A new twist to the saga of the South Korean air force's jet trainer project emerged this week with the surprise announcement by Hyundai and Germany's DaimlerChrysler Aerospace (Dasa) that they have signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to proceed with joint development of the AT 2000 Mako advanced trainer/light combat aircraft.

The project promises a re-emergence of the battle between the AT 2000 and the Samsung Aerospace/Lockheed Martin KTX-2, just as consolidation of the South Korean aerospace industry gets under way.

The two programmes were previously in direct competition to meet the air force requirement for 94 jet trainers, subsequently won by the KTX-2.

With $100 million of development money already allocated to the KTX-2 in the company's 1999 budget, Hyundai's apparent intention to proceed with a programme which is still struggling to find a customer has been met with scepticism internationally. Some sources suggest that Hyundai may want the Mako strictly as a bargaining chip in the Korean industry's merger negotiations, hoping that it will give the company the necessary leverage to win substantial KTX-2 work from Samsung.

With Samsung and Lockheed Martin also (and coincidentally) signing an agreement at the Seoul show to market their KTX-2 worldwide, the prospect has opened up again of a head-to-head clash between rival programmes developed by companies planning to merge in 1999.

Hyundai president and chief executive Dong-Jin Kim claims that the two projects are not rivals, saying that they could exist side by side, even in a merged Korean industry, although this argument has gained no credence among other manufacturers.

The Hyundai boss points out that the Mako would allow technology such as stealth, digital flight control systems and the all-composite wing to be transferred to South Korea. While officials of other South Korean companies agree, they counter that, with Hyundai being offered only a 20% share in the programme, it would be better for national industry to build up its capabilities and develop advanced technology through a programme where it takes the lead, such as the KTX-2.

Dasa maintains that development will not proceed without an order. Germany's defence ministry insists that there is no domestic requirement for the Mako, while contacts remain open with potential partner Denel of South Africa, where the aircraft has been proposed for the Advanced Light Fighter Aircraft requirement.

Dasa has also made a preliminary approach to Embraer over a partnership on the Mako, but, although the latest talks with Embraer have generated interest, a sale to the Brazilian air force appears unlikely.

Source: Flight International