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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