South Korea is studying proposals from Western manufacturers for its KFX fighter programme, with the details of a feasibility study into an indigenously designed and produced fifth-generation aircraft likely to be released around the end of 2007.

The programme, however, faces two major hurdles that could scuttle its development, say industry sources. The first is a likely 20-year gestation period, during which similar aircraft such as the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter are likely to become available. The second is a price tag of several billion dollars in the pre-production stage itself, which may make the economics of the aircraft untenable.

Presentations to the Agency for Defence Development from Boeing, Lockheed Martin, the Eurofighter consortium, Dassault and Saab focused on possible technology transfer and the potential market for the aircraft. The agency oversees the KFX, Korea Aerospace Industries, which has licence-produced the Lockheed Martin F-16 and jointly developed the T-50 advanced jet trainer with Lockheed, will be the main contractor and work with any Western partner.

There is still much uncertainty over the programme, with one Seoul-based source saying: "Even the Koreans themselves are not sure what they want. The KFX is still not well defined." The Western manufacturers, however, are ready to lend their expertise.

"Lockheed is very keen in helping South Korea in the KFX programme. We have helped Japan develop its F-2 fighters and Taiwan its Indigenous Defence Fighter in the past, and that shows that we have more experience in such programmes than the other companies," says Kim Yong-Ho, Lockheed's senior vice-president in charge of South Korea.

Seoul is keen in finding out about technology such as avionics, fly-by-wire systems, flight computers, and stealth capabilities from the companies. Sources say that it is targeting a single-seat, twin-engined aircraft with a total thrust of at least 40,000lb (180kN). The agency is believed to have at least two concepts on paper, one resembling the Lockheed F-22 and the other the Eurofighter Typhoon, but a final plan is some time away.

After the agency publishes its initial findings, industry sources expect a year or so of national debate before a decision is made. The agency hopes that the aircraft will be in service by 2020, but industry sources say that this is overly optimistic.

"Why spend billions when the F-35 will already be in the market by the time you are done? Even export sales are unlikely, going by Japan's experience with the F-2 and Taiwan with the IDF," says one industry source. "If South Korea goes ahead, it is more due to national pride than anything else. Based on the cost and the amount of time it would take to come up with an aircraft, the KFX simply does not make sense."

Source: Flight International