KF-X prototype assembly continues apace
The top, middle and bottom parts of the fuselage of the first KF-X prototype, a new South Korean 4.5-generation twin-engine fighter, are being assembled by Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI).
KAI said in June that it would finalise assembly of the first prototype by the end of this year. Seoul plans to eventually produce around 120 of these aircraft for the Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF).
The first fighter could roll out as early as next April. Its first flight is scheduled for 2022 with further development and testing continuing until 2026, by when the Block 1 variant will be considered ready for full production.
This is the second fighter programme for KAI after the FA-50 light fighter. The ROKAF needs the platform to replace ageing F-4 Phantom II and F-5E/F Tiger II fighters that continue to soldier on in service (see table below).
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The $7.4 billion KF-X project kicked off in January 2016, and the design was unveiled on 29 June 2018 after the Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) completed a preliminary design review immediately prior to that.
DAPA reported last September that the critical design review had been completed, paving the way for construction of the first prototype to commence.
South Korea has already selected precision-guided munitions and guidance kits to be used aboard the KF-X. These are the Raytheon GBU-12 Paveway II, Boeing GBU-31/38 Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM), GBU-54/56 Laser JDAM, GBU-39/B Small Diameter Bomb 1 and Textron Wind Corrected Munitions Dispenser CBU‐105.
The integration process of these weapons, expected to take six to seven years, will start later this year.
MBDA declared last November that its Meteor beyond-visual-range AAM had been awarded a contract for integration on the KF-X. The Diehl IRIS-T short-range AAM is also set to be added.
South Korea is also developing a supersonic air-to-surface missile suitable for the KF-X. Its speed will be around Mach 2.5, have a range of at least 250km and weigh less than 1.36t.
The US refused to transfer four critical technologies to South Korea for its fighter programme, namely the AESA radar, EO targeting pods, IR search and track system and RF jammer, despite these being promised by Lockheed Martin when Seoul signed up for the F-35A.
Consequently, avionics on the KF-X are primarily indigenous. Assisted by IAI Elta, Hanwha Systems is responsible for the AESA radar, and it announced within the past month that the radar’s development was complete. The first prototype is expected to be unveiled on 12 August. The radar passed a critical design review on 26 September 2019, and it has since been conducting aerial testing.
For the radar, Israel’s Elbit Systems is providing the terrain following/terrain avoidance system, with a $43 million contract announced in February.
In May, General Electric delivered the first F414-GE-400K turbofan engines to South Korea. The engine manufacturer will deliver 15 engines for six prototype fighters by 2021. In all, Hanwha Techwin will licence-produce the remainder of 240 of these GE engines. The KF-X will also utilise Martin-Baker Mk18 ejection seats.
Indonesia has a 20% investment share in the KF-X programme, although Jakarta’s payments were well in arrears to the tune of $415 million by April. Approximately 100 engineers from PT Dirgantara Indonesia have been cooperating with KAI; they will shortly return to South Korea after they temporarily departed in March due to the growing COVID-19 crisis.
The future fighter fleet of the ROKAF will therefore comprise the single-engine FA-50, F-16 and F-35A, plus the twin-engine KF-X and F-15K.
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