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S. Korea Weighs Designs for KF-X

Feb. 10, 2014 - 12:15PM   |  
By JUNG SUNG-KI   |   Comments
South Korea's state-funded Agency for Defense Development favors a twin-engine design for the KF-X program.
South Korea's state-funded Agency for Defense Development favors a twin-engine design for the KF-X program. (Jung Sung-ki)
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Korea Aerospace Industries prefers a single-engine design for the KF-X program. / Jung Sung-ki

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SEOUL — A decadelong effort by South Korea to develop its own fighter aircraft has finally received approval, yet the feasibility of the ambitious indigenous project, dubbed KF-X, is still in debate.

The Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) announced Jan. 5 that it would begin the KF-X development with the allocation of 20 billion won (US $19 million). Seoul aims to produce 120 KF-X jets between 2023 and 2030, the agency said.

But the announcement sparked a dispute over key specifications for the KF-X, especially over the design of the future jet.

The state-funded Agency for Defense Development (ADD) has long studied a twin-engine concept, either of the C103 design that looks somewhat like the F-35 or the C203 design following the European approach and using forward canards in a stealth-shaped airframe.

Both of the twin-engine platforms would be powered by two 18,000-pound engines, ADD officials said.

Korea Aerospace Industries, on the other hand, prefers a single-engine concept, dubbed C501, which is to be built based on the FA-50, a light attack aircraft version of the T-50 supersonic trainer jet co-produced by Lockheed Martin.

The C501, powered by a 29,000-pound engine, is designed to be fitted with a limited low-observable configuration and advanced avionics.

“A single-engine concept is in pursuance of both affordability and combat performance, based on the advanced FA-50 technologies,” said Lee Myung-hwa, Korea Aerospace Industries spokesman.

The FA-50 entered service in August with the South Korean Air Force. Powered by a General Electric F404 engine, the aircraft is armed with air-to-air and air-to-surface missiles, machine guns and precision-guided bombs, such as joint direct-attack munitions and sensor-fuzed weapons.

In December, South Korea signed a $1.1 billion deal with Iraq to export 24 FA-50s, following a 2011 contract with Indonesia for 16 FA-50s.

The state-funded Korea Institute for Defense Analyses backs the single-engine design and questions the country’s technical readiness for developing an aircraft that could compete with fighter jets developed by US and European aerospace giants.

“A new jet fighter is a massive endeavor at the best of times, and widely unrealistic technical expectations do not help the project,” said Lee Joo-hyung, a senior researcher at the institute. He expects the KF-X development to cost at least 10 trillion won ($927 million), which is much higher than buying foreign aircraft.

Lockheed Martin is also supportive of the single-engine type. “Obviously, a derivative airplane will be cheaper and faster to develop than a clean-sheet, brand-new aircraft,” a Lockheed Martin official said. “But the bottom line is, we will give full assistance for whatever KF-X design that Korea chooses.”

The ADD, however, claims a plane that’s larger than the KF-16 and has two engines will provide more room for future upgrades.

“A fighter with a new concept has better economic feasibility than one based on the existing platform in terms of total life-cycle costs,” said Lee Dae-yeol, head of ADD’s aircraft systems development bureau.

The ADD expects about 6 trillion won are needed to develop the KF-X, 8 trillion won for production and 9 trillion won for operation and maintenance costs.

“We’ve secured independent technologies enough to proceed with the KF-X,” Lee said. “Of the 432 technologies for developing an aircraft, we assess we’re only short of 48 items. Then we can push for the KF-X in cooperation with foreign partners.”

The ADD envisions KF-X Block 2 would have internal weapon bays, and Block 3 would feature further stealth improvements to the level of the B-2 bomber or F-35.

“The twin-engine design offers added space for new Korean-designed weapons and internal bays, but this feature will still be a notable design challenge,” said Kim Dae-young, a member of the Korea Defense and Security Forum, a private defense think tank.

Still, the Air Force prefers a twin-engine aircraft because of its flight safety and larger operational range.

“Normally, a twin-engine fighter features a larger combat range than that of a single-engine,” an Air Force officer said. “Obviously, it’s safer, too. Even though an engine quits in a twin, the pilot could prevent the airplane from going out of control.”

The Air Force believes an F-16-class fighter development is meaningless at the moment, as its regional rivals — Japan and China — are pushing ahead with air power modernization.

“The first deployment of the KF-X is to start in 2013 at the earliest. By that time, an F-16-class fighter will become an old model, definitely,” the officer said. “It’s meaningless to have that type of aircraft by the time neighboring countries are operating future-generation fighter fleets.”

DAPA spokesman Baek Yoon-hyung said, “We will listen to various opinions from different research institutes and experts before choosing KF-X specifications.”

The agency will hold a top executive meeting presided over by Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin to finalize KF-X requirements, he added.

Indonesia is the only KF-X partner. It joined in June 2010 to bear 20 percent of the development costs.

Turkey is referred to as a potential partner, but there has been no tangible progress over the Seoul-Ankara discussions. Turkey is said to demand that it take more control over the project than a 20 percent share.

Email: jsungki@defensenews.com.

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