Asia's Next Fighter Project

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An international consortium for the development of an advanced fighter aircraft? It sounds familiar – and the precedent isn’t encouraging.

The programme to build the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) involving the United States and eight other countries has become a cautionary tale over the complexity and runaway expense of developing a next-generation fighter aircraft, even with the economies of scale that multinational participants are meant to deliver and the unrivalled military-industrial resources that the JSF partners bring to the table.

Undeterred by the JSF’s difficult birth, Indonesia this week made its first concrete step into another joint project, led by South Korea, for the development of a new fighter jet. Defence Ministry Secretary Gen. Rear Marshal Erris Heriyanto confirmed on Monday that the Korean KFX programme – which Jakarta committed itself to in March – was moving forward. A team of 37 Indonesian engineers is set to leave for South Korea within a matter days, he said, to begin work on the concept definition phase, which is due for completion in 2012 to 2013.

Indonesia has agreed to meet 20 percent of the estimated $8 billion programme costs and to take 50 of the roughly 250 KFXs that are currently envisaged. Defence Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro reckons Indonesia will have its 50 planes by 2020. More partners may come on board – the Koreans are targeting Turkey in particular – and this could affect cost projections, timetables and production runs.

The question that aviation analysts have long been asking, however, is how exactly South Korea and its partners propose to develop a new aircraft so quickly and so cheaply, with the analogous JSF running several years late and its costs spiralling into the hundreds of billions. Part of the answer, as Purnomo laid out this week, is that the KFX will not be a 5th-generation aircraft on a par with the JSF, but more a kind of souped-up F-16. Obviously, that would be far less challenging to develop. Even so, the pieces of the puzzle don’t seem to fit together: the production run is too small; the participants’ expertise is too limited; and the case for developing a new 4.5-generation fighter, rather than simply buying a tried-and-tested jet from the United States or Russia, is unproven.

South Korea’s most impressive aircraft programme to date, the T-50 Golden Eagle multirole trainer, relied heavily on assistance from Lockheed Martin. It’s hard to see the KFX seeing the light of day without the same kind of US enablement – though with South Korea the best Asian prospect for JSF sales after Singapore and Japan it’s questionable whether the United States would be willing to take part.

So what is the logic that’s driving the programme? It could be that the Koreans think they have identified a gap in the market, perhaps opened by the JSF’s delays and prohibitive price tag, for an affordable 4.5-generation fighter, and that they believe, rightly or wrongly, that its development is feasible. Alternatively, as is probably the case with Japan’s next-generation fighter program, Seoul doesn’t really expect a production aircraft to be the project’s outcome, and is seeking merely to retain the semblance of an indigenous programme as it negotiates the procurement of new foreign aircraft.

Either way, Indonesia – so long as it isn’t seriously pinning its hopes on a plane that may never be built – stands to gain from the collaboration. A strategic partnership with South Korea makes a lot of sense, and Jakarta has already committed to buying the T-50 and other Korean equipment. But what Indonesia badly needs, if it is to realise its ambitions of fostering a modern and effective defence industry, is the foreign technology and expertise that Korea has to offer. That alone should justify the initial $150 million that Jakarta is releasing to the KFX effort, even if the Korean-Indonesian joint fighter never makes it off the drawing board. 

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31
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August 11, 2012 at 04:19

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Sibabalo
May 6, 2012 at 02:57

John, you question why the world needs a Korean fhgiter jet. That’s like asking why the world needs Chinese car companies. Right now, Chinese car companies are assembling and manufacturing other auto company designs and technology, but there will be a day when they may catch up and begin true innovation. Korea has already climbed this mountain in shipbuilding and consumer electronics and autos. Now they want to take the same steps in aerospace/defense and nuclear technology. What’s wrong with that?You cannot argue that only huge countries like China, India and the US are allowed to enter new industries due to large current or projected domestic demand. Besides, the combined population of Korea and Indonesia is pretty sizable.Also, there will be a demand for a cheaper jet plane, as not every military will want to carry only $150mm top of the line 5th gen fhgiters. So, a 4.5 gen fhgiter could fill a market need.

Raymond in DC
February 16, 2012 at 19:35

Israel today announced they’ve selected ITALY’s trainer jet over the South Korean T-50. South Korea is, understandably, upset. They really wanted this contract. I can’t speak to the technical merits of the two offerings, but if the decision was tinged by politics, Israel made a big mistake, and it could affect not just relations (otherwise very positive), but Korean purchases of Israeli military hardware like the Iron Dome. I would have thought Israel would make a more suitable partner to develop a next-gen fighter than Indonesia, but that won’t happen now, and Indonesia (a Muslim nation which has no diplomatic relations with Israel) would have raised a stink.

Nick
November 29, 2011 at 00:36

John, you question why the world needs a Korean fighter jet. That’s like asking why the world needs Chinese car companies. Right now, Chinese car companies are assembling and manufacturing other auto company designs and technology, but there will be a day when they may catch up and begin true innovation. Korea has already climbed this mountain in shipbuilding and consumer electronics and autos. Now they want to take the same steps in aerospace/defense and nuclear technology. What’s wrong with that?

