Next Jets: South Korea seeks to replace its aging F-5 fighter jets with the KF-X. (PARK JI-HWAN/ / AFP/Getty Images)
SEOUL — The South Korean military has chosen to equip its future fighter jet with two engines instead of one amid lingering worries over the economic and technical merits of the twin-engine aircraft development.
The Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) held a top decision-making council Friday to make a choice about the number of engines for the KF-X jet, which is to be developed indigenously with technical assistance from a foreign partner.
South Korea aims to produce 120 or more KF-X aircraft after 2025 to replace the Air Force’s aging F-4s and F-5s, most of which will be decommissioned before the mid-2020s. The KF-X could be on par with an advanced F-16 jet armed with high-end avionics systems.
“The JCS formed a task force to review the costs, requirements and development schedules for the KF-X over the eight months,” JCS spokesman Eom Hyo-sik said. “As a result, the task force reached a decision that a twin-engine aircraft is a right choice as it meets future operational needs and can help catch up with neighboring countries’ aircraft development trends.”
Given the potential development period for a twin-engine jet, the spokesman said, the KF-X jet’s initial operating capability is to be scheduled for 2025, a two-year delay from the original goal.
The Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) is set to launch a bid for the engine contract as early as next month. Candidates would include the GE F414 and Eurojet EJ200, according to DAPA officials.
The JCS’ decision on the twin-engine platform comes amid heated debate over the feasibility of the KF-X jet development. The state-funded Korea Institute for Defense Analysis (KIDA) vehemently opposed the twin-engine design, citing high costs and technical challenges.
The KIDA assessed the KF-X development would cost about 9.6 trillion won (US $93 billion), but it expects the cost would be doubled if the jet is a twin-engine design.
The institute also claims an F-16 class jet with double engines doesn’t have a competitive edge in the export market dominated by US and European fighter aircraft.
“A new fighter aircraft is a massive endeavor at the best of times, and wildly unrealistic technical expectations do not help the project,” Lee Ju-hyung, a senior researcher at the KIDA said.
Kim Dae-young, a member of the Korea Defense and Security Forum, a Seoul-based private think tank, was worried if potential cost overruns would eventually hinder the development of indigenous avionics systems.
“Under the original KF-X plan, [active electronically scanned array] radars and other avionics shall be developed locally, but if development costs increase, those systems are likely to be adopted from foreign defense companies inevitably,” Kim said.
Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) also preferred a single-engine type on the basis of its T-50 Golden Eagle supersonic trainer jet co-developed by Lockheed Martin.
“Lockheed Martin has committed to providing several hundred man-years of engineering support for Korea’s KF-X project and several hundred thousand pages of relevant fighter aircraft technical data,” Lockheed spokesman Eric Schnaible said.
In recent years, KAI successfully fielded T-50’s lightweight fighter version, the FA-50, which were exported to Indonesia and the Philippines.
During an air and defense fair in October, KAI displayed a conceptual design with a 29,000-pound engine.
“A single-engine concept is in pursuance of both affordability and combat performance based on the advanced FA-50 technologies,” a KAI official said.
On the other hand, the Air Force, backed by the state-run Agency for Defense Development (ADD), brushed off concerns over costs overruns and technical difficulties.
“The KF-X is a 4.5-generation fighter that can carry weapons of 20,000 pounds or more,” an Air Force spokesman said. “Indonesia, a partner of the KF-X project, is supposed to buy a bunch of jets, and when mass production starts, the costs will go down.”
The spokesman added that a twin-engine aircraft larger than the KF-16 will provide more room for future upgrades and will help cope with growing air powers in the neighborhood — China and Japan — which are accelerating air force modernization.
Lee Dae-yeol, head of ADD’s KF-X project team, argues that a fighter with a new concept has better economic feasibility in terms of total life-cycle costs.
“The ADD has secured about 90 percent of independent technologies for the KF-X,” Lee noted. “Of the 432 technologies needed, the agency is only short of 48 items, such as engines and some avionics systems.”
The ADD hopes that it will be able to get those lacking technologies in offsets from Lockheed Martin, the successful bidder for South Korea’s F-X III fighter jet development program, and other foreign companies.
The ADD envisions that a KF-X Block 2 would have internal weapons bay, and Block 3 would feature stealth improvements to the level of the B-2 bomber or F-35 joint strike fighter.
Indonesia is the only KF-X partner at the moment. Indonesia is to bear 20 percent of the projected development costs, while the Korean government will take 60 percent. The funding for the remaining 20 percent remains unclear, as KAI is expected to bear part of the money. ■