April 2011 marked a milestone in the history of Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI). In that month, Jakarta named KAI as the preferred bidder for its advanced jet trainer competition. This paved the way for a $400 million order for 16 T-50 Golden Eagle aircraft, securing the first overseas customer for the indigenous type.
The T-50 is but the highest-profile South Korean indigenous aircraft. Other examples include the Surion transport helicopter, and two developmental projects, the Korea Fighter experimental (KFX) and Light Armed Attack Helicopter (LAH). On the civilian front, KAI's KX-100 Naraon four-seat, single-engine turboprop conducted its maiden flight in July.
Although KAI co-developed the T-50 with Lockheed Martin in the 1990s, the programme has taken a distinct Korean flavour. So far, 50 T-50s and 10 T-50Bs have been delivered to the Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF). KAI is starting to deliver the T/A-50 variant to ROKAF. The T/A-50 is equipped with a 20mm cannon and hard points for weapons.
"KAI is continuously working hard to capture the international advanced trainer market after its success in Indonesia," said KAI. "We are getting ready for the United States T-X project and trainer competitions in Poland and Israel. In the future, KAI will be ready for customers in South America, the Middle East, Asia and any other places in the world where demand exists."
The T-50 will be rebranded for competition in the US market
Copyright: Korea Aerospace Industries
KAI added that Poland's request for proposals (RFP) was released in June, and that KAI still preparing its submission. An RFP is expected from Israel before the end of the year.
The next major variant of the T-50 will be the F/A-50 fighter. Seoul is likely to obtain 60-150 F/A-50s to replace the ROKAF's aging F-5s.
The developmental F/A-50 will represent a major increase in capability over its trainer predecessor. It will have the Link-16 tactical data link and an Elta Systems EL/M-2032 pulse doppler radar. Raytheon and Northrop Grumman have said the F/A-50 is a candidate for their respective active electronically scanned array radars (AESA) for the F-16. If the F/A-50 does get an AESA radar, it will likely be the same one chosen for the USAF's and ROKAF's eventual F-16 radar upgrade. The F/A-50 will also be able to deploy advanced air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons.
While there is a distinct international market for light fighters such as the F/A-50, some industry observers feel that the aircraft could make Lockheed - which has helped market the T-50 trainer internationally - uncomfortable as it may pose too much of a direct challenge to its F-16. After four decades of production, the F-16 is at a critical stage in its history, with production likely to cease by the end of 2013 if additional orders are not secured.
KAI has also enjoyed success with its basic trainer, the KT-1. The aircraft is operated by the ROKAF and has received international acceptance, with orders from Indonesia and Turkey. Given international interest in light attack aircraft, KAI is also offering a KA-1 variant that can be equipped with heavy machine guns and rockets.
Apart from the T-50 and its variants, South Korea's other high-profile indigenous project is the Korea utility helicopter, also known as the Surion. KAI foresees demand for more than 240 from the South Korean army, and an international market for 300.
As with the T-50, the Surion's development was facilitated by the involvement of a foreign partner, in this case Eurocopter, which shared extensive knowledge from its Super Puma MK1/2 family, and sent engineering teams to South Korea. It also played a key role in subsystems such as the drive system, rotor mast and automatic flight-control system. KAI Eurocopter, a joint venture 51% owned by KAI and 49% by Eurocopter, was created in 2010 to market the Surion internationally. KAI hopes to sell more than 300 Surions globally.
The KC-100 four seat, single-engined turboprop was flown for the first time in July
Copyright: Korea Aerospace Industries
Apart from its military transport role, KAI said Surion is also suitable for missions including maritime patrol, search and rescue, law enforcement and commercial uses. Also, KAI and Eurocopter have identified other areas to cooperate further on the Surion. These include the possible development of an attack version, and the two companies (along with Israel's Elbit Systems) have signed a memorandum of understanding to develop a naval variant for the South Korean navy.
On the general aviation front, KAI expects the Naraon four-seat light aircraft to enter service in 2013-14, depending on market conditions. The Naraon is powered by a single Teledyne Continental Motors TSIOF-550K turboprop with 315 horsepower (hp). The engine is equipped with full authority digital engine controls. KAI said the target market for the Naraon is "personal transportation".
Seoul has ambitious plans for more advanced types, with the Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) placing emphasis on two programmes, the KF-X (Korea fighter experimental) indigenous fighter aircraft programme and an indigenous attack helicopter known as the Korea attack helicopter (KAH) or light attack helicopter (LAH).
The KF-X is intended as an F-16 replacement. Although Seoul has long been interested in the programme, only in July did KAI and the government sign a contract to develop the aircraft. Indonesia is part of the programme, with the two governments opening the Combined Research & Development Center in August in Daejeon, 160km (99 miles) south of Seoul. It will be staffed by 100 South Korean and 30 Indonesian researchers.
On 14 July, a story carried by Indonesia's official news agency, Antara, said Jakarta will participate in the programme, contributing 20% of the development costs. Antara quoted the secretary general of Indonesia's defence ministry, Erris Heriyanto, as saying development of the KF-X will take place in three stages: technological development over the next two years, engineering and manufacturing, and, finally, production. The partners have agreed to produce 150-200 units, of which Indonesia will get 50. These will be sufficient to equip three combat squadrons, he said.
An Indonesian source told Flightglobal that Jakarta expects KF-X to be ready by 2018. Seoul, apparently interested in reducing its share of the estimated $8 billion in development costs, has also spoken to Turkey. Ankara, however, announced plans for its own indigenous fighter in December 2010.
Surion test flight at KAI Sacheon
Copyright: Greg Waldon
Industry sources say DAPA hopes to apply offsets from the F-X III fighter competition to the KF-X programme. But some industry sources feel that Washington could be wary of providing advanced technologies for an aircraft that is being co-developed with Indonesia. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a US government official said KF-X will place a tremendous strain on South Korea's research capabilities and defence budget, and will likely result in a fighter that is less effective than others available in the international market.
Somewhat less clear are Seoul's plans for the KAH, which is destined to replace the army's Hughes 500MD Defenders and Bell AH-1S Cobras. Exact specifications are yet to emerge, but it is believed the nation wants an attack helicopter that can also carry six to eight passengers, similar to the Mil Mi-35, which will allow for a commercial variant. Offsets related to the AHX competition for 36 attack helicopters will likely be applicable to the indigenous light armed helicopter.
In July 2010, DAPA selected KAI as the preferred bidder for the project's initial research and development. Boeing said it would be interested in offering its AH-6 light attack helicopter for the LAH offset, although the AH-6 has capacity for just three passengers in addition to two pilots.
Although aircraft such as the T-50 have enjoyed limited success overseas, and the Surion has yet to find an international customer, it is clear that Seoul is committed to forging ahead with even more ambitious programmes.