In 2013, South Korea and two national partners will start developing a medium-sized and probably twin-engined fighter. It will be more agile than a Lockheed Martin F-16, with an advanced sensor suite and fusion software on a par with the US company's new-generation F-35. Aiming to enter operations in 2021, the new design will also carry a bespoke arsenal of indigenous missiles and precision-guided munitions.

That is the vision for the KF-X programme, outlined on 21 October at the Seoul air show by South Korean government and academic officials.

It is a strategy that accepts both technical and political risks. For the programme to succeed, South Korea must depend on a series of favourable decisions by potential partners, from Indonesia to Turkey to - despite the programme's indigenous technology goals - the export control regimes of Europe and the USA.

Not least, the KF-X programme assumes South Korea's aerospace industry can rise from the global supply chain's second tier, to become a world-class systems integrator in less than a decade.

But the KF-X concept is certainly no fluke. After decades of Western and Russian domination of the combat aircraft market, emerging industries in Brazil, Japan, South Korea and Turkey are each considering the costs and benefits of developing home-grown alternatives.

 KF-X concept - Stephen Trimble

© Stephen Trimble/Flightglobal

For South Korea, the KF-X programme started taking shape last year. Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) was tasked by the Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) to begin configuration studies, focusing on a conventional wing and V-tail (above) and a forward-canard and V-tail.

The former concept was highlighted exclusively in presentations during a Seoul air show seminar.

A decision is planned for 2013 to launch a seven-year development phase, with first flight to occur in 2016, according to Korean officials.

As KAI refines the design and technology requirements, DAPA officials are reaching out to international partners.

South Korea intends to assume the leadership role in a three-country partnership, and will also contribute 60% of the cost of the development programme.

Indonesia has agreed in principle to invest a 20% share, and negotiations for signing a formal agreement are ongoing. South Korea has also reached out to Turkey, which is likely to join the programme next year with a 20% contribution, according to DAPA.

But Turkish press reports suggest Ankara is also considering an independent fighter development programme.

Turkey's participation is considered significant by South Korea, but perhaps not essential. DAPA officials suggested the contribution numbers could be adjusted if industrial partners in the USA or Europe agree to invest in the development programme.

South Korea is considering two models for the international partnership. One option is to devote the wings, forward fuselage and final assembly to South Korea, with Turkey and Indonesia to split work on the aft and mid-fuselage.

Alternatively, the programme could establish final assembly and check-out lines in partner countries as well - as long as the partners fund the extra costs - DAPA added.

But the key point for South Korea is to maintain the leadership role for the KF-X programme.

The indigenous fighter is viewed as the next step in the domestic industry's steady growth over the last two decades.

The Seoul air show, for example, featured KAI's KT-1 Wong Bee - a turboprop trainer, and South Korea's first fully indigenous aircraft.

There were also flights by the Black Eagles (below), an aerobatic display team flying Republic of Korea Air Force KAI/Lockheed T-50 Golden Eagle trainers.

Black Eagles T-50s - Rex Features 

© Rex Features

The exhibition halls, meanwhile, displayed the sophisticated aircraft electronics and sensors developed by South Korea's highly developed information technology sector.

The Samsung Thales booth even showed a mock-up for a KF-X cockpit, with a large-format glass display and side stick controller.

But there are still many advances required of South Korea's domestic industry for the KF-X programme to succeed.

In a 3h seminar on KF-X at the show, DAPA outlined a long list of technical requirements. This includes fly-by-wire flight controls and inside the cockpit hands-on-throttle-and-stick pilot controls, a helmet-mounted display and a night vision imaging system.

Onboard the aircraft will also be all the tools of a next-generation fighter - which are as much surveillance platforms as they are weapons delivery systems.

The KF-X will carry an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, a targeting system and an infrared search and track sensor, according to DAPA.

Each of these systems sourced from South Korean or partner countries will be integrated into a single picture on the pilot's large-screen cockpit display.

Although the sensors will be domestically produced, DAPA acknowledges the sensor fusion software must come from non-partner nations, in the form of technology transfer.

For the KF-X to enter service after 2020, some level of low-observable or stealth capability must be factored into the design. DAPA officials said the aircraft would be initially fielded with a "basic" stealth capability, but did not define what that meant.

However, there are some clues: South Korean officials have publicly stated that shaping an airframe to achieve a reduced radar cross section is no longer a secret, and can be found in publicly available textbooks. More difficult is finding out the secret formulas used in radar absorbing materials, and Western data is not likely to be transferred to the country.

 F-15K - US Air Force

© US Air Force

Already a user of the F-15K, Seoul is being offered involvement in Boeing's enhanced 'Silent Eagle' strike aircraft 

Meanwhile, KAI has already started developing conformal weapons bays for the F-15SE Silent Eagle - Boeing's candidate in South Korea's F-X III fighter programme.

It is not clear if the KF-X configuration will include internal weapons carriage, but KAI will have acquired some experience, even if the F-15SE is not selected for the F-X III award.

The most intriguing aspect of the KF-X programme may not be the aircraft, but its new suite of weapons. DAPA has revealed plans to develop a full line of short- and medium-range air-to-air missiles, air-to-surface missiles and precision-guided munitions.

The short-range air-to-air missile will be developed from the LIG Nex1 Shin-Gung, a shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile, the administration said.

Meanwhile, DAPA has also been developing the Korea GPS guided bomb (KGGB), a 226kg (498lb) indigenous version of Boeing's joint direct attack munition.

For all of the indigenous technology planned for KF-X, however, there remain many gaps - and that is one of the key issues in the strategy.

To be successful, South Korea must obtain the consent of either the US or European governments to export sensitive technologies, including some that are usually withheld from trading partners.

Besides the sensor fusion software, other technologies that must be imported include the jet engines, which has drawn interest from the Eurojet consortium with the EJ200 and General Electric with the F414. The surveillance and tracking modes for the AESA radar also must be obtained from foreign sources.

 RAF Typhoon - Eurofighter

© Eurofighter

Could the Typhoon be the source of engines and other technologies for KF-X?

"AESA transfer is not so easy, as advanced nations are reluctant to do so," DAPA acknowledged. "We believe we can manufacture the hardware, but the problem is the software."

South Korea is counting on offset deals set by the award of the F-X III contract to solve the problem of technology transfer.

Time will tell if this strategy proves too optimistic, but in the meantime there are already questions about other assumptions in the KF-X strategy.

The most contentious claim is over the South Korean government's budget estimate for the seven-year engineering and manufacturing development phase.

Western industry officials believe the official $5 billion estimated cost may be too low by a factor of three.

The seven-year schedule from kick-off to first delivery also seems accelerated, compared to the track record of other modern combat aircraft programmes.

There is no doubting the South Korean air force's commitment to making the KF-X programme succeed - the service's current inventory of KF-16s and F-15Ks already outshines North Korea's ageing fleet of Soviet-era fighters - but the KF-X is viewed as more than a strictly military venture.

"From a strategic viewpoint, we are standing at a critical juncture," DAPA said. "In the past, Korea's exports have been textiles, electronics, automobiles and shipbuilding. All of these industries have reached the top of the world. Now it is the time of the aerospace industry.

"This is not an easy task, but we have to overcome it - somebody must take the lead in overcoming the mountain of challenges. In the future, aerospace will be the locomotive of the Korean economy."

See more coverage from the Seoul air show on Stephen Trimble's The DEW Line blog

Source: Flight International