This South Korean Jet Is a Bargain Dogfighter
But is anyone going to buy the FA-50?
Korean Aerospace Industries officials have said that their goal is to sell more than 500 copies of the company’s FA-50 fighter over the next three decades. That’s in addition to the 60 fighters ordered by the Republic of Korea Air Force, which is replacing its antiquated F-5s.
But KAI’s hopes for the FA-50, a lightweight fighter derivative of the T-50 Golden Eagle jet trainer co-developed with Lockheed Martin, could be overly optimistic.
So far, KAI’s predictions seem to be bearing out … to an extent. On Oct. 17, South Korea signed a memorandum of understanding with the Philippine government to sell that nation 12 FA-50 fighters for $450 million. A final contract is expected soon.
Other potential markets include countries in Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe and South America. Iraq, Peru, Poland and Chile have all been named as potential customers, according to a report in Flight International.
“The FA-50 may find buyers among nations that need a light, supersonic fighter but are unwilling to pay the full cost of a larger fighter,” Forecast International analyst Doug Royce told Flight’s Greg Waldron. “This market segment is historically limited in size when compared to the market for light fighters, and the South Korean air force will be KAI’s largest buyer by far.”
Likewise, the Teal Group believes that that there is a market for the FA-50, but the company says the market will not be nearly as large as KAI predicts. “Assuming the price stays on course, there should be a 70-to-200 unit international market for this plane over 20 years,” the consulting company reports. “When the F-16 goes in a few years, there may be an opening for a low-cost minimal supersonic fighter.”
But the report also points out that the FA-50 could find itself competing against refurbished F-16s, which the U.S. government is basically giving away.
The Teal report points out that the FA-50 shares many of the same characteristics as Northrop’s ill-fated F-20 Tigershark of the 1980s. Northrop had hoped that the F-20, an upgraded version of the F-5, would replace the existing fleets of F-5s. But the Tigershark project failed when the Ronald Reagan administration allowed the sale of full-up F-16 fighters to a wide range of countries.
If the FA-50 exceeds a certain price threshold for both acquisition and operating costs it could suffer a similar fate as the F-20, the Teal report notes.
Nonetheless, at $35 million a pop, the FA-50 is a bargain for the capabilities it offers. Plus the aircraft has operating costs that are a fraction of that of other fighters—even something as small and comparatively low-cost as a JAS-39 Gripen. For that relatively low price, a country gets an aircraft that has much of the performance of a full-sized fighter — a 75-percent solution.
The FA-50 is powered by a 17,700-pound-thrust General Electric F404 engine, giving it a maximum speed of Mach 1.5. Future versions could be equipped with the more powerful 22,000-pound-thrust General Electric F414 engine, which would give the aircraft increased performance.
Originally the FA-50 was to be equipped with the same Lockheed Martin APG-67 radar as the F-20. But the current iteration of the FA-50 is equipped with the lightweight but capable Israeli Elta EL/M-2032 mechanically scanned pulse Doppler radar, which was originally intended for the ill-fated Lavi program.
With a range of over 60 miles, the EL/M-2032 is capable of supporting beyond visual range weapons. Future upgrades of the jet could receive the EL/M-2052 active electronically scanned array radar, which would give the aircraft much greater capability. Israel is already producing the new AESA for the upgraded Block 60 Kfir that it is building for it an unnamed customer.
Though the FA-50 can’t currently use BVR weapons — it carries only the AIM-9M visual-range dogfighting missile — a KAI briefing slide shows that the growth path for the aircraft includes the integration of the Raytheon AIM-120 AMRAAM and the AIM-9X. Given that the EL/M-2032 can already support the Israeli-built Derby BVR missile, there is no reason to doubt that the FA-50 could not add that weapon or the Python 5 high-off boresight missile.
For ground attack, the FA-50 can currently carry the Joint Direct Attack Munition, the Sensor-Fused Weapon and the AGM-65 Maverick. A KAI briefing slide shows that the FA-50 could eventually add the Wind Corrected Munitions Dispenser and a host of Israeli munitions equipped with the Rafael Spice electro-optical/infrared/GPS/inertial guidance kit. It would also be able to carry the Rafael Litening II targeting pod.
But as impressive as the FA-50 is, especially for its price, the small fighter faces an uncertain future. “The problem isn’t the plane — they have designed one of the best lightweight fighters in years,” says Richard Aboulafia, an analyst at the Teal Group. “The problem is the market.”
The market has shifted in over the years. Countries that used to buy light fighters such as the F-5 — Turkey, for one — have moved on to more expensive aircraft like the F-16. But other nations have fallen upon hard times and have not been able to purchase modern fighters in decades — Argentina, for example. “The market has kind of bifurcated into haves and have-nots,” Aboulafia says.
There certainly is a market for a lightweight and inexpensive fighter for countries that either cannot afford of simply do not want a very sophisticated warplane. It’s just small.
In many cases there simply is not an operational requirement that justifies the expense of purchasing and operating a fourth-generation or fifth-generation fighter like the Dassault Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon or F-16 — let alone the stealthy F-35.
Nor do many of those nations have the financial wherewithal to do so even if they wanted such aircraft. Even the Saab Gripen may sometimes be too ambitious a proposition as South Africa is discovering — much of that nation’s fleet is flown on a rotational basis because the country cannot afford to operate all 26 jets at one time.
For such nations, the FA-50 might be the answer.