China Admits, Its Aerospace Industries Are Behind South Korea

The KF-21, South Korea's first homegrown fighter jet, at its rollout ceremony in Sacheon, South Korea, April 9, 2021. Yonhap via REUTERS

Zhou Chenming, a Beijing-based military expert, said that although South Korea was developing a highly advanced jet fighter, China was not afraid of falling behind.

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China is not afraid of being outpaced in terms of military modernization, analysts said, after South Korea last week unveiled a prototype of its planned 4.5th-generation fighter jet, as the two countries are looking at different export markets.

The new KF-21 Boramae is an advanced medium multirole fighter designed for South Korean and Indonesian air forces to replace their ageing fleet. Boramae means young hawk in the Korean language.

As 65 percent of the jet is South Korean in origin, the country – a close ally of the United States – is now the eighth country in the world to have mastered the technology needed to develop an advanced fighter jet.

At a roll-out ceremony on Friday, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said “a new era of independent defence has begun, and it’s a historic milestone in the development of the [South Korean] aviation industry”.

South Korea’s deputy presidential spokesperson Lim Se-eun said earlier the country had set a goal to become the world’s seventh-biggest aviation manufacturer by the 2030s, Forbes reported.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in says “a new era of independent defence has begun”. Photo: Reuters

According to media reports, Boramae is expected to make its first test flight in 2022, with manufacturing set to start in 2026. At least 40 of the jets are planned to be delivered by 2028, with South Korea expecting to deploy 120 of them by 2032.

After joining the air force, it will take several years before the jet is combat ready.

Jon Grevatt, a warplane specialist and Asia-Pacific defence analyst at Janes, said the development of the KF-21 prototype was only “halfway through at the moment” and it would take another five years to finalize its development.

Once the aircraft was completed, it would give South Korea a strategic edge as it would reduce the country’s reliance on imported technologies, he said.

“The US in the past has denied export approvals to South Korea of very advanced technologies. But now with its own aircraft, South Korea doesn’t have to rely on anybody else,” Grevatt said.

“This prestigious aircraft, once operational, will provide Seoul with the sovereignty to project power, since South Korea is a country that has real strategic risks,” he said, referring to North Korea.

North Korea fired two projectiles into the sea late last month, the South Korean military said, in what might have been its first ballistic missile test since Joe Biden became US president.

The Boramae is expected to make its first test flight in 2022. Photo: AFP

Zhou Chenming, a Beijing-based military expert, said that although South Korea was developing a highly advanced jet fighter, China was not afraid of falling behind.

It would take many years for the KF-21 to become fully operational and China’s air force power would also improve in that time, he said.

China is developing a fifth-generation stealth fighter jet known as the Shenyang FC-31 or J-31. A prototype of the aircraft might have undergone a number of modifications last year, according to a photograph shared online at the time.

Grevatt said the KF-21 was not expected to have a detrimental impact on China’s export markets for aircraft as the two countries were looking at different buyers.

“Usually the South Korean aircraft are regarded as a bit more expensive than Chinese counterparts, but certainly more capable,” he said.

“For that reason, I’m not sure that there will be any direct impact on China’s exports of fighter aircraft, because they probably wouldn’t be going to the same kind of customers.”

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