Over the past decade, South Korea has risen as a massive force in the international defense export market. It has demonstrated its prowess in developing and large-scale production of cutting-edge weapon systems.
One notable area in which Seoul has significantly expanded its activities is the fighter jet industry, traditionally dominated by the United States and Russia.
In particular, the country has been actively establishing a presence in the advanced jet trainer and light fighter market, with its T-50/FA-50 models gaining momentum and achieving success in the global export market.
Earlier this year, Malaysia joined the growing list of customers for the T-50/FA-50 fighter jet. On February 24, Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) announced that Malaysia had ordered 18 FA-50 aircraft, amounting to a total cost of US$919.70 million.
This decision followed a competitive selection process that included other major contenders, such as India’s Tejas LCA, the Chinese/Pakistani JF-17, the Russian MiG-35, Italy’s M-346, and the Turkish Hurjet.
In addition to Malaysia, Poland has also emerged as another recent customer for South Korean jets. Notably, the Polish contract dwarfs the Malaysian one in its financial magnitude and the number of fighter jets slated for acquisition by Warsaw.
South Korea signed a US$2.3 billion contract with Poland in September 2022. Moreover, this deal represents a significant achievement for KAI as it secures its first win in the European market, involving delivering 48 FA-50 aircraft to Warsaw.
The T-50/FA-50 family of advanced jet trainer/light fighter aircraft currently operates with the Air Forces of Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Iraq, and South Korea.
Furthermore, following the success in securing the Malaysian and Polish contracts, Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) is currently setting its sights on achieving the preferred bidder status for Egypt’s initiative to establish local production of lightweight fighters in a partnership with a foreign company.
If KAI manages to secure a contract for exporting over 100 T-50 Golden Eagle planes, it will mark the company’s first venture into Africa’s military aircraft market. The country aspires worldwide sales of 1,000 units of the T-50 and its other various.
KAI’s Remarkable Aerospace Journey
Although Seoul is currently basking in the rising acclaim and demand for its T-50/FA-50 aircraft models, it faced challenges and obstacles when initially attempting to secure export contracts.
During its earlier sales campaigns, KAI faced considerable challenges, with one notable example of these difficulties being the company’s inability to secure a deal with Poland.
Poland, in 2013, procured the Italian Alenia Aermacchi’s M-346 over the South Korean T-50. During the selection process, BAE Systems, which had initially participated in the contract process, downplayed the Korean offer, citing concerns about it coming from a non-NATO source.
Despite Seoul’s arguments that its aircraft was fully compatible with Polish F-16s and possessed the combat capabilities of a light-combat aircraft, suitable for various missions and complementing the tasks of Polish F-16s, Poland ultimately opted to proceed with the Italian aircraft.
In addition to Warsaw, the country initially failed to secure contracts with Botswana and the United Arab Emirates. Subsequently, the company redoubled its efforts to promote the FA-50 globally.
As part of this effort, one strategic step was to enhance the aircraft by integrating NATO specifications into the versions made available to European countries.
In stark contrast to the choice made in 2013, Poland’s decision in 2022 underwent a dramatic shift as they opted to procure 48 FA-50 aircraft along with a range of other South Korean weapon systems.
This decision clearly indicates the East Asian country’s burgeoning strength and influence in the defense sector. There are roughly 100 jets already in service in the Pacific region. These include smaller purchases from countries such as Thailand, Indonesia, and the Philippines.
KAI marked a key milestone when it secured its first export order for the T-50 aircraft from Indonesia in 2011. This achievement paved the way for a broader trend in the region, with the Philippines following suit in 2014 and Thailand joining a year later.
Indonesia has a fleet of 14 T-50s, while the Philippines operates 12 FA-50s, and Thailand has 12 T-50s in service. Meanwhile, Indonesia is in the process of acquiring an additional six aircraft, while Thailand is considering the purchase of two more.
In addition to the countries above, Iraq also entered a contract worth US$1.1 billion to acquire 24 Korea Aerospace Industries T-50 advanced jet trainers.
KF-21 Boramae: Poised To Conquer?
The appeal of South Korean fighter jets extends beyond just the T-50/FA-50 models. The country’s in-development KF-21 stealth aircraft is also gaining significant attention and traction in the global market.
The homegrown KF-21 Boramae is designed with stealth characteristics. However, it is categorized as a 4.5-generation fighter due to the absence of certain features like an internal weapons bay.
Still, the aircraft possesses the potential to emerge as a significant export success soon, especially with recent reports suggesting the United Arab Emirates’ keen interest in the development program.
The Financial News, a South Korean daily, reported on September 14 that the United Arab Emirates has expressed interest in collaborating with South Korea on its KAI KF-21 Boramae fighter jet development program.
The report said that Seoul had received a letter from the UAE’s Tawazun Economic Council. The letter outlines Abu Dhabi’s strong desire for direct involvement in the KF-21’s development and even raises the possibility of stepping in to replace Indonesia’s investment in the program.
Indonesia holds a 20 percent stake in the project but has struggled to meet its financial obligations. Jakarta initially joined the program in 2010 with aspirations to acquire up to 50 KF-21s.
However, starting in 2017, they began to lag in their payments, accumulating approximately US$ 557 million in unpaid dues by July 2022.
The matter of payment has been a recurrent subject of discussion, with Indonesia consistently emphasizing its commitment to the ongoing joint project.
Yet, the new report suggests that Indonesia’s unpaid contributions are currently approximated at around 990 billion South Korean won, equivalent to approximately $745 million.
While the future role of Indonesia in the project remains uncertain, the UAE’s expressed interest underscores the increasing partnership between Seoul and Abu Dhabi in the defense sector.
In addition to the UAE, reports indicate Poland’s interest in acquiring the KF-21. As reported by the EurAsian Times, Poland is actively considering the purchase of two squadrons of multi-role combat aircraft.
The top contenders for this deal are the US-made F-35 and F-15EX, as well as the South Korean KF-21 Boramae.
It would be no surprise if Warsaw opts for the South Korean KF-21, given that the country has previously signed a substantial US$ 13.7 billion arms deal with Seoul.
Meanwhile, this stealth aircraft will also present an excellent choice for developing nations seeking to acquire stealth fighter jets.
Nonetheless, KAI’s ultimate goal is to establish itself as an exporter of aircraft to the United States, representing one of the most prominent markets for the world’s leading jet manufacturers.
Achieving this milestone would significantly elevate KAI’s status and catalyze its broader vision of becoming a pivotal player in the global aerospace industry.