Bad News: South Korea Guts KF-21 Fighter Order By Half

KF-21 Fighter from South Korea
March 23, 2024 Topic: Security Region: Asia Blog Brand: Korea Watch Tags: North KoreaSouth KