April 29, 2013
In all of the West, only one all-new fighter, the Lockheed Martin F-35, is in full-scale development. If it outlasts its predecessors, as new products usually do, it could find itself to be the last man standing. The F-35 will have Russian and Chinese competition, but only the U.S. fighter is likely to be engineered to standards that facilitate integration of Western weapons and sensors. For many countries, there will be no real alternative.
Or maybe there will be: a Western fighter from the East.
After at least a decade of studies, the design of South Korea's proposed KF-X fighter is becoming clearer. If it goes ahead, and if it is not heavily revised, it will be a two-engine fighter of the size of the Eurofighter Typhoon, perhaps following the Typhoon and other European fighters in mounting its horizontal stabilizers forward (see specifications table, page 48). It will be designed for Western, especially U.S., weapons and sensors, although later South Korean equipment will be fitted.
First mooted within the government in 1999, and announced as a national objective in 2002, KF-X has been under study for 14 years, repeatedly failing to gain authorization for full-scale development, which it still awaits. Early in the program, the targeted in-service date was 2015; now, it cannot fly before 2021, and therefore cannot be operational until middle 2020s, if it survives powerful opposition (see page 49).
In the air force's planning, KF-X will be a medium fighter, at first serving alongside and then replacing the KF-16, the locally built version of the F-16. Fighters above the KF-S rated as “high” grade—mainly meaning a greater payload range—would be the Boeing F-15K and whichever aircraft is chosen for the current F-X Phase 3 competition (AW&ST April 15, p. 52). Below it will be the Korean Aerospace Industries (KAI) FA-50.
The driving force for a fighter to fill this role has been the defense ministry's Agency for Defense Development (ADD). Program Director Lee Daeyearl answers to ADD chief H.Y. Paik. The ADD is handling the preliminary design and will oversee full-scale development and integration, if KF-X is approved, say government officials. So KAI, the country's combat aircraft specialist, would be only a supplier and, presumably, the detail designer of the airframe. It would not be surprising if the aerospace division of Korean Airlines made some parts. A foreign company would supply the engines. Electronics would come from several manufacturers.
At the top level, a foreign partner will be needed, probably the winner of F-X Phase 3, which means Boeing, Lockheed Martin or the Eurofighter partners. Most South Korean advocates of the program play down the intended role of outsiders. The KF-X will be led by South Koreans, they emphasize. Indonesia, which has contributed engineers and 20% of the funding since 2011 and proposes to order 50, is a junior partner, which is why the aircraft is sometimes called KF-X/IF-X. Attempts to enlist Turkey failed, partly because the South Koreans insisted on leadership; other partners are possible, but none have appeared so far.