Why the KF-21 fighter jet could be a game-changer in Asia
There is a new fighter jet on the horizon that seeks to change the balance of military power in Asia and the military aviation industry in general. South Korea launched its KF-21 Boramae prototype to limited fanfare. Not the fighter’s fault. It first flew on the same day this summer that a heatwave in London made headlines and sparked wildfires that would destroy historic homes in the city. But the KF-21 deserves a lot of fanfare. It’s a project by a US ally that could rewrite the rules of the military jet industry.
Made in Asia
For starters, the jet is a South Korean project led by Korean Aerospace Industries. South Korea still flies F-4s and F-5s alongside more modern fighters like the F-16s and F-35s. If you noticed that all of these jets are made in the USA, congratulations. The Republic of Korea Air Force currently relies heavily on American manufacturing. The KF-21 is a chance to change that and replace the old F-4 and 5. But the project is ambitious. The Republic of Korea have never released their own complete fighter. The KAI T-50 is the closest they’ve come. The multirole light trainer/fighter is not as complex as a full fighter.
And almost everything on the KF-21, except for the engines supplied by the Americans, is indigenous.
AFuzion, Inc. CEO Vance Hilderman, whose company helped with parts of the development, said the maiden flight showed that the last 10 years of work had paid off.
“With the cockpit, the avionics, the actuators, the flight controls, most, probably 90%, of the innards are all indigenous. And Korea did all of that in just 10 years.
“I didn’t think they could do it five years ago. And I am the owner of AFuzion,” he said.
South Korea had to develop quite complicated technology to make it work. Lockheed Martin became a design consultant for the program and gave South Korea a head start through technology sharing. But the United States blocked the transfer of four key technologies in 2015: active phased array radar, electro-optical targeting pod, infrared search and tracking, and radio frequency jammer.
And just four years ago, South Korea came knocking at AFuzion’s door. I mean, not literally. It would be ridiculous. When we spoke, Vance was in Idaho, and South Korea can’t fit in Idaho. And also, it is a peninsula. And not anthropomorphic. But, you know, metaphorically, it came knocking.
South Korea took their American engines, added their American technology, their local technology, and then asked AFuzion to help marry it all to the cockpit. I asked Vance if it looked like they had successfully replicated the blocked technology.
“I can’t, uh, I can’t really go into detail here.” He smiled. “But I think they have what they need.”
A future bestseller
The current iteration of the KF-21 appears to check most blocks for South Korea, its partner in Indonesia, and potential export customers.
Its twin-engine design uses more fuel but increases redundancy in the jet, Vance said. All the technology needed for a capable Gen 4.5 jet is there. And there’s nothing that would likely block future sales of the jet, a major goal of KAI as it hopes to fund innovations and future jets with KF-21 sales.
Vance said some of the conservative elements of the design, such as having two engines instead of a more fuel-efficient single engine, were likely to ensure the jet could be certified for export.
“Military jets with a single pilot or a crew of two are not as vetted as a passenger jet, in terms of safety before export. But it must be certified. Here, the army does all this security certification, even for the air force. You might think it would be the Air Force, but it’s the Army in Huntsville, Alabama. Korea will have to navigate it, which is quite difficult.
Again, the TA-50 is Korea’s closest to completing the process of a full-size military aircraft. And the TA-50 is much smaller and less complex.
But once the KF-21 completes the process, it appears to be a reliable Generation 4.5 fighter, developed locally in Southeast Asia. For Korea’s allies, this creates an attractive option to deter China without having to resort to American, European or Western options.