by Dan Darling, Forecast International.
As was largely expected by many observers, South Korea has opted to move forward with the joint partnership of Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) and Lockheed Martin for development of its indigenous KF-X (Korean Fighter Xperiment) future fighter. Under the multibillion-dollar contract, which South Korea’s Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) expects to sign by the summer, the KAI-Lockheed team will develop a new fighter to replace the ROK Air Force’s aging fleet of F-4 Phantoms and F-5 Tornados. South Korea plans to procure as many as 120 of the new fighters, while its partner in the project, Indonesia, plans to purchase as many as 50 fighters to meet its own IFX (Indonesian Fighter Xperiment) requirement. Under the project outline, the KAI-Lockheed team will provide 20 percent of the development costs incurred, with South Korea and Indonesia fronting 60 and 20 percent of the funding burden, respectively.
The competition for the KF-X contract pitted the KAI-Lockheed team against one involving Korean Air (KAL) and European aerospace giant, Airbus. The outcome, however, was largely foreseen, as Lockheed Martin had previously clinched a contract in 2013 to provide the ROK Air Force with its F-35A Joint Strike Fighter to meet South Korea’s FX-III next-generation fighter requirement. As part of its pitch in the KF-X bid, Lockheed promised to transfer key technologies to Seoul.
Though a clean-sheet design was a specification of South Korea’s Defense Ministry for its KF-X project, there is an expectation that a heavily modified variant of an existing fighter type may ultimately be deemed acceptable. For South Korea the issue is one of timing and numbers as it seeks to ensure a quantitative and qualitative level of competitiveness with the militaries in its region. With the medium-term serviceability of its F-4 and F-5 fleets coming into question, maintaining an optimal base level of at least 430 frontline combat aircraft has become a concern of the ROK Air Force, enough so that a lease of used U.S. Air Force F-16s is being considered as a temporary patch until the new F-35s and KF-Xs begin entering service in sufficient number.