South Korea has unveiled the prototype of its latest fighter jet, ‘KF-21 Boramae’. At an estimated US$7.8 billion, this is Seoul’s most ambitious and costliest weapons program. Credit: KAI.

Hailed by President Moon Jae-in as “a historic milestone in the development of the (South Korean) aviation industry,” the nation unveiled its homegrown supersonic jet fighter on Friday, joining an exclusive club of military aviation giants, CNN reported.

Once operational, the KF-21 — which looks very much like the American F-35 — is expected to be armed with a range of air-to-air and air-to-surface missiles, and possibly even air-launched cruise missiles.

The twin-engine fighters, envisioned as a stepping stone to develop better fighter aircraft and operate locally developed arms, will come in single- and two-seat versions, depending on the missions to which they are tasked.

The flashy unveiling at the production plant of Korea Aerospace Industries in Sacheon, sets the stage for an ambitious US$7.8 billion program that South Korea hopes will be a top export driver and jobs creator.

Moon said after ground and flight tests are completed, mass production of the KF-21 will begin with a goal of 40 jets deployed by 2028 and 120 by 2032 — an ambitious plan for a small country.

“When full-scale mass production begins, 100,000 additional jobs will be created and we’ll have an added value of 5.9 trillion Korean won ($5.2 billion). The effect will be much greater if they’re exported,” Moon said.

“A new era of independent defence has begun,” Moon said. “Whenever we need it, we can make it.”

South Korea continues to buy large amounts of military hardware from the United States but under Moon the military announced its “acquisition policy will change to centre around domestic R&D rather than overseas purchases.”

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South Korea is expected to produce six KF-21 prototypes for testing and development, the first three to be completed by the end of this year and the next three in the first half of 2022, according to the country’s Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA).

While only 65% of the KF-21 is of South Korean origin, its rollout still marks a significant achievement for a country that doesn’t have a lengthy history of aircraft production.

“When the final tests are completed in the future, South Korea will become the eighth country in the world that has developed an advanced supersonic fighter,” a government statement said.

Those countries are the United States, Russia, China, Japan, France, Sweden and a European consortium of the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy and Spain.

Of those, only the US and China have deployed domestic-made fifth-gen fighter jets — planes which feature stealth technology, radar-jamming capabilities and advanced avionics to give pilots a multi-domain real-time picture of their operation.

Nicknamed Boramae, or “young hawk trained for hunting,” the KF-21 is considered a 4.5-generation fighter jet because it lacks an internal weapons bay that boosts stealthiness.

However, analysts say it may be able to fly higher and faster than the newest US-made fifth-generation fighter, the F-35, and still carry a robust weapons load.

Analysts say the F-21 fighter jet may be able to fly higher and faster than the newest US-made fifth-generation fighter, the F-35, and still carry a robust weapons load. Credit: Handout.

Also, the KAI does not rule out an internal weapons bay in future variants.

“Based on this 4.5 generation platform, South Korea will be capable of building more advanced versions down the road,” professor Bang Hyo-Choong of the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) told Yonhap.

The KF-21 will be powered by two F414 engines, built by US company GE.

GE delivered the first F414 engines to South Korea last year. Interestingly, the F414 will also power the initial variants of India’s under-development Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) stealth fighter.

The Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) currently plans to fly the first prototype of the AMCA by 2025.

The KF-21 is a joint project between South Korea and Indonesia in which Seoul holds 80% of shares while Jakarta seeks 20%.

South Korea selected General Electric’s powerful F414-GE-400 Turbofan engine for its next-generation Experimental (KF-X) fighter jets. Credit: General Electric.

The new fighter jet is expected to replace South Korea’s F-4 and F-5 fighters, third-generation US-designed jets first introduced in the 1960s.

As production runs are increased, it could also replace South Korea’s fourth-generation F-16s and F-15Ks.

South Korea also operates F-35 stealth fighters, receiving the first in a 40-jet order in 2018.

While the KF-21 also has significant export potential because its price tag is expected to be significantly lower than the F-35s the US sells to foreign militaries.

Thailand, the Philippines and possibly even Iraq could be leading clients for the fighter.

According to statistics from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Seoul’s arms exports were 210% higher from 2016 to 2020 than in the previous five years — giving South Korea a 2.7% share of the world’s global arms market.

Sources: CNN, Yahoo! Finance, TheWeek magazine, Yonhap