Buoyed By European Success, South Korea Targets US For Its FA-50 Jets; Announces New Plan To Boost Sales

South Korea has announced ambitious plans to invest 49.4 billion won (US$35.7 million) in upgrading its highly successful FA-50 fighter jets. 

After Chinese Spy Ship, Now Turkish Warship To Dock In India’s Backyard In Maldives; Comes After TB2 Deal

The aircraft is developed through a partnership between Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) and American company Lockheed Martin. The FA-50, which evolved from South Korea’s twin-seater supersonic trainer, the TA-50, has enjoyed remarkable success in the export market.

Now, South Korea is eyeing further expansion by introducing a single-seat variant of the FA-50. The announcement was made by South Korea’s industry ministry, which disclosed plans to invest the allocated amount in partnership with KAI Ltd., the manufacturer of FA-50 fighter jets.

The investment is primarily directed towards developing the single-seat variant of the FA-50 for new markets, including the United States, according to the Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy.

The project, scheduled to run through 2028, will see the government injecting 29 billion won, with KAI and other partner firms contributing the remaining amount necessary to enhance the performance of the FA-50s.

The single-seat version of the aircraft will have modifications that will optimize its capabilities for various operational requirements.

The key modifications include the removal of the rear seat to accommodate a fuel tank, alongside the elimination of associated avionics, aimed at reducing costs and potentially increasing weapons payload.

Importantly, these modifications will be made while retaining the FA-50’s existing canopy and outer mold line, ensuring cost-effectiveness in the development process.

Efforts to enhance the FA-50’s range will also involve the development of a larger external fuel tank and the incorporation of air-to-air refueling capability. These upgrades are expected to significantly bolster the aircraft’s operational flexibility and mission endurance.

The upgraded FA-50 will feature a domestically developed automatic ground collision avoidance system while enhancing its safety profile. With an expanded operational range of up to 30 percent, the upgraded FA-50 is poised to meet the evolving needs of defense forces worldwide.

US Puts 300+ F-35 Stealth Fighters In Indo-Pacific As Pentagon Enhances ‘Coalition Capacity’ To Fight PLAAF

South Korea Eyes Exporting Its FA-50 To The USA

With the demand for the light trainer combat fighter jet soaring in the export market, Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) is gearing up to seize this opportunity.

Industrial Policy Director General Lee Seung-ryeol said, “The FA-50 is recognized for its top-tier competitiveness worldwide in terms of price, performance, delivery time, and operational costs.” He noted that the development of the single-seat variant will pave the way to boost exports.

The company estimates that the total future market for aircraft in this category stands at a considerable 450 units, with ambitions to secure approximately 50% of this market share.

The decision to pursue the single-seat FA-50 comes on the heels of KAI’s remarkable success in securing contracts for its twin-seat FA-50 over the past decade.

Notable deals include a key agreement to supply 48 FA-50s to Poland in 2022, valued at an impressive $3 billion. In 2023, KAI also inked a contract to supply 18 FA-50s to Malaysia, valued at $919.70 million. The FA-50 outperformed the Indian LCA Tejas  & Chinese JF-17 in securing the Malaysian contract, reaffirming its superiority in the market.

These achievements have instilled confidence in KAI. It believes that its established customer base will play a pivotal role in facilitating the sale of the new FA-50 aircraft.

The company’s proven track record in delivering high-quality defense products, coupled with its ability to meet diverse operational requirements, also positions it as a preferred partner for defense procurement for many countries. Now, the country appears to be directing its attention towards upgrading its FA-50 fighter jet for potential sale to the USA.

During the recent announcement, Industrial Policy Director General Lee Seung-real noted the nation’s unwavering commitment to fortifying its defense ecosystem and expanding research and development initiatives.

He specifically pointed out that these efforts aim to facilitate the export of FA-50s to the US market by 2025. The move holds immense significance, as securing a contract to supply its fighter jet to the US military would catapult the company to unprecedented heights of prestige and influence.

File Image: FA-50 with US Bomber

However, this isn’t the first attempt by the company to enter the US market. Previously, KAI collaborated with Lockheed Martin to propose its trainer version, the T-50A, for the US Air Force’s T-X program, with the potential to export more than 300 aircraft.

But, in September 2018, the USAF opted for Boeing’s T-7 trainer over the T-50A, attributing Boeing’s advanced digital design, streamlined software plan, and open-system architecture.

There was renewed hope in January 2020 when the USAF announced its intention to lease four to eight T-50A trainers from Hillwood Aviation due to delays in the T-7A program. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the acquisition was delayed in August 2020, and further postponements were announced in October 2020.

Lockheed Martin has also proposed the T-50A aircraft in response to both the US Air Force’s Advanced Tactical Trainer and the US Navy’s Tactical Surrogate Aircraft programs.

The company’s proposal emphasized a low-risk solution and aggressively competitive pricing to meet program requirements. The latest investment could potentially aid South Korea in its efforts to penetrate the US market.