South Korea Receives 1st Cutting-Edge TA-50 Block 2 Aircraft, Signs LoA For Additional F-35 Fighters

Amid heightened tensions in the region, South Korea ended the year 2023 on a positive note as it received the first TA-50 Block 2 aircraft, which was ordered a couple of years ago in 2023.

The Republic of Korea Air Force (RoKAF) has received its first Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) TA-50 “Golden Eagle” Block 2 lead-in fighter trainer/light attack aircraft, the Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) announced in a statement.

On January 1, DAPA stated that the delivery had taken place on December 28, 2023. According to DAPA, the delivery is part of a deal worth KRW1 trillion (USD 764.7 million) that was initiated in 2020 to supply the RoKAF with TA-50 Block 2 aircraft. Previous reports had indicated that the service had ordered at least 20 aircraft in this advanced variant.

The TA-50 is more equipped to carry out light attack missions than the original T-50 LIFT aircraft, which is purely a trainer variant. The TA-50 has an IAI Elta EL/M-2032 fire control radar, and it can fire the AGM-65 Maverick air-to-ground and AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles. Even the TA-50 has upgraded variants available to make the aircraft more potent.

The TA-50 Block 2, for one, is an upgraded version of the TA-50 Block 1, 22 units of which are already in service with the ROKAF. So, the 22 TA-50 Block 1 training aircraft in RoKAF service will be supplemented by the new aircraft.

According to DAPA, these 22 Block 1 aircraft have been “insufficient” for combat pilot training, which is their main purpose.

Additionally, the Block 2 surpasses the TA-50 Block 1 in several ways. “In comparison to the [TA-50] Block 1, it is equipped with precision-guided bombs [Joint Direct Attack Munitions: JDAMs] and lighting devices suitable for night-vision devices to enhance night flight capabilities,” according to DAPA. “The TA-50 Block 2 is the latest trainer in the shape of the FA-50, a light attack aircraft.”

South Korea’s TA-50 (via Platform X)

“To enhance the aircraft’s defense against hostile assault, the Counter-Measures Dispense System (CMDS) and Radar Warning Receiver (RWR) were installed,” the agency said.

With the service commissioning new generation fighters such as the Lockheed Martin F-35A Lighting II Joint Strike Fighter, the Northrop F-5F Tiger II twin-seat light combat aircraft trainer—which is currently being used to train pilots—is expected to be replaced by the additional TA-50s.

This also makes more sense, given that the ROKAF is diligently bolstering its air fleet. For instance, the DAPA also announced that South Korea has signed a letter of acceptance (LOA) to acquire a batch of an additional 20 Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II fifth-generation fighter aircraft from the US-based defense giant.

The Letter of Agreement was signed a few days after the Defense Acquisition Program Committee of South Korea discussed purchasing F-35As on December 4, 2023. Before authorizing the procurement, the committee reportedly took into account necessity assessments and the outcomes of negotiations with the US, according to DAPA.

Despite the low level of competition and the peculiarities of foreign military sales, DAPA will carry out “effective negotiations to reduce project costs.” The agency has not provided the latest acquisition cost.

To train more combat pilots to fly these fifth-generation war machines, the service needs modern trainer jets. This is where the TA-50 and its upgraded variants come into the picture.

The TA-50 and its variants could also be used as light attack fighter jets and have been purchased by the Philippines and Thailand. Additionally, the most advanced FA-50 Block 2 variant is also being sold to countries like Poland and Malaysia. 

The recent announcement comes at a time of rapidly escalating tensions with North Korea as the latter has pledged to boost its military posture to thwart what it calls an unprecedented  US-led confrontation. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un went so far as to say that his military should “thoroughly annihilate” the US and South Korea if provoked.

Escalation In 2024 Possible Between Koreas

A series of military maneuvers that South Korea undertook in the new year have been sharply criticized by North Korea, which also issued a warning that this year will see the highest likelihood of a conflict between the two countries.

Tension on the Korean peninsula has increased as a result of joint combat shooting drills between South Korean and US forces close to the North Korean border. The exercise aimed to evaluate and improve battle preparedness against hostile aggression.

The South Korean military recently carried out “self-destructive” measures, according to the North’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). This was about Army artillery drills, naval shooting drills, and other military operations.

”There will be the highest risk of clashes this year, as invading forces, such as the United States and Japan, will crawl into the peninsula under the South Korean puppet group’s plea and active cooperation, and they will likely stage unprecedented provocative war moves such as a nuclear strike,” the KCNA said.

North Korean Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic missile

The state news agency issued a blatant warning saying that if South Korea’s “warmongers” keep staging hostile actions against North Korea, they will only experience the “most painful moments they cannot even imagine.”

To fortify its military posture against any provocations from North Korea, the South Korean Army conducted live-fire and artillery drills this week, while the Navy also ran aircraft and warship training.

During a party end-of-year gathering, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un described inter-Korean relations as those between “two nations hostile to each other” and, in case of an emergency, ordered the planning of “a great event to suppress the whole territory” of South Korea.