October 28, 2013
Credit: Korean Aerospace Industries
Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) is pushing for South Korea to cut the technical challenges of its proposed KF-X fighter program, offering a single-engine concept that probably has a distant connection with the Lockheed Martin F-16. KAI's KFX-E design should be cheaper to develop and build than the larger proposals put forward by the Agency for Defense Development (ADD), the chief proponent of the KF-X.
Also much smaller than and more differentiated from the Lockheed Martin F-35, the KFX-E may offer the further advantage of minimizing competition from that U.S. stealth fighter. But it may have Lockheed Martin or other U.S. intellectual property in its design, exposing it to a foreign veto over sales or even development.
Seoul will probably have a foreign alternative to consider, too. Western proposals for KF-X include twin-tail developments of the F-16 and Eurofighter Typhoon, and an advanced version of the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. Those offerings were included as technology transfer in bids for the separate F-X Phase 3 program for 60 fighters. F-X Phase 3 has been abandoned, but a successor competition will be needed, probably reviving foreign KF-X proposals.
KAI has moved from cooperation to competition with ADD. For a decade, the manufacturer was a design contractor in support of the agency. But industry officials say that at least some KAI executives have long regarded ADD's plan to develop a twin-engine Typhoon-size KF-X as too ambitious. Meanwhile, the South Korean government has repeatedly deferred launching the KF-X. If it goes ahead, it cannot enter service before the mid-2020s. Cutting costs by accepting a smaller size would probably improve the program's chances.
In July, KAI coyly published a picture of a stealthy KF-X concept related to its T-50 supersonic trainer and called KFX-E (or KF-X-E). It gave no details then and did not respond to Aviation Week's request for comment (AW&ST July 22, p. 33). But now the company has stepped up to make its case for the aircraft, arguing at an official seminar that the KFX-E would meet all air force requirements, except for being powered by just one engine.
The KFX-E turns out to be much larger than the T-50, with an empty weight of 9.3 metric tons. It is larger even than the 8.9-ton F-16, from which the T-50 is derived, but remains much smaller than ADD's two proposals, the C103 and C203, each about 11 tons empty (AW&ST April 29, p. 46).
KAI has worked out two versions of the KFX-E, one with a single fin and one with two, the latter presumably demanding more development work but reducing radar reflections. KAI has not provided for a weapons bay in the KFX-E; ADD has reserved space for a bay in its designs, though neither the C103 nor C203 would initially have one. Following a 2009 decision to downgrade the stealthiness of the KF-X, the ADD proposed first to field an aircraft whose shape would give it the makings of a low-observable fighter. Later versions would introduce features to realize that potential.