Despite setbacks, KF-X jet project gets a timetable

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Despite setbacks, KF-X jet project gets a timetable

The Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) announced Thursday that Korea officially kicked off its ambitious KF-X project to develop indigenous next-generation fighter jets to defend it airspace within the next decade.

Despite setbacks last year in acquiring some key technologies for the fighters from the United States, the DAPA unveiled a detailed timeline for the project in cooperation with the Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI), the local aircraft manufacturer. KF-X stands for Korean Fighter Experimental.

“The KF-X project will take a leading role in the development of our aviation industry,” Chang Myoung-jin, head of the DAPA, said Thursday. “As requested by our Air Force, we will make all assurances that a fighter jet with superb capabilities can be deployed in a timely manner and develop a locally-made fighter jet that all Koreans can be proud of.”

The DAPA and KAI held a meeting at the aerospace company’s headquarters in Sacheon, South Gyeongsang, attended by some 200 government officials and industry experts. This included military officials and lawmakers on a KF-X project risk management committee, as well as foreign partners like representatives of U.S. aircraft manufacturer Lockheed Martin and the Indonesian government.

In November, Indonesia’s government signed on to the project, agreeing to pay 20 percent of the total cost of development. It will participate in some designing and receive access to some technologies and a prototype.

The Korean government allocated some 8.5 trillion won ($6.67 billion) to develop indigenous mid-level fighter jets to replace the Air Force’s antiquated F-4 and F-5 aircraft. Another 9.6 trillion won is earmarked for the production of the 4.5th generation fighters, which are expected to outperform the KF-16-class fighters, bringing the total budget for the project to 18.1 trillion won.

KAI is expected to begin production of the KF-X in 2018, finish designing by September 2019 and come up with six prototype fighters by 2021, according to the DAPA. It will spend the next four years doing flight tests to complete development by 2026.

Once development is finalized, 120 fighter jets are expected to be built by 2032.

“We will concentrate all our efforts to the successful development of the KF-X,” said KAI CEO Ha Sung-Yong. “In the spirit of taking on a challenge, we will work toward development of the aerospace industry and expanding exports in order to advance the national economy.”

In March 2015, KAI was selected as the preferred bidder for the multibillion-dollar deal to develop a new indigenous fighter jet and sealed the deal in December.

However, the 10-year project has been hobbled by various setbacks. The DAPA is pledging that it will be able to complete the project on time.

“We aim for 65 percent of the components in the KF-X to be locally made,” said KAI spokesman Lee Myung-hwan, “which amounts to some 90 items including key technologies.”

In September 2014, the Korean government signed a 7.34 trillion won deal with Lockheed Martin to buy 40 F-35A jets and receive technical support for Korea’s project to build its own next-generation fighter jet.

Korea initially asked for 25 technologies from the U.S. defense contractor. The DAPA belatedly admitted in September that Washington had rejected export licenses for four core technologies pertaining to its F-35 stealth fighter jets. There still are worries over whether the United States will transfer the remaining 21 technologies in a timely manner and some doubts whether the development and building of the fighter jets will be feasible within the tight timeframe of a little over 10 years.

BY SARAH KIM, JEONG YONG-SOO [kim.sarah@joonang.co.kr]

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