KF-21 prototype has lost more than luster

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KF-21 prototype has lost more than luster

The prototype of the KF-21 Boramae was unveiled by Korea Aerospace Industries in Sacheon, South Gyeongsang on April 9. [YONHAP]

The prototype of the KF-21 Boramae was unveiled by Korea Aerospace Industries in Sacheon, South Gyeongsang on April 9. [YONHAP]

 
Two months after its much-ballyhooed April 9 unveiling, the KF-21 Boramae is being dismantled, raising awkward questions about the true readiness of the prototype of Korea's first indigenously developed fighter jet.
 
In stark contrast with its glossy grey appearance at the April ceremony, the prototype has reportedly already been stripped of its engine and various components, leaving it nearly exposed to its underlying frame and propped up on supporting beams.
 
As the prototype essentially returns to the assembly phase, critics are asking if the jet, dubbed the Korean Fighter eXperimental (KF-X) prior to its official unveiling, was hastily assembled to appear ready before the ceremony, which was attended by President Moon Jae-in and Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto.
 
The view of various experts is that the removal of crucial components of the plane, such as its landing gear, refueling and key piloting systems, goes above and beyond what is necessary before tests are conducted on the jet.
 
“Even if [the dismantling] is in preparation for a ground test, a wholesale disassembly is difficult to comprehend,” said a retired Air Force general who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
 
“Normally, the unveiling of a prototype takes place before the final ground test and test flight,” he added, suggesting that the prototype was not, in fact, flight-worthy before its unveiling.
 
While an official from the Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA), which is responsible for domestic weapons development and oversaw the KF-21 project, said that the dismantling was part of a “planned phase in the ground test process,” others are not buying that explanation.
 
An aerospace industry insider who also asked to remain anonymous said, “Even after assembly [of a plane] is completed, there are many particulars to check, such as the center of gravity, which may not align with the design.
 
“However, [the jet’s dismantling] exceeds the usual replacement of small components or inspections.”
 
Although DAPA and the jet’s manufacturer, Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI), have said that the KF-21 prototype is scheduled to undertake its maiden flight next year, even a ground test would be difficult to conduct with its engine dismounted.
 
While the prototype’s assembly process was extensively publicized through media tours at KAI’s main factory in Sacheon, South Gyeongsang, requests for current photos of the KF-21 from the JoongAng Ilbo were rebuffed.
 
“We don’t want to create any misunderstandings by showing people the disassembled prototype after they already saw the completed jet,” said an anonymous source at KAI.
 
A military source suggested that the prototype, which was originally scheduled to be completed in May, was finished to coincide with the Indonesian defense delegation’s April visit to Korea.
 
Indonesia is the only major foreign investor in the KF-21 project, paying 1.6 trillion won ($1.4 billion), or 20 percent, of the 8.5 trillion won development price tag. The Southeast Asian country will eventually receive 50 out of a total 170 jets.
 
“The government is anxious that Indonesia is reviewing plans to acquire French Dassault Rafale fighter jets,” the source said. “If Indonesia gives up its role in funding the KF-21, the government can plug the resulting budget shortfall, but it would throw cold water on export plans.”
 
BY MICHAEL LEE   [lee.junhyuk@joongang.co.kr]
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