Once production begins on the new KF-X stealth fighter, an additional 10 trillion won will be needed, putting the bill for the entire project at around 18.6 trillion won, or US$16 billion. Credit: Janes.

South Korea’s new KF-X (Korean Fighter eXperimental) multi-role stealth fighter has begun final assembly despite the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, and will be rolled out in the first half of next year, as planned.

According to a report in Janes.com, South Korea’s Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) said in a statement that the company has begun joining the prototype aircraft’s fuselage sections and wings at its facility in Sacheon, South Gyeongsang Province.

Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) had previously stated that the twin-engined aircraft, development of which began in 2015 for the Republic of Korea Air Force (RoKAF), would be unveiled to the public in April 2021.

The prototype is expected to conduct its first flight in 2022.

The KF-X, development of which is scheduled to be completed in 2026 followed by mass production in 2028, is expected to reach a top speed of about 1,400 mph (or about Mach 1.83), have a range of about 2,900 km, a maximum take-off weight of 25,580 kg, and be capable of carrying up to 7,700 kg of payload.

The aircraft, which is expected to be produced in both single- and tandem-seat variants, will feature three hardpoints under each wing for weapons and/or external fuel tanks and will also be capable of carrying four missiles under the fuselage, according to KAI.

South Korea’s new KF-X (Korean Fighter eXperimental) multi-role stealth fighter has begun final assembly. Credit: Korean Aerospace Industries.

At least 120 examples are expected to replace the Republic of Korea Air Force’s (ROKAF) fleet of ageing McDonnell Douglas F-4D/E Phantom IIs and Northrop F-5E/F Tiger IIs, Flight Global reported.

Indonesia appears likely obtain 48 examples of the IF-X variant, with an initial order of 16, and 32 to follow depending on finances.

According to Korea Joongang Daily, the design for the KF-X — the biggest homegrown weapons development project in Korean history — is the result of almost two decades of planning that cost the government approximately 8.6 trillion won (US$7 billion).

Once production begins on 120 units of the new jet, an additional 10 trillion won will be needed, putting the bill for the entire project at around 18.6 trillion won, or US$16 billion.

If these figures are accurate, each KF-X could cost around US$130 million. That’s slightly more than a US-made F-35 stealth fighter costs in 2019. But there are reasons to doubt Korean industry can get the price of a KF-X down that low, National Interest reported.

The main reason is scale. The only reason that an F-35 costs only around US$100 million is that Lockheed Martin and its partners are building thousands of the single-engine planes for dozens of countries.

South Korea unveiled a locally developed AESA radar prototype for use by the country’s next-generation multirole fighter aircraft under the KF-X program. Credit: DAPA.

Last month, South Korea unveiled its newly developed indigenous active electronically scanned-array (AESA) radar prototype for use in the KF-X, Janes reported.

The radar, which has been under development since 2016 by South Korean company Hanwha Systems and the country’s Agency for Defense Development (ADD), was unveiled in a ceremony held on 7 August.

The radar will now undergo further ground performance and installation tests before being integrated with the first KF-X prototype for further testing, said South Korean officials, adding that Elta Systems — a subsidiary of Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) — has collaborated on the program and is assisting with the testing phase.

Very few details have emerged about the AESA radar, which officials have described as a “state-of-the-art system capable of detecting and tracking more than 1,000 targets simultaneously.”

Judging by the color of the components, most of the structure seems to comprise composite materials. This would parallel the approach taken in other new-generation fighter designs, in which advanced composite construction helps with reducing radar signature, while also providing a light and strong airframe. 

As for armament, Europe’s MBDA Missile Systems announced it had been awarded a contract to integrate its ramjet-powered Meteor beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile (BVRAAM) with the KF-X, The Drive reported.

The Meteor BVRAAM will be complemented by the infrared-guided IRIS-T short-range air-to-air missile produced by Germany’s Diehl Defence.

In addition to those missiles, the aircraft will have also have a built-in 20mm M61 Vulcan cannon firing through a port on the top of the fuselage on the lefthand-side behind the cockpit.