Not very Korean against the Su-35?
We can say that the program to create a new South Korean KF-21 fighter is moving as confidently as the aircraft that made its first flight two years ago and is now in mass production.
World experts evaluate the KF-21A as a 4++ generation aircraft. That is, not the F-35 or F-22, but somewhere close to the Su-35. And here there is something to think about.
This year, the Korea Aerospace Company (KAI) plans to produce at least 40 KF-21A aircraft, production of the aircraft for the needs of the South Korean Air Force should end by 2026. And in the same year, the South Korean Air Force plans to deploy the first full-fledged unit equipped with these aircraft. And by 2032, the South Caucasus Air Force plans to have at least 120 aircraft of this type in service.
In principle, in terms of equipment, the KF-21A does not have anything out of the ordinary: a radar with AFAR, a decent speed of 1,8M, a very significant flight range of 2 km and a combat payload of 900 kg of bombs and missiles.
But there are also things in the design of an aircraft that should not be overlooked. The aircraft is slightly more than half (65%) South Korean. The airframe, radar, avionics, hydraulics are all Korean. The rest - the engines, their control system, and the weapons control system - are American.
As for weapons, everything is clear: the South Korean Air Force in terms of combat aircraft consists of 100% American equipment: F-5 Tiger II (Korean name KF-5, as it is assembled in South Korea under license), F-16 Fighting Falcon , aka licensed KF-16, F-4 Phantom II, F-15E Strike Eagle.
Naturally, all the weapons on the planes are also American. They are not talking openly about the KF-21A’s armament yet, but if you look at the T-50, a combat training fighter of the South Korean Air Force, which was also made in cooperation with Lockheed Martin, its armament includes AIM-air-to-air missiles. 9 Sidewinder, AIM-120 AMRAAM, air-to-ground AGM-65 Maverick, satellite-guided JDAM bombs.
Well, it’s clear that there’s simply no point in fencing your garden in such a situation. And the KF-21A will also be armed with American bombs and missiles.
And here we will pay a little attention to this airplane, because it makes sense.
The T-50 made its first flight on August 20, 2002. The base was the Samsung KTX-2 training aircraft, which was significantly rebuilt by professionals from the Lockheed-Martin corporation. The result was a two-seat combat training aircraft, a classmate of our Yak-130, although superior to our aircraft in many respects. The T-50 is almost twice as fast (1,4M), can climb 2 km higher on the ceiling, and takes on more combat load. Our aircraft has a longer flight range and a significantly lower cost. Moreover, a very significant one, 15 million dollars versus 25.
The car turned out to be successful, and other countries began to buy it. Local, so to speak: Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand. From far away are Iraq and Poland. Half of the produced T-50s were sold for export, which, I am sure, recouped part of the development and production costs.
That is, in addition to tanks, howitzers, corvettes and boats, South Korea began to export aircraft. Combat ones, too, because Poland then ordered not a training version of the T-50, but an assault version, the so-called FA-50.
And in general, if you look at the reference books, from 2000 to 2021 South Korea increased its arms exports by 178,6%, moving from 31st place in the world to 8th. The top 10 world exporters are serious.
And, as you know, appetite comes with eating. Obviously, having looked at the successes of the Russian-Indian Su-30 program, the Koreans decided to do something similar and created a consortium with Indonesia specifically on the KF-21 topic.
It must be said that Indonesia's fleet of combat aircraft is a rather bizarre mixture of Russian Su-27 and Su-30 of various modifications (5 Su-27 units and 11 Su-30) and American F-16 of various modifications in the amount of 39 units and living out their days F-5F (no more than 5 units). Plus British, Brazilian and South Korean combat training aircraft, which are also listed as light attack aircraft.
And now, after some pressure from the United States in recent years, Indonesia has practically stopped communicating with Russia regarding the Su-30MK2, but for some reason it is also not eager to take American aircraft. And now - such a nod as the joint development of the KF-21, albeit as a junior partner. That is, Indonesia invested money in development, and will receive preferences by plane.
