Monday, October 12, 2015

An Analysis of South Korea's Problematic KF-X Program

Four years ago, at the 2011 instalment of the Seoul Air Show, South Korean officials predicted that 2013 would see the start of development for the country’s long-planned indigenous KFX fighter aircraft. A first flight was likely in 2015, and full scale production in 2021. Seoul would have a 60% share in the project, while prospective partners Indonesia and Turkey would each have 20%. They would provide funds and a degree of participation, but there was no question that Seoul would sit in the cockpit.

The aircraft envisaged was ambitious, far more advanced than any aircraft developed in South Korea. It would vault South Korea from a second tier player in the global aerospace supply chain to a leading systems integrator. Seoul’s Defense Acquisition Programme Administration (DAPA) gave a long list of requirements: fly-by-wire flight controls, hands-on-throttle-and-stick pilot controls, a helmet-mounted display and a night vision imaging system. Low-observable technologies would reduce the jet’s radar cross section (RCS). KFX would have an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar and an infrared search and track (IRST) sensor.

As is all too common in the world of fighter development, things have not gone to plan. Turkey ended up not joining KFX, deciding instead to build its own indigenous fighter, the TFX. By the 2013 Seoul Air Show, officials were still in talks with various suppliers, but no prototype was on the drawing board. Indeed, it was still some way from deciding whether Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI), the country’s leading airframer, or KAL-ASD, a unit of Korean Air, would develop KFX.

Perhaps the single biggest element in the delays was Seoul’s torturous F-X III fighter competition, the technology transfer offsets of which are earmarked for KFX work. Contenders for the bitterly-fought F-X III deal included the Lockheed Martin F-35, Boeing’s proposed F-15 Silent Eagle, and the Eurofighter Typhoon. Eurofighter was always deemed an outsider for the competition, but in a nod to KFX, it apparently offered an extremely lucrative technology transfer package. In 2013, after last minute scare from the F-15SE, the F-35 emerged as the winner of F-X III, although Seoul cut the airframe requirement from 60 to 40 examples, citing budgetary issues.

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