Amid the changing dynamic of East Asia, especially displayed by China’s expansionist policy in the South China Sea Region and North Korea showcasing what could be the world’s largest ballistic missile, South Korea has realized that its pursuit of seeking a safe haven lies within itself.
Seoul has looked to have been caught up in a big geopolitical shift in the region, with Beijing stretching its arms out wide to force it to sway its loyalty away from Washington, with which it has had a 70-year-old security pact.
While China has swept apart many in its path due to their status of being a military superpower, it looks like South Korea have no plans to bow down to Beijing just yet, as they set on the path of bolstering their defense with the development of their newest advanced stealth fighter jets— KAI KF-X.
Jointly produced by South Korea and Indonesia, the KAI KF-X Development program, which is also known as ‘Boramae’ (Korean for ‘Hawk’), is an advanced multi-role fighter jet project aimed at producing modern combat aircraft to replace Seoul’s aging F-4D/E Phantom II and F-5E/F Tiger II fighters.
Interestingly, the fighters which have a timeline of being completed by the end of the decade will not be bracketed under the current crop of fifth-generation fighters like the F-35s, F-22 Raptors, or the Su-57s and be developed as a 4.5 generation fighter on a similar pedestal as the Swedish Gripens, the Eurofighter Typhoons, Boeing Super Hornet Block III and the French Rafales.
So, why is South Korea gambling on producing a fighter jet which is one or two generations down at a time when the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, and China are working on producing a sixth-generation fighter?
The answer is the timing and export strategy.
All the next-generation fighters including US secretive NGAD fighter and Britain’s Tempest are likely to be nowhere near completion by the dawn of the next decade when the KF-X could be up and running and ready to fire.
The fighter’s production under the Korea Aerospace Industries is set to go as scheduled with the aerospace firm completing its prototype by April 2021, flying it in 2022 before beginning its production in 2026.
With the six-generation fighters not being anywhere close to completion, the access to the F-35s remaining limited to just a few nations and there being no information on China’s J-20s, the KF-X could be South Korea’s trump card to maintain dominance in the fighter jet market.
This is basically because of what the 4.5 generation fighter jet will offer in comparison to its contemporaries. The KF-X while not being a fifth-generation fighter will have a reduced radar cross-section just like the US F-35 stealth fighters, to improve its stealth.
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“The KF-X is claimed to have a target radar cross-section of .5 meters squared, in the same ballpark as a Eurofighter Typhoon or Swedish Gripen. The Rafale and F-16C clock in at 1 of meter squared,” said Sébastien Roblin, while writing for the National Interest.
With stealth technology staying a prerequisite for a future fifth or sixth-generation fighter jet, KF-X will one of the few fighters to possess the ability to go undetected on enemy radars.
Moreover, the fighter is expected to fly at a maximum speed of Mach 1.8 and a range of 1,800 miles, which is a lot further than the renowned US F-16s. There is also a possibility of fighter cruising at much higher speeds without using afterburners.
According to reports, the KF-X is likely to be equipped with ramjet-powered MBDA Meteor beyond-visual-range missiles, which are known to sustain high speeds over long distances.
The weapons load of the fighter will also have the ASRAAM and IRIS-T short-range heat-seeking air-to-air missiles, with KAI looking to also integrate American AIM-9 and AIM-120 air-to-air missiles which are already in use by the Korean Air Force.
The price of the potential fighters is reported to lie somewhere in between 50 to 60 million dollars per plane, which might also work in the favor of South Korea who could export fighters with a huge weapons load and stealth technology to a lot of customers over the globe.