You cannot argue that only huge countries like China, India and the US are allowed to enter new industries due to large current or projected domestic demand. Besides, the combined population of Korea and Indonesia is pretty sizable.

Also, there will be a demand for a cheaper jet plane, as not every military will want to carry only $150mm top of the line 5th gen fighters. So, a 4.5 gen fighter could fill a market need.

Adam
July 23, 2011 at 14:03

You said: “Indonesia, Turkey, Philippine, Thailand etc.. all of them require to upgrade their aging fighters and they can’t access to F-35 program or Eurofighter program….”

Firstly, Turkey is already a Level III member of the JSF program and has ordered 116 F-35.
Secondly, Eurofighter has been trying to convince Turkey to become a full technology partner in the Eurofighter Typhoon with full ToT.
Thirly, Turkey has 250+ Advanced F-16 (modernized under the CCIP program very recently or purchased new Advanced Block 50+).

a_canadian_observer
July 21, 2011 at 20:19

@Koreansentry: Bravo. You’re very humble and straight taking, unlike people such as John Chan, Frank. They consider themselves to be world class of a big country, yet dont act like one. Yo have represented you people well.

a_canadian_observer
July 21, 2011 at 20:11

@Expert: Thank you for your insight, and I really admire your calmness and focus. This is the sign that John Chan has (ungraciously) lost the debate with you.

Koreansentry
July 20, 2011 at 08:37

Let us not forget John Chan here is Han Chinese trying to discredit joint Korean-Indonesian effort. Korean media and industry did not discredit French, Japanese and German technologies as Korea also learned from them. With S.Korea’s situation isn’t much different from China, as China is still behind developed countries in many key technological achievement. China’s high speed train was copied from Japan’s Shinkansen, China’s automobile was ripped from Korea’s Ssangyong assembly, China’s space & rocket tech were also copied from Russian, but Chinese claimed it was all indigenous inventions. Korea-Indonesia joint fighter program isn’t about developing 5th or 6th generation fighters, Korea is still committed to purchase F-35 or other 5th gen. fighters because KFX program only aims for 4.5th generation fighter class to replace their aging fighters. Within a decade, Korea will need to replace their F-16s fleet, China made their J-10 fighters and in service since 2005, it’s copied version of F-16s not very advanced fighter when you think F-16 have more armament & options than J-10 fighter. Korea could simply upgrade their existing F-16′s but cost of upgrade is enormous considering money can be use to develop existing T-50 program, what new KFX will bring is upgrading T-50 program to cheaper version of full option of F-15SE/Eurofighter, so that they can be mass produced which is more cost effective than keep buying up F-15SE & Eurofighter. Indonesia, Turkey, Philippine, Thailand etc.. all of them require to upgrade their aging fighters and they can’t access to F-35 program or Eurofighter program, so feasible option is to wait and buy lesser optioned F-35 or Eurofighter or buy cheap Russian or Chinese 5th gen. fighters, but everyone knows how sneaky Chinese & Russian are in exchanging military tech. Thus, having Korea leading the group by kick starting KFX program might give some alternative, and when Korea finally introduce fully working KFX fighter, they will be challenging Chinese and Russian arm market. And with profit from export could also fund Korea to develop 5th & 6th gen. fighters, and it will be UAV fighters. Chinese John Chan here doesn’t like Koreans all because China is insecure about their future.

ozivan
July 16, 2011 at 22:33

@Expert. Being a non-engineering person, I am impressed with your knowledge on Korea’s development of the advanced fighter aircraft.

I am also not surprised that Koreans are top achievers, as they had many firsts and/or largest eg in shipbuilding, automobiles, white goods, steel manufacturing, etc. Even a country like North Korea which many condemned as archaic can produce the nuclear bomb and ballistics missiles…the latest being predicted by CIA that in 5 years, NK can test IRBM missiles, though not as advanced types like those of the US…is something of an achievement. What more to say about modern industrialised South Korea..!!

Are you Korean ? If so, I would like to field a few non-technical questions to you which I have been curious. Would you oblige ?

Expert
July 15, 2011 at 17:54

John Chan

“The high strength synthetic material for F-35 and F-22 only can be produced by Japan, if Korean can produce it, it surely is news.”

So you missed the news that Toray(The biggest carbon fiber manufacturer)’s carbon fiber production output in Korea is three times that of its output in Japan. Heck Toray just announced that they were going to double its production out in Korea, to the dismay of Japanese rightwingers who were accusing Toray of fleeing Japan at the most difficult time.

Toray’s justification for relocation is electricity; they were moving their production to Korea because of cheap Korean electricity, and the shortage of electricity in Japan following the Tsunami, which will last for years, only accelerated this relocation process.

“I am not sure whether Japan will sell those high tech materials to Korea.”

This shows how clueless you are.

A11sfair
January 9, 2014 at 19:47

Korea’s Hyosung has been producing carbon fiber in quantity since 2011 and mass production has started since mid 2013. All materials necessary for stealth aircraft can be domestically made.

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