The South Korean Navy has harbored aspirations for an indigenous aircraft carrier for a long time. However, the plans to build a carrier were ‘abandoned’ for the following fiscal year in an unprecedented development.
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However, the Korean Aerospace Industries is already working on a carrier-borne fighter.
South Korea’s military aircraft manufacturer Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI), has announced plans to produce a carrier-capable variant of its KF-21 fighter aircraft.
Additionally, a KF-21N (naval variant) model was unveiled at the DX Korea 2022 exhibition in Goyang.
The manufacturer stated that the development program is based on the Republic of Korea Navy’s (RoKN) ambitions to acquire an aircraft carrier large enough to fly fighter aircraft. However, KAI said it would be able to produce the KF-21N in a few years if the need was felt.
“The KF-21N would require wings that are 20% larger than those on the KF-21 to ensure safety and stabilization of the aircraft when taking off and landing on an aircraft carrier. The KF-21N would also require developing and integrating a catapult system and other structural changes,” said a KAI official.
The Defense Ministry formalized the CVX proposal to create a light aircraft carrier in February 2021. The defense ministry first proposed building a 30,000-ton light aircraft carrier with more than 400 crew members, sparking discussion about whether South Korea needs such a pricey vessel for operations at sea.
Earlier this month, South Korea reportedly abandoned its plans for an aircraft carrier. The projected 2023 defense budget for South Korea does not include funds for the CVX project. On September 2, 2022, the proposed budget was delivered to the National Assembly, as previously reported by EurAsian Times.
At the time, the decision to scrap the ambitious program was attributed to a shift in strategy brought on by North Korea’s increased aggression.
Experts, however, argued that it has more to do with the expanding scope of the carrier’s design and rising cost, which the budget might not have covered.
However, considering the enthusiasm with which the naval variant of the KF-21 was displayed, the aircraft carrier program is back in focus and might not have been permanently abandoned.
In a separate yet related development, General Kim Seung-kyum, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Republic of Korea, stated on September 19 that if a carrier-capable fighter is developed domestically, the military will explore obtaining an aircraft carrier that is larger than the existing CVX design.
South Korea’s Carrier-Borne Fighter Jet
The aerospace company emphasized that the KF-21N is only a concept designed to show that a naval variant of the KF-21 may be developed. The features and capabilities of the maritime fighter are essentially the same as its air variant.
A distinguishing feature, however, is that the aircraft would have foldable wings and may be modified for aircraft carriers that support either short takeoff but arrested recovery (STOBAR) or catapult-aided takeoff but arrested recovery (CATOBAR).
Additionally, hypersonic long-range air-to-surface missiles, reportedly under development by South Korea’s Agency for Defense Development, were integrated into the KF-21 model on exhibit at the DX Korea (ADD). At the time of publication, KAI had not released any information regarding the missiles.
KF-21N will be powered by the same US-made F414-GE-400K twin engine from the KF-21 with a top speed of Mach 1.6 and a maximum takeoff weight of 25,600 kilograms. The KF-21 will eventually replace F-16Us in the South Korean air fleet. It is bigger than the F-35 and may have better capabilities than the most recent F-16V.
The KF-21 Boramae (Hawk), which is designed as a “4.5+” gen fighter and is supposed to be one of the most capable in its class with its “stealthy” low-Radar Cross Section design, completed its first flight on July 19, 2022.
According to some reports, South Korea could develop a larger aircraft based on the KF-21 platform called the KF-XX. Earlier, the South Korean government considered buying the F-35B fighter jet operating aboard aircraft carriers by navies like the United Kingdom.
However, the axing of the CVX program has pulled the plug on those plans. In July, South Korea’s decision to purchase 20 new F-35A Block 4 Lightning II stealth fighters first raised questions about the future of the South Korean aircraft program.
Even though the CVX represented South Korea’s Blue Water Navy goals, it hasn’t taken off due to security objectives and guard coverage changes.