Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) have been hogging the limelight as many air forces around the world turn to these efficient and maneuverable jets. Out of the LCAs currently dominating the market, the South Korean FA-50 has emerged as a clear winner.
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The Ministry of National Defense of Poland recently signed two contracts to purchase 48 FA-50 light attack aircraft from South Korea. The first 12 aircraft are slated for delivery next year, while the remaining 36 will be delivered between 2025 and 2028.
However, even as the FA-50 fighter jets are winning hearts and contracts worldwide, an existing customer has made some new and unprecedented revelations about this combat aircraft.
News reports suggested earlier this month that there is a shortage of spare parts for the Philippines Air Force to operate the squadron of FA-50 fighter jets acquired from South Korea.
In response to these reports making the rounds, the Philippine Air Force (PAF) informed last week that its non-operational FA-50PH light jet fighters were undergoing mandatory scheduled maintenance. In simpler words, they have been grounded.
This has left the PAF with a reduced fleet size as there are just three operational FA-50PH fighters in its inventory.
“While it is true that we have FA-50 aircraft that are currently on non-operational status, most of them are just ongoing scheduled maintenance which is mandatory precautionary checks, and they will be back in the air soon,” said Air Force spokesperson Col. Ma Consuelo Castillo, in a message to the Philippine News Agency.
Earlier, EurAsian Times reported that South Korea appeared to be ahead in the race to supply fighter jets to Malaysia, with Chinese media indicating that the country is poised to sign an export contract for 18 FA-50s for $1 billion.
While experts have contended that the news is speculative, the aircraft has emerged as a clear challenger to India’s LCA Tejas. The bid for 18 Light Combat Aircraft for the Malaysian Air Force has been down to two contenders: the Indian LCA Tejas by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and the Korean FA-50.
The wind was in favor of Tejas, with India offering a package deal to Malaysia; the FA-50’s rise as the popular global choice has come as a shocker to the Indian authorities. It’s not yet clear which fighter jet will roar over the Malaysian skies.
The FA-50 aircraft is also being pitched to Egypt, another country where India has been looking to sell LCA Tejas. To aid that effort, the manufacturer of Tejas, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), has also offered to set up production facilities in Egypt.
Besides Poland and potentially Malaysia, FA-50 fighters have been sold to the Philippines and Iraq. The rise of FA-50 light combat aircraft that has made others in the market, including Tejas, run for their money warrants a close examination of the South Korean fighter jet.
South Korea’s FA-50 Fighter Jet
The FA-50 Fighting Eagle is a supersonic light attack aircraft developed by KAI and Lockheed Martin. It is a multirole fighter variant of the ‘T-50’ line of aircraft, which comprises supersonic trainers, light combat aircraft, and multirole fighters.
The aircraft has a 4.5-ton weapons payload capacity and could be equipped with armament including the AIM-9 Sidewinder, AGM-65 Maverick, GBU-38/B, CBU-105 Sensor Fused Weapon, Mk-82 LDGP bombs, and Cluster Bomb Units.
The fighter plane also has an internal 20mm Gatling gun with three barrels and an LAU-3/A 19-tube 2.75′′ rocket launcher that can shoot folding-fin aerial rockets (FFAR). An afterburner-equipped GE F404 turbofan engine with a 17,700 lbf output powers the FA-50.
Iraq signed a contract with Korean Aerospace Industries in December 2013 to deliver 24 FA-50 derivative T-50IQ aircraft over 20 years, with additional equipment and pilot training.
In 2014, South Korea signed a $420 million contract with the Philippines to sell 12 light attack FA-50 fighters. The fighter was employed for the first time against ISIS-affiliated militants during the Battle of Marawi in the Philippines that began in 2017.
More recently, the Colombian Air Force chose a mix of 20 TA-50 and FA-50 Golden Eagles as its newest jet fighters and trainers in April 2022, followed by Poland signing a contract recently.
With Egypt and Malaysia emerging as potential customers for the FA-50, India’s Tejas is set for a tough fight.
Light attack fighters have hogged the limelight as their modest size results in a low radar signature. Target acquisition is challenging due to the difficulty in spotting these fighter jets by radars. This gives them a better chance of spotting the heavy aircraft and firing the first shot.
Both LCA Tejas and KAI’s FA-50 fall under the category, and both aircraft have their share of advantages over the other.
Since the LCA Tejas is eyeing the South East Asia market as its primary customer, it is expected to face a severe challenge from the Korean aircraft, which is already in use with some countries, making regional integration a favorable prospect for the FA-50.
In contrast, the HAL Tejas’ open architecture computer systems can incorporate both Russian and Western armaments, providing an edge to the Indian-made light fighter in markets that buy from both markets.
Earlier, the UAE had shown interest in Tejas LCA in 2018. However, in February, the UAE Defense Ministry announced it was buying L-15 training and combat aircraft from China. The UAE also reportedly expressed interest in the TA-5O aircraft produced by South Korea.