It’s not for nothing that at the presentation in 2022, the KF-21 flew with two flags on its nose: South Korean and Indonesian.
In general, having aircraft in service, spare parts for which do not need to be transported halfway around the world, without fear of sanctions and other troubles, is not bad. But we will return to the issues of regional sales at the end.
So far in 2022, the KF-21 has made its flight, the Korean media has been very supportive of this matter, announcing that the creation of the KF-21 took only six and a half years.
In fact, story KF-21 or KF-X, as the project was called then, was somewhat longer.
In November 2000, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung voiced demands for the creation of a new fighter and the start of mass production by 2015. The F-16 was taken as a model, that is, the new aircraft had to exceed the parameters of the American car.
2 years later, in November 2002, the Joint Chiefs of Staff is developing a long-term plan to develop such a fighter.
year 2009. A study was conducted by order of the Government of South Korea, the purpose of which was an economic analysis of the feasibility of developing a new aircraft. The analysis showed that the development would be economically profitable.
2011-2012. Initial research process and pilot development.
year 2013. The KF-X development plan in detail, including operational capabilities, has been completed and submitted to the Government.
December 2015 DAPA signs a development contract for the KF-X with KAI.
That is, Koreans are just a little bit cunning. Of course, it is unrealistic to develop and build an aircraft in less than seven years. As you can see, a full 13 years passed from the decision to develop the aircraft to the presentation of the full project. Of course, this period could have been greatly reduced, but apparently the Koreans take a long time to harness.
Well, then, in 2020, the assembly of the first prototype began, which was completed in 2021.
The Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) of the South Korean Ministry of National Defense, which is in charge of all development and procurement for the Ministry of Defense, characterizes the KF-21 as a 4,5 generation fighter, which is a category that is usually used to define new or significantly modernized fighters that have appeared since the 1990s. If in our opinion, then 4+.
Compared to fifth-generation fighters, such aircraft typically lack some key features, such as stealth or thrust-vectoring engines.
The KF-21 was no exception; its General Electric F414-GE-400K engine (installed on the F/A-18 “Super Hornet”) does not have a UHT. And its shape is far from those of the next generation of stealth aircraft.
On the other hand, with the KF-21, South Korea chose a path very different from that followed by manufacturers of fourth-generation fighters such as the Super Hornet, Eurofighter Typhoon or Dassault Rafale, the Russian MiG-35 or Su- 35, which are truly significantly modernized designs from the last century.
The Koreans do not hide that the KF-21 is the beginning of a long process in which, developing in a spiral, the aircraft will acquire new forms, new equipment, and new properties over time.
Accordingly, ongoing work in the future will ultimately result in a version of the KF-21 with more significant stealth characteristics, and in the long term - with internal weapons compartment
But even at the outset, the KF-21A or Block 1 will be equipped with Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) and Infrared Search and Track (IRST) radar to detect airborne targets. Next is a gradual path of modernization with the necessary changes to both the airframe design and its contents.
By taking this approach, Seoul appears to have cleverly found a way to avoid the huge costs and lengthy processes involved in developing a true fifth-generation fighter from scratch. At the same time, the basic KF-21 promises to offer at least as much as competing fighters of the same generation, with all the advantages that come from being manufactured in-house.
In addition, South Korea saves a very important resource - time. Considering the difficult foreign policy situation in which the country finds itself, and the lack of its own design school, like aviation powers, creating a fifth-generation fighter all at once is a task that could take much longer than it took to create the KF-21.
And so, more than 20 years and 8,8 trillion won have passed since the decision was made, which in dollar terms also gives a very respectable amount of 6,67 billion dollars.
Even if the subsequent version of Block 2 doesn't live up to being a true fifth-generation stealth fighter, that's not such a big deal. After all, Seoul has already purchased the F-35, which meets these criteria, and for a certain time the country's air force will be equipped to perform any mission.
And thus, if the KF-21 Block 1 version quickly falls into the hands of the ROKAF (South Korean Air Force), the first production KF-21s could replace the aging F-4E Phantom II and F-5E/F Tiger II fighters.
