In what would prove to be yet another step in the process toward deepening Poland-South Korea defense ties, the Polish government is looking to join South Korea’s KF-21 Boramae combat aircraft program.
Spearheaded by Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI), the KF-21 is being touted by Seoul as a 4.5-generation combat aircraft with high-end avionics systems.
The first full prototype of the new twin-engine multirole fighter was rolled out by KAI in a ceremony on April 9, 2021. First flight of this prototype successfully occurred on July 19, 2022. The initial flight of the first two-seat model – the fourth prototype built – followed on February 20.
Polish defense officials have indicated in the past year that they would be interested in procuring the still-in-development fighter and are targeting 2026 as the point they would want to join the program. By February 2026, the South Korean Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) intends to launch series production of Block 1 units.
If Poland goes ahead with delivery of a letter of intent (LOI) to jointly develop and procure the fighter, the move will benefit both parties.
For Warsaw, the opportunity to join a fighter development project – even at the latest stage (right as South Korea would be moving into the Block 2 variant stage of the program) – would benefit its defense-aerospace industrial sector with technical know-how and an opportunity for work share. Polish defense consortium PGZ is expected to be the principal mover in this process.
Additionally, Poland would begin absorbing an advanced fourth-generation fighter that could complement – or, more likely, eventually replace – the Polish Air Force fleet of 48 F-16C/D Block 52+s ordered in 2003 from Lockheed Martin.
On the South Korean side, a deal would cement the country’s burgeoning defense trade and cooperation relationship with Poland and enable it to continue making inroads into the European market.
Poland and South Korea reached a massive arms agreement in July 2022 that involves 180 Korean-designed K2 Black Panther tanks, 212 K9 “Thunder” self-propelled howitzers, and 48 FA-50 Golden Eagle light fighters. That sales bundle enabled South Korean defense export orders to reach $15 billion in 2022, more than double the $7.2 billion figure from the previous year.
More importantly for South Korea, bringing Poland into the program would provide more scale to its fighter program and a more reliable financial partner than current codeveloper of the KF-21, Indonesia, has so far proven to be.
Under the joint-development arrangement reached between South Korea and Indonesia on January 7, 2016, the Indonesian side pledged to invest 20 percent of the estimated total $6.2-$6.8 billion in developmental costs, or $1.24-$1.36 billion through 2028. However, by September 2022 Jakarta had only provided around KRW227 billion ($185 million) of that total, with Indonesia failing to make good on a payment of $124.5 million due at the end of 2017.
After six meetings regarding back payments owed by Indonesia, Seoul and Jakarta were finally able to break the impasse over development costs. The participants agreed to keep Indonesia’s existing 20 percent cost-sharing contribution in place (while bringing forward the final target date by which to reach this total to 2026), with the caveat that 30 percent of this total will be provided through contribution “in kind.”
Unlike Indonesia, however, Poland is on a defense spending buildup that shows no signs of slowing down. Since the launch of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Polish government has increased the baseline defense budget in order to accelerate the modernization of its armed forces, and is now seeking to bring its topline budget up to 4 percent of GDP in 2023, which would then grow to as high as 5 percent of GDP.
Should Poland and South Korea reach an agreement on the KF-21 program, questions would then emerge regarding how many KF-21 fighters Poland would seek to procure, what kind of industrial participation it would receive, and how this might impact Indonesia’s own technical sharing and licensed production ambitions (about 50 KF-21s, or enough to equip three Indonesian National Defense-Air Force (TNI-AU) fighter squadrons of 16-22 aircraft apiece).