South Korea's New Fighter Jet: Brought to You by Airbus?
A T-50 Golden Eagle jet

South Korea's New Fighter Jet: Brought to You by Airbus?


South Korea’s top carrier airline Korean Air Lines Co. (Korean Air) is poised to participate in a bid for South Korea’s fighter jet development program in association with Europe’s Airbus. Under the development program, code-named KF-X, South Korea will develop and produce about 120 fighter jets to replace its old models.

An informed official told several Korean media outlets, including Segye Ilbo, that Korean Air and Airbus reached a verbal agreement earlier this week to jointly bid for the development project.

The official’s comment was given anonymously, but it immediately brought media attention as the news is expected to open a new chapter for the government’s development plan. So far, Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) has been considered the strongest candidate for winning this project.

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Korean Air has been preparing to participate in the KF-X project since last year, when it organized a task force. However, there were doubts over whether Korean Air could compete with KAI, which has the benefit of previous experience developing the T-50 fighter jet. But with a joint bid, Airbus would be able to assist Korean Airlines on technical issues.

“The South Korean military decided to use the twin-engine platform over the single-engine one, and Airbus is familiar with this platform after building the multi-role fighter, the Eurofighter,” another official told Segye Ilbo.

The proposal from Korean Air and its partners is expected to be based on a modified F-18 design, another twin-engine plane. According to some reports, U.S. firm Boeing (developer of the F-18) would also take part in the joint development project, further strengthening Korean Air’s bid.

However, KAI, which is teamed up with the U.S. firm Lockheed Martin, is determined to win the bid as well.

Ha Seong-yong, the Chairman of KAI, said in a press conference on January 28 that KAI today is equipped with better infrastructure than it had when it developed the T-50. He also emphasized that KIA successfully met the deadline for the T-50 project. Ha added the KAI can complete development by 2025, the deadline for the KF-X project, and has the financial ability to take on the project.

The Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA), South Korea’s arms procurement agency, is scheduled to close the bidding process on February 9. DAPA will choose a preferred bidder next month before a final selection is made in July.

The KF-X project calls for South Korea to develop and produce about 120 fighter jets to replace its aging fleet of F-4 and F-5 fighters. The new jets are expected to outperform the F-16 model. DAPA estimates the price tag of the KF-X project, which will take about ten and a half years to complete, at around 8.5 trillion won (US$8.3 billion). According to an agreement signed in October 2014, Indonesia will provide 20 percent of the total funding, with South Korea covering the remaining 80 percent.

South Korea and Indonesia launched their partnership for KF-X project in 2011. Timbul Siahaan, director general for defense potential at Indonesia’s Ministry of Defense, said in an interview with South Korea’s Kookbang Ilbo that South Korea and Indonesia share the goal of safeguarding regional security, so the KF-X project will benefit both nations.

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