines, he added. The ADD had laid out another version dubbed the “C203,” which has horizontal stabilizers forward.
Eurofighter, too, touted its strong commitment to the KF-X in connection with the F-X.
“Our industrial participation package exceeded the requirement, and on top of that, we offered a direct investment of $2 billion in the KF-X program, should Eurofighter be selected for the F-X program,” said Vice President Peter Maute, head of Eurofighter sales for Cassidian, an EADS subsidiary.
Teamed with Eurofighter, the Eurojet consortium is eager to provide its EJ200 engine for the KF-X.
“We offer the transfer of certain high-end technology and the involvement of local industry,” said Clemens Linden, CEO at Eurojet Turbo GmbH. “We are prepared with this engine for the KF-X program to make it a local engine and are looking for partnerships here.”
Boeing is known to have offered an advanced version of the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet for the KF-X platform.
“We offered a very robust offset, an offering with a lot of emphasis on the KF-X,” Boeing F-X III campaign director Howard Berry said. “We’re certainly sensitive to Korea’s interest in technology transfer. We’re looking at not only US technology, but also offshore technology to ensure that Korea got a broad spectrum of the latest technology.”
Sweden’s Saab group, once considered a favorite partner for the KF-X, has been sidelined in those talks ever since Seoul put a priority on KF-X tech transfer for the F-X contract. But it’s still ready to cooperate should the KF-X project become an “open competition” separate from the F-X contest.
“If Korea disconnects F-X and KF-X, there are many candidate companies that are willing to provide their technologies to the KF-X. Saab is one of those companies,” said Shin Myong-ho, senior vice president of Saab’s business development and industrial cooperation.
“We’re willing to provide all kinds of required technologies to support the KF-X,” he added. “That’s because we’re the one that has done the technological development program for the KF-X with the ADD.”
He argued that any offset program could lead to a hike in the price of products.
“There is no free gift or free lunch,” he noted. “If some companies have to do some offset, they’re going to charge that price in the price of their products, leading to the total price tag of weapons systems concerned.”
During ADEX, the ninth of its kind, South Korean defense manufacturers showed off their products.
KAI made the FA-50 public for the first time. The combat aircraft is armed with air-to-air and air-to-surface missiles, as well as precision-guided bombs, including joint direct attack munitions and sensor-fuzed weapons.
The single-engine jet is fitted with Israeli-based Elta Systems’ EL/M-2032 PULS Doppler radar with a range of 100 kilometers.
Samsung Techwin displayed the EVO-105 truck-mounted howitzer. The vehicle consists of a standard South Korean KM500 5-ton truck chassis, with the rear cargo area modified to accept the upper part of the US military’s 105mm M101 towed howitzer.
The vehicle also features the fire control system used in the K9 howitzer’s 155mm/52-caliber gun.
Doosan DST showcased a new 120/105mm medium combat tank, a derivative of the amphibious K21 infantry fighting vehicle. The system integrates the Cockerill XC-8 turret and the K-21’s chassis. With a weight of 27 tons, the tank offers advanced 120mm or 105mm firepower with high operational flexibility and tactical mobility.
Kia Motors displayed its light tactical vehicle (LTV) test vehicles. The LTV development program is scheduled to be completed by the year’s end, and a total of 2,000 units are to be delivered to the South Korean Army by 2016, according to Kia officials. ■