South Korea's proposed KF-X stealth fighter program has not been short of influential opponents. Now it has another. A defense ministry think tank, the Korea Institute for Defense Analysis, has told a public meeting that the country is not technologically equipped to develop the aircraft, that the project is economically unviable and that the KF-X would not be a successful export product. The institute challenges cost estimates by the Agency for Defense Development, which is leading development of the aircraft.The first iteration at least will not be that stealthy either.
KF-X development would cost more than 10 trillion won ($9.2 billion), one of the institute's researchers, Lee Juhyeong, has told a seminar on the program. Over the life of the program, the KF-X would cost the country more than twice as much as an imported aircraft, Lee says.
The institute's stance has not previously been publicly stated, although the Naeil newspaper reported last year that it had submitted a confidential report doubting the viability of the project. Now speaking openly, the institute questions whether the U.S. will be willing to help develop the KF-X. Other skeptics wonder how it could be exported in competition with U.S. aircraft, since South Korea would probably have to use major U.S. components, whose export could be blocked by Washington. Another influential think tank, the Korea Development Institute, reported as early as 2007 that the KF-X was not viable.
KF-X program director Lee Daeyearl, of the Agency for Defense Development, told the same seminar that the fighter would cost 6 trillion won in development, 8 trillion in production, and 9 trillion for operations over 30 years, according to an aerospace industry executive who attended.
South Korea needs to develop its own fighters to be capable of upgrading them and to install South Korean weapons systems, Lee Daeyearl says. “It will contribute to the nation's aerospace industry in the future,” Yonhap news agency quotes him as saying. “Without making a first step, we'll have to rely on imported aircraft and that will benefit foreign defense contractors.”
The agency has prepared two series of designs, one for an aircraft with its horizontal stabilizers aft, which it considers to be a U.S. style, and one for a “European” fighter with a canard stabilizer. The aft-tail series has run through the iterations C101, C102 and, now, C103, all with two engines and a single seat. The C102 design was further broken down into three variants: C102E with one engine, C102I with internal weapons and C102T with two seats. Those ideas have been discarded, however; the current aft-tail design is C103. Similarly the C201, C202 (with variants E, I and T) and the current C203 follow the same pattern, except for a canard planform.
The agency proposes that either C103 or C203, whichever was chosen, would then advance through three design standards. Block 1 would be “reduced observable,” which it says would be equivalent to the B-1B, Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and Eurofighter Typhoon. For its low signature, Block 1 would rely on fuselage and inlet shaping, including edge alignment, and on radar-absorbing material and semi-conformal weapons carriage.