South Korea’s KF-21 Fighters To Get German Air-To-Air IRIS-T Missiles; Seoul Eyes Aircraft Sales To Europe

South Korea has partnered with a prominent German arms company to bolster the firepower of its domestically manufactured fighter jets.

The collaboration, sealed in a memorandum of understanding between Korea Aerospace Industries Co. (KAI) and the Berlin-based Diehl Defence, aims to enhance South Korean fighter jets with IRIS-T air-to-air missiles.

The agreement inked on February 18 at Diehl Defence’s headquarters in Berlin, signifies a strategic move by South Korea to bolster its military capabilities through international collaboration.

Diehl Defence, renowned for its expertise in missile development, particularly the IRIS-T medium-range air defense system, will play a pivotal role in equipping South Korean fighter jets with advanced weaponry.

KAI announced its plans to outfit its KF-21 fighter jets with Diehl Defence’s IRIS-T missiles, intending to extend this integration to its FA-50 models in the future. The integration of the IRIS-T missile into South Korean-built fighter jets has been a topic of interest for some time.

The signing of the MoU. Photo: KAI

In April 2023, KAI even successfully conducted a test-fire of the AIM-2000 IRIS-T missile from its KF-21 fighter aircraft. The selection of the European short-range air-to-air missile, AIM-2000, underscores its suitability for close-quarters combat and interception scenarios.

This latest memorandum builds upon previous agreements between Diehl Defence and KAI, dating back to 2017 when the integration of IRIS-T into the KF-21 fighter began.

Subsequent collaborations, including a memorandum signed during the ADEX 2021 exhibition, further solidified the partnership, extending to integrating IRIS-T onto KAI’s FA-50/T-50 aircraft.

In 2023, during the ADEX International Aerospace & Defence Exhibition in Seoul, Diehl Defence signed a MoU with LIG Nex1, a leading Korean defense contractor, to further support the IRIS-T program in South Korea.

In addition to its partnership with Diehl Defence, South Korea has expanded its collaboration with UK-based MBDA, signing an agreement in November 2023. This agreement focuses on integrating MBDA’s weaponry, including the Meteor beyond visual range air-to-air missile, onto KAI’s aircraft platforms.

South Korea successfully test-launched a Meteor air-to-air missile from its KF-21 on March 28, 2023. The agreement also explores the integration of additional MBDA weapons such as SPEAR, ASRAAM, and Brimstone onto KAI platforms, paving the way for joint exports of these platforms and missiles.

Plans To Export South Korean Jets To Europe?

The recent memorandum of understanding between KAI and Diehl Defence extends to collaboration on joint marketing initiatives focused on the European market. Kang Goo-young, CEO of KAI, expressed during the signing ceremony the company’s expectation to broaden its exports to Europe and Africa through this partnership and coordinated marketing endeavors with Diehl Defence.

Kang Goo-young, however, refrained from specifying any particular countries where these two entities would concentrate their efforts to market KAI platforms, including KF-21 and FA-50, coupled with the joint export of the missiles.

FA-50 Golden Eagle South Korea
File Image: FA-50

As of now, Poland stands as the sole European nation that has procured South Korean fighter jets. In September 2022, Poland’s Ministry of National Defense finalized a contract to acquire 48 FA-50 light attack aircraft from South Korea, with deliveries of these platforms already underway.

In the past, Airbus Defense and Space, a German defense company, presented a “win-win strategy” to Seoul to boost sales of South Korea’s FA-50 Fighting Eagles and other fighters in Western European countries. The proposal, put forth by Michael Schoellhorn, CEO of Airbus Defense and Space, was discussed during a meeting with South Korean Industry Minister Lee Chang-yang in Seoul in November 2022.

At the time, the Ministry of Trade, Industry, and Energy of South Korea confirmed that Airbus had suggested a “win-win strategy” involving the export of South Korean aircraft to Western European nations.

South Korea’s KF-21 Boramae stealth fighter on April 4 successfully fired an IRIS-T air-to-air missile, which was selected by the South Korean Air Force as part of its operational weapons package. (DAPA image)

Meanwhile, South Korean defense company LIG Nex1, collaborating with Germany’s Taurus Systems, is working on an adapted version of the KEPD-350K Taurus missile for the Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) FA-50.

This advancement seeks to elevate the appeal of South Korea’s domestically-manufactured fighter jets in the global export arena. With the current Taurus KEPD 350K missiles being incompatible with FA-50 fighter jets due to their size, developing the more compact KEPD 350K-2 model serves multiple purposes.

That will enhance the capabilities of the Republic of Korea Air Force and align it with the operational needs of the FA-50s, ultimately enhancing the jets’ attractiveness and competitiveness in the international market.