[OUTLOOK]Keeping up the pace in aerospaceKorea's first supersonic fighter jet, the "Golden Eagle" T-50, finished its first flight successfully. The glorious achievement of becoming the 12th country in the world to develop a supersonic jet will not only enhance our air force capabilities but also play a big role in developing the air transportation industry. The ability to develop a supersonic jet by ourselves means that we are now capable of developing more high-technology fighter jets. Douglas MacArthur, having none-too-fond memories of the Japanese Zero fighter planes, leveled Japan's aviation industry during the U.S. occupation of Japan after World War II. Starting anew, it took Japan over 40 years to build a reliable supersonic jet engine.
By that time, propeller engines had already been replaced by jet engines around the world and the Japanese, who had lost their opportunity to accumulate the necessary technology to become a leader in the field, reluctantly bought jet engines from abroad.
The air transportation industry requires time and patience and large investments. Without the firm support of the government, substantial development is almost impossible. The successful development of the T-50 is a reversal from the situation in the past, when the project was almost abandoned.
Five years ago, in 1997, the government had commissioned the Korea Development Institute to evaluate the soundness of the 1.4 trillion won ($1.2 billion) venture to develop the T-50 jets designated for the trainer jet project. Had the project been rejected at that time, there would not have been this successful supersonic flight and Korea's air industry would have become practically nonexistent after the 1997 financial crisis.
From servicing military weapons in the 1950s and 1960s, Korea went on to acquire a production license for the 500-MD military helicopter and other military aircraft and engines in the 1970s.
By the 1980s, Korea had reached the level of producing F-5 fighter jets. Yet, we also made the mistake of leaving an eight-year gap until the KFP project for F-16 jet production in 1994, during which we let our hard-earned technology rust. Had there been no T-50, Korea's air industry would have once again lost its direction and been left in limbo after the production of the F-16 jets.
Therefore, we must keep in mind a few things about the success of the T-50 production.
First, we must keep up the sustainability of our air industry. If automobile production can be said to represent the 20th century manufacturing industry, then the 21st century's symbol is the air and space industry.
We must steadily develop our air industry if only to decrease the trade deficit of $2-3 billion from importing aircraft.
Through gritty determination, Japan has developed its air industry to the point of now having a 13 percent participation in the production of Boeing 767 jets and 21 percent participation in the production of Boeing 777s. There are even some Japanese-made parts in Airbus engines.
This Japanese experience also shows how international cooperation is vital in the air industry. Even the United States and France, who lead the air industry, prefer working with others internationally to lessen the risks of their large investments.
Although it would be difficult to bring home assignments to produce core technologies right away, it would be possible to participate in joint development programs if we polish our technologies.
Second, we must think of the far-reaching effects of the technologies used in the aviation industry. Ishikawajima-Harima Heavy Industries Co., Ltd. of Japan supplies titanium needed for aircraft production. It also earns big profits by using its titanium for golf clubs aimed at the Japanese market of 15 million golfers.
To lessen the risks of the high-cost aviation industry, we must aim for dual technology applications in which military technology can be used in civilian sectors as well.
Third, taking the success of the T-50 as an opportunity, we must accumulate technology and conduct research and development with the purpose of independently developing our next-generation fighter jets. The reason our people's precious tax money was spent on the expensive development of the T-50 jets was our people's wish to acquire an independent security force. We have succeeded in developing supersonic jets, but there are many other high-technology barriers that we must surmount from now on. This progress must be supported with consistent attention from the government and the public.
* The writer is a professor of political science at Hanyang University.
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