South Korean Stealth KFX Fighter Jet Will Fly In 2022

South Korea’s new KF-X (Korean Fighter eXperimental) multi-role stealth fighter has begun final assembly despite the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, and will be rolled out in the first half of next year, as planned.

The KFX is planned to be adopted by South Korean and Indonesian Air Force, the fighter jet is expected to be exported to Southeast Asian countries.

According to a report in Janes.com, South Korea’s Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) said in a statement that the company has begun joining the prototype aircraft’s fuselage sections and wings at its facility in Sacheon, South Gyeongsang Province.

Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) had previously stated that the twin-engined aircraft, development of which began in 2015 for the Republic of Korea Air Force (RoKAF), would be unveiled to the public in April 2021.

The prototype is expected to conduct its first flight in 2022.

South Korea’s new KF-X (Korean Fighter eXperimental) multi-role stealth fighter has begun final assembly. Credit: Korean Aerospace Industries.

The KF-X features a large cockpit. An electronically-scanned-array radar. A trapezoidal wing. Twin tail fins. Two engines. The KF-X in its basic layout is a fairly standard stealth fighter. It looks a lot like the American F-22 stealth fighter.

The KF-X, development of which is scheduled to be completed in 2026 followed by mass production in 2028, is expected to reach a top speed of about 1,400 mph (or about Mach 1.83), have a range of about 2,900 km, a maximum take-off weight of 25,580 kg, and be capable of carrying up to 7,700 kg of payload.

The aircraft, which is expected to be produced in both single- and tandem-seat variants, will feature three hardpoints under each wing for weapons and/or external fuel tanks and will also be capable of carrying four missiles under the fuselage, according to KAI.

At least 120 examples are expected to replace the Republic of Korea Air Force’s (ROKAF) fleet of ageing McDonnell Douglas F-4D/E Phantom IIs and Northrop F-5E/F Tiger IIs, Flight Global reported.

Indonesia appears likely obtain 48 examples of the IF-X variant, with an initial order of 16, and 32 to follow depending on finances.

According to Korea Joongang Daily, the design for the KF-X — the biggest homegrown weapons development project in Korean history — is the result of almost two decades of planning that cost the government approximately 8.6 trillion won (US$7 billion).

KFX stealth fighter jet. Source Korean Aerospace Industries

Once production begins on 120 units of the new jet, an additional 10 trillion won will be needed, putting the bill for the entire project at around 18.6 trillion won, or US$16 billion.

If these figures are accurate, each KF-X could cost around US$130 million. That’s slightly more than a US-made F-35 stealth fighter costs in 2019. But there are reasons to doubt Korean industry can get the price of a KF-X down that low, National Interest reported.

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The main reason is scale. The only reason that an F-35 costs only around US$100 million is that Lockheed Martin and its partners are building thousands of the single-engine planes for dozens of countries.

It’s likely the KF-X will end up costing much more than Korea Joongang Daily reported it might. It takes around $100 billion in total to develop, build and operate a fleet of a few dozen stealth fighters, Japanese air force general Hideyuki Yoshioka recently asserted. 

Japan, not coincidentally, also has been developing a boutique stealth fighter. Tokyo decided to pursue the F-3 fighter after U.S. lawmakers in the early 2000s banned Lockheed from selling the F-22 to foreign customers. 

Owing in part to the export-ban, Lockheed ended up building just 195 F-22s, all for the U.S. Air Force. The program never achieved meaningful economy of scale. Each F-22 ended up costing around $300 million, not counting ongoing upgrades and operating expenses that could boost the overall program budget to, you guessed it, nearly $100 billion.

It’s likely that the only way South Korea could buy KF-Xs for $100 million apiece is if a lot of other countries also buy copies. Exports, in other words. But the F-35 so far is the only stealth fighter with export customers. Indeed, the F-35 has all but cornered the market for radar-evading fighters among countries with healthy diplomatic ties to the United States. South Korea itself is buying scores of F-35s.

Last month, South Korea unveiled its newly developed indigenous active electronically scanned-array (AESA) radar prototype for use in the KF-X, Janes reported.

The radar, which has been under development since 2016 by South Korean company Hanwha Systems and the country’s Agency for Defense Development (ADD), was unveiled in a ceremony held on 7 August.

The radar will now undergo further ground performance and installation tests before being integrated with the first KF-X prototype for further testing, said South Korean officials, adding that Elta Systems — a subsidiary of Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) — has collaborated on the program and is assisting with the testing phase.

Very few details have emerged about the AESA radar, which officials have described as a “state-of-the-art system capable of detecting and tracking more than 1,000 targets simultaneously.”

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