This year will likely be pivotal for Korea Aerospace Industries’ (KAI) KF-21 Boramae, Korea’s new indigenous fighter, as its manufacturer prepares for a maiden flight scheduled for July. The KF-21 is KAI’s most advanced aircraft program to date, and although the Korea Defense Acquisition Program (DAPA) Administration classifies the KF-21 as a Generation 4.5 fighter as it lacks an internal weapons carriage, it provides for a stealthier variant.
Despite its lack of true low-observable capability, many analysts believe that the KF-21 will benefit from a very weak frontal radar section and good electronic warfare capabilities, ensuring a high level of survivability. It will also likely fly higher and faster than the F-35, while carrying a formidable weapons load, especially for air-to-air missions.
The KF-21 Boramae – whose name derives from the historical term for yearling hunting falcons specifically trained for traditional falconry – is the product of an extremely ambitious program which aims to produce an aircraft which will form the future backbone of the Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF) and indeed the Indonesian Air Force (TNI-AU). The program involves a joint venture between South Korea and Indonesia, with an 80/20 split between Seoul and Jakarta.
In April 2021, the KF-21 prototype was rolled out to KAI’s Sacheon plant, and the six flying prototypes – including two two-seat trainers, the first of them being aircraft number 4 – and two items of non-flying test have undergone rigorous testing on the ground. tests since. Pilot evaluation and ground testing of interior and exterior lighting took place using the third prototype.
Plans are for the tests to last until around 2026, after which mass production of the KF-21 will begin. The program aims to deploy 40 aircraft by 2028 and 120 by 2032. The new fighter would initially replace South Korea’s F-4E and F-5E and may also eventually replace the fourth-generation F-16 and F-15K. generation of the ROKAF. The TNI-AU expects to take delivery of approximately 50 under current plans.
However, the program has more than military significance. Over the past few years, KAI has developed and produced a series of indigenous aircraft designs, and the company – originally established as a joint venture between Samsung Aerospace, the aerospace division of Daewoo Heavy Industries and Hyundai Space and Aircraft Company – has become an industrial powerhouse, making a major contribution to the national economy and providing high-value jobs for Korean workers, with innovative training programs, apprenticeships and opportunities for young engineering graduates.
Among its products, the KT-1 Woongbi turboprop basic trainer and the T/FA-50 Golden Eagle advanced trainer/light fighter aircraft have won large export orders, and KAI hopes the KF -21 will also become an important driver of exports. and a creator of as many as 100,000 jobs when large-scale mass production begins. The program carries an estimated value of 5.9 trillion Korean won ($5.2 billion). Exports remain a possibility, as the aircraft promises to be technologically advanced, operationally capable and inexpensive.
The KF-21 also promises to give the Korean aerospace industry invaluable experience in a number of important new technologies. Original plans called for the KF-21 (then known as the KF-X) to incorporate certain American technologies, the transfer of which to Korea had been agreed upon when the ROKAF signed for 40 F-35As, locally known as Freedom Knight. . Four technology areas formed the “core technologies” necessary for the development of the KF-21, namely Active Electronically Scanned Array Radar (AESA), Radio Frequency (RF) Jammer, Electro-Optical Targeting Pod (EOTP ) and the Infrared Search and Track System (IRST).
The US Congress later deemed the technologies too sensitive to transfer, jeopardizing the entire KF-X program. Korea’s Defense Development Agency (ADD) therefore conducted an extensive feasibility study, eventually concluding that Korea itself could develop the technologies locally.
Probably the most difficult and high profile effort of the four is centered on the development of a suitable AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array) radar by Hanwha Systems with assistance from Elta Systems of Israel. Contrary to some reports, the new radar is not based on an existing Israeli radar, nor on Elta software, although the company has helped with “overseas aerial testing” in Israel using equipment and aircraft of the society. Elbit Systems provides the terrain follow/avoidance system to Hanwha. The partners claim an “89% location rate” for the EASA radar.
Flight testing involved operating a test radar from the open rear ramp of a C-130 Hercules, as well as operating a South African-registered Boeing 737-55S (ZS-TFJ) , with a KF-21 radome grafted onto its own. nose. Development of the radar has come to an end after a decade of R&D effort and a three-year development program.
Hanwha is also developing the KF-21’s nose-mounted EOTP and IRST sensor, which is believed to be based on Leonardo’s SkyWard system. South Korean company LIG Nex1 has started work on a new integrated electronic warfare suite for the KF-21 with radar warning, radio frequency jamming and chaff/flare systems.
One foreign-supplied system is the pilot’s ejection seat. UK’s Martin-Baker Aircraft began testing in February 2021 and has now completed testing. It will base the ejection seat tests for the two-seat version of the aircraft on the results of the single-seat KF-21 ejection seat tests and verify the results during the first half of next year.
Locally developed systems include the digital flight control computer, stores management computer and onboard training unit, all under development by LIG Nex1. The Korean company is also developing the low-profile head-up display, which uses optical waveguide technology from BAE Systems. Meanwhile, Hanwha Techwin will support locally assembled General Electric F414-400K engines in the United States
A print shows a missile-armed KF-21 working in conjunction with the low-visibility Kaori-X drone developed by Korean Air under a contract awarded in September 2021. (Image: DAPA)