South Korea joins supersonic fighter club as KF-21 jet takes to the skies


By Brad Lendon and Yoonjung Seo, CNN

South Korea’s KF-21 Boramae fighter jet flew for the first time on Tuesday, placing the country among the few nations to have developed and piloted an advanced supersonic fighter.

The prototype plane completed a 33-minute round-trip flight from an Air Force base in the southern city of Sacheon, the Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) said. South Korea.

The pilot, Major Ahn Jun-hyun, admitted to being nervous beforehand, but said after takeoff “everything went well, so I flew the whole flight route as planned.”

The plane is the first of a fleet of six KF-21 prototypes manufactured by Korea Aerospace Industries that will perform more than 2,000 test flights by 2026, when serial production and deployment will begin, it said. the DAPA.

A total of 120 jets are expected to be delivered to the South Korean Air Force by 2030.

Once operational, the KF-21 is expected to be armed with a range of air-to-air and air-to-surface missiles – and possibly even air-launched cruise missiles. The twin-engine fighters will be available in single-seat and two-seat versions.

On Tuesday, the jet was equipped with four mock-up Meteor air-to-air missiles and an infrared search and tracking system, and reached speeds of around 400 kilometers per hour (250 mph).

South Korean President Yoon Seok Yeol said the test flight was “a splendid achievement in national defense independence”.

The KF-21 is a joint project between South Korea and Indonesia in which Seoul owns 80% of the shares.

While only 65% ​​of the KF-21’s parts are of South Korean origin, its maiden flight still marks a significant achievement for a country that doesn’t have a long history of aircraft production.

The only other countries to have developed and flown an advanced supersonic jet fighter are the United States, Russia, China, Japan, France, Sweden, and a European consortium consisting of the United Kingdom, Germany, from Italy and Spain.

Of these, only the United States and China have deployed domestically-made fifth-generation fighter jets — planes with stealth technologies, radar jamming capabilities, and avionics that integrate onboard and remote data. distance to give pilots a real-time picture of their operation, according to NATO’s Joint Air Power Competence Center.

While DAPA calls the KF-21 a 4.5-generation fighter jet because it lacks features such as an internal weapons bay that would make it more stealthy, analysts say it might be capable of fly higher and faster than the newest American-made Fifth. generation fighter, the F-35.

“The KF-21 is the first fighter aircraft made with domestic technology, and this indicates that South Korea is now capable of building fighter aircraft itself. It will also be a springboard for developing better combat aircraft and exploiting locally developed weapons,” DAPA said last year.

Peter Layton, a fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute in Australia, called the KF-21 flight on Wednesday an “impressive” milestone.

“The program has significantly improved South Korean aerospace capabilities, particularly in design, manufacturing, airframe components and avionics systems,” said Layton, a former Royal Australian Air Force officer.

The KF-21 is expected to replace South Korea’s F-4 and F-5 fighters, third-generation American-designed aircraft introduced in the 1960s.

As production runs increase, it could also replace South Korea’s fourth-generation F-16 and F-15K, Military Watch Magazine editor Abraham Ait wrote in The Diplomat in 2020.

South Korea also operates F-35 stealth fighters.

Layton said once operational, the KF-21 would improve South Korea’s defensive and offensive capabilities in the air.

“Given the sorry state of the North Korean Air Force’s aging fighters, the KF-21 significantly outperforms them,” he said.

Layton said the South Korean F-35s had superior stealth capabilities to the KF-21 and were better able to penetrate enemy radar.

“The (South Korean) Air Force will then have a mix of F-35s for strike operations and KF-21s for air defense operations. This concept makes good use of the F-35, which is optimized for attacking ground targets whereas the KF-21 has been optimized for air-to-air missions,” he said.

The KF-21 has significant export potential as it is expected to be cheaper than the F-35s the United States sells to foreign armies.

Thailand, the Philippines and possibly even Iraq “could be the fighter’s main customers,” Ait wrote, adding that each of these countries operates the same type of aircraft the KF-21 was designed to replace. . These countries have also been customers of the FA-50 light attack fighter developed locally by South Korea.

Chairman Yoon said after Tuesday’s test that “a turning point has been created for our defense industry’s export expansion.”

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