South Korea has begun mass production of KF-21 fighter jets

MANILA, Philippines – South Korea will produce 40 KF-21 Boramae fighter jets this year with 238.7 billion won (US $178.6 million) earmarked for the Ministry of Defense, as the aircraft goes through flight and ground tests.

The first mass production of the KF-21 is expected to fill the „power vacuum” left by the retirement of the South Korean air force's aging fighter, the defense minister said in a Dec. 21 statement.

According to Korea Aerospace Industries, which is developing the KF-21, the engineering and production phase will be completed in 2026. The Korea Times reported In January the Air Force plans to deploy the first KF-21 in the second half of the year.

The KF-21 is set to replace the F-4 and F-5 fleets, and the Air Force plans to have a total of 120 Boramae jets by 2032.

Borame will serve as the „backbone” of the air force, the ministry said, and will play a key role in expanding the three-axis system — a strategy that informs how the South Korean military should respond to a North Korean attack.

The fighter has been in development since 2015, but the project has not gained ground until assembly of prototypes takes place in 2020. The government hired Korea Aerospace Industries to produce the jet, and the company sought technical support from the American firm Lockheed Martin. The two businesses previously worked together on the FA-50 light attack aircraft.

The initial test of six KF-21 aircraft took place in 2022. KAI conducted a supersonic test among the first 60 flight tests, and the company unveiled the aircraft at the Seoul ADEX defense conference, following at least 300 of the planned 2,000 test flights. October 2023.

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Flight, ground and additional testing of the remaining prototypes will continue until 2028 — the same year Air Force squadrons will begin flying the first batch of KF-21s from aircraft to air.

The fighter jet has state-of-the-art avionics, including active electronically scanned array radars, and can carry several advanced precision weapons.

South Korea's Defense Acquisition Program Administration and KAI are testing KF-21-equipped missiles to increase its competitiveness in the international market. In a December 2022 press release, DAPA announced plans to spend 190 billion won to activate the KF-21, a long-range missile carrier. „Exports of missiles linked to the KF-21 will increase competitiveness,” the company said.

Last year, the company announced plans to develop short-range, air-to-air missiles for Borame, which would be completed by 2035.

KAI has also tested various missile systems under contracts signed last year with European arms maker MBDA. The companies plan to launch air-to-surface missiles and short-range air-to-air missiles following an earlier deal that included launching intercontinental ballistic missiles on some prototypes.

In April, German company Diehl Defence declared A KF-21 successfully launched an IRIS-T air-to-air missile.

The KF-21 project was expected to cost 8.8 trillion won. DAPA 60%, KAI 20% and the remaining 20% ​​from Indonesia. However, Indonesia has been behind in payments since 2017.

CNN Indonesia reported in January that the government intends to meet its commitments to the project, even as the Southeast Asian nation faces financial challenges. Meanwhile, it is reported that Poland and the United Arab Emirates have expressed their interest in this project.

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DAPA did not respond to Defense News' questions about funding arrangements, but the agency has reportedly not made a final decision on funding plans.

KAI hopes that the KF-21 will become its next export success. In 2022, the company signed contracts with Poland for 48 FA-50 light attack aircraft. A spokesman for Poland's arms agency, Lt. Col. Krzysztof Piładek, wrote on Twitter that the two contracts were worth a total of $3 billion at the time.

Last December, the Royal Malaysian Air Force ordered 18 FA-50 Block 20 Fighter Eagles.

Even before the unveiling of the KAI Boramae at Seoul ADEX, the company's regional manager, Kim Sang Eung, delivered the KF-21 to the Philippine Air Force, calling the aircraft a „very cost-effective solution” for countries looking for multirole fighter jets.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, South Korea was the ninth largest arms exporter in 2018-2022. Swedish Think Tank Identified The Philippines, India and Thailand are its top customers During the same period.

Leilani Chavez, Asia correspondent for Defense News. His reporting expertise is East Asian politics, development projects, environmental issues and security.

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