South Korea Will Begin Production of KF-21 Fighter Aircraft

Beginning of Production

The South Korean Defense Acquisition Program Agency (DAPA) has approved the production of the Korean Aerospace Industries (KAI) KF-21 Boramae over the four years, from 2024-2028. The decision will cost USD 5.8 billion (7.9 trillion Won).

The initial number of aircraft in this batch isn’t known, some suggest it could be around twenty. If the alleged number is correct, the total falls short of KAI’s initial number, also rumored to have been forty. DAPA requested features on the KF-21 tested further; notably the Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar system and capabilities of air-to-air missile performance.

Photo showing KF-21 on display at an air show in Sacheon. Source: @dooyeolChoiMusictravel on Youtube.

Officials state that production is “on track,” despite some trouble acquiring the first forty. Estimates suggest South Korean Air Force will get the first aircraft by 2026 and plans to operate one hundred and twenty KF-21s by 2032. Export models will reportedly be available for purchase in the future. 

A prototype of a KF-21 had a mid-flight refueling test recently.

In With the New

The KF-21 will replace the outdated McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom IIs and Northrop F-5E/Fs that the South Korean Air Force currently operates. It is unknown if any other aircraft will be retired as a result of further development on the KF-21 project. South Korea uses other aircraft such as the General Dynamics F-16C “Fighting Falcon” and the McDonnell Douglas F-15E “Strike Eagle” variant F-15K. 

Photo of one of South Korea’s F-4E Phantom II. Source:Misael Ocasio Hernandez

The KF-21 features twin GE Aerospace F414 engines, the ability to carry up to 17,000 lbs payload of Air-to-Air, Air-to-Surface, and Anti-ship missiles, precision-guided and normal bombs, and a 20mm M61A2 Vulcan rotary cannon with four hundred and fifty rounds. 

Although it has greater stealth capabilities than most fourth-generation fighters, it does not fall under the fifth-generation classification due to the lack of weapons bays for munitions. This could be changed in the future to make it a fifth-generation fighter. The South Koreans designed this with the assistance of Lockheed Martin, incorporating some features from the F-35.

The KF-21 outperforms the F-16 in simulations measuring range, airframe lifespan, and avionics, which the South Korean Air Force uses. The KF-21 will serve alongside the F-35, which South Korea operates as well.  

Analysis 

South Korea beginning production on this project is a good move. Due to this being domestically produced, and South Korea having over half the components to produce this aircraft, even if global shipping lanes are impacted South Korea can continue constructing more aircraft. 

Possessing this aircraft will give South Korea a better ability to combat any enemy air power, giving it an edge over neighboring North Korea. Although the F-35 is currently superior, with given time this design will be developed further and see upgrades, increasing the lifespan, especially if the KF-21 becomes a fifth-gen fighter. 

Exporting the aircraft could be a wise choice, giving other countries like the Philippines more aerial capabilities, similar to how the U.S. exports the F-35 to other nations. Some nations have shown interest in the program, such as Peru, the UAE, and the project’s partner, Indonesia. 

Evan Berridge
Evan Berridge
Aspiring writer and analyst of mostly Indo-Pacific affairs, began in January 2024.

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