This is a very strong move for the Air Force, which will begin the process of replacing old aircraft with not just new ones, but of a much higher class.
The 2032 milestone is when the country's air force should receive its entire order of 120 KF-21 Block 1 aircraft, and work on the more advanced Block 2 should be in full swing.
By that time, the KF-21 Block 2 training program for ground targets should already be completed. Combining improved stealth with an air-to-ground weapon promises to make the KF-21 a powerful air defense penetration tool against key high-value targets such as North Korea. And if you consider that South Korea has complete order with the production of its attack UAVs and the presence of the F-35, then in general this represents a completely viable concept of action against a neighbor even with a breakthrough of its air defense defense.
And there is confidence that this will really happen. After all, the Koreans were able to overcome the unexpected refusal of the United States to share technology, as a result of which the entire KF-21 program was brought to the brink of failure.
The point is that, according to the original plans, the United States will provide the KF-21 with an AESA radar, an IRST sensor, an electro-optical guidance container and an radio frequency jammer. But something went wrong, and in 2015 the US government revised the supply of these technologies towards refusal. As a result, the South Koreans had to quickly carry out what we call import substitution.
As a result, South Caucasus now has its own developments, which means the possibility of potential export.
The main air-to-air weapons will consist of short-range IRIS-T missiles from the German company Diehl and medium-range Meteor missiles from the European consortium MBDA.
It is obvious that creating from scratch the capacity to produce decent aircraft engines or air-to-air missiles is far from easy, even for such a technically advanced country as South Korea. So it makes sense to outsource these things, especially when the missiles on offer are at least as good as, and maybe even superior to, their American counterparts.
At this stage, with one prototype in the air and five more (of which four are two-seat variants) in active production, it looks like Seoul's decision to take a different route to create the next-generation fighter may be paying off.
But there may be problems here.
The Southeast Asian market is a challenging market. The USA, Russia, and China are present there. And everyone wants to sell their planes. Of course, Chinese aircraft are not the best that can be in service compared to their competitors, but there are not so many rich countries that can afford the Su-35 or F-35.
But South Korea has a chance with those countries that have already bought the T-50. Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand. Moreover, Indonesia generally has a 20% share in the KF-21 project.
True, all of the countries listed do not have luxurious military budgets, but the KF-21 can become a good competitor to American aircraft in terms of price, and Russian aircraft are still being held back on the market by their threats of US sanctions.
However, we should not forget how changeable the political weather can be. Today, yes, Russia has certain problems with the sale of military equipment on the world market, but it is not worth denying that some types of weapons are of greater interest than before the start of the SVO. Considering that Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines have shown genuine interest in purchasing Russian aircraft, a change in the political climate may entail an active return of Russia to the arms market.
Today it is clear that the same combat aircraft are needed by more VKS, but by the time South Korea is ready to make the KF-21 for export, who will guarantee that our Su-35, which has a successful track record, will not enter the market again? combat use and more interesting characteristics in terms of UVT and more powerful engines. We’ll simply keep silent about the set of weapons, because in this regard only the Americans can compare with our aircraft.
And most importantly, in terms of price, the Su-35 is no match for the Joint Strike Fighter program aircraft of all modifications. And in this case, the KF-21 will remain in a very unenviable role as a cheaper, but much less powerful alternative to the F-35 and Su-35. The issue of price is a very difficult issue.
Indonesia, which from the very beginning of the project planned to purchase at least 50 KF-21 fighters, this, in fact, was the point of participating in the project from the very beginning. But for now the country is facing a certain crisis, and the purchase of such a number of aircraft is being postponed. What will happen next is again a question, because Indonesian pilots are well aware of what both the F-16 and Su-30 are. And how Korean aircraft will fit into such a company is a question.
We will wait with interest to see how far the KF-21 goes in realizing its potential, both in ROKAF and in the export market. But this will be a very difficult battle with aircraft that have not been on the market for the first time and have been tested not only by time, but also by combat operations.
- Roman Skomorokhov
- gunsfriend.ru, wallpaper.mob.org, bangkokbook.ru
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