South Korea builds regional presence in the advanced jet trainer/ light fighter market, as its T-50/FA-50 gets back to winning ways in the export arena.
The FA-50 is a substantially more capable platform than the types it is replacing as part of the Royal Malaysian Air Force’s (RMAF) Fighter Lead-in Trainer- Light Combat Aircraft (FLIT-LCA) programme. These are the BAE Systems Hawk 108/208 in the trainer and light fighter roles as well as the Aermacchi MB-339 trainer aircraft. The T-50/FA-50 drew on the design of the Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon and the United States company was a development partner with KAI on the T-50.
KAI had struggled in some of its earlier sales campaigns. For instance, it failed to secure deals in Botswana, Poland, and the United Arab Emirates. A combination of bid pricing and limited technology transfer provisions may have helped undermine these efforts. The subsequent successes enjoyed by Seoul likely reflect its change of approach. In September 2022, it secured a deal to supply 48 FA-50s to Warsaw, worth USD3 billion. Poland in 2013 opted for the M-346 over the T-50, but the 2022 decision was the reverse. Leonardo’s M-346FA (Fighter Attack) development of the M-346 on this occasion lost out to the FA-50.
Placing a product in the lead-in fighter trainer/light combat aircraft segment of the market is challenging for aerospace manufacturers because it requires balancing cost with performance across two different roles. Traditionally this class of aircraft has been subsonic, meaning the emphasis is on a performance envelop more suited to the advanced trainer role with a relatively more limited combat potential in the light fighter/ground-attack roles.
However, budgetary pressures and a deteriorating security environment are forcing some states to reorient their attention more towards procurement of higher performance design that can deliver both the advanced trainer and enhanced light fighter roles, rather than pursuing two different types of aircraft. Moreover, these conditions press countries to promote greater industrial self-reliance through investments in defence-industrial growth and the inclusion of joint-production capabilities in future contracts – considerations which likely shaped the T-50/F-50 deals.
The FLIT-LCA requirement is part of Malaysia’s larger Capability 55 aircraft modernisation programme. The FLIT-LCA is meant to cover the acquisition of 36 aircraft to meet a three-squadron requirement. In recent years the Royal Malaysian Air Force (RMAF) has struggled with aircraft availability combined with an extended grounding of the MB-339. An aircraft selection for the remainder of the FLIT-LCA requirement is still to be made, with the KAI aircraft a strong candidate.
The FLIT-LCA was part of the 2020 Defence White Paper that also included the Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MRCA) requirement. The latter was intended to provide two squadrons’ worth of aircraft to replace the RMAF’s MiG-29s, but funding constraints have delayed this project. The FA-50 will serve as a fighter lead-in trainer to be used for airspace protection as well as for close air support and to supplement the MRCA squadrons.
Earlier regional adopters
KAI secured its first T-50 export when Indonesia ordered the aircraft in 2011. This trend was continued in 2014 by the Philippines and a year later by Thailand. Indonesia now operates 14 T-50s, the Philippines 12 FA-50s, and Thailand 12 T-50s, though Indonesia is set to buy six more aircraft and Thailand a further two. This is likely reflective of the region’s growing reliance on Korean aircraft. Indonesia’s T-50s replaced its Hawk Mk 53 as the jet trainer, with the Thai aircraft used to replace the L-39 in the same role. The Philippine acquisition of the FA-50 provided its air force with a belated successor to its Northrop F-5A Freedom Fighter in the fighter ground-attack role. The air force lacked a combat aircraft for a decade until delivery of the FA-50 began in late 2015.
The initial Philippines FA-50 purchase was part of its ‘first Horizon’ defence acquisition programme. Now, as part of its Horizon Three plan, it is looking to acquire up to a further 12 lead-in trainer/ground attack aircraft. The FA-50 is rumoured to be in contention. Manila’s defence plans reflect its concerns over Beijing’s increasingly abrasive and assertive foreign policy. As well as the lead-in trainer requirement, the Philippines is also looking to acquire a multi-role combat aircraft. This would mark a notable increase in its air force’s capability, should the requirement be fulfilled. The Philippines is aiming to initially buy 12 multi-role fighters, with the ambition to acquire more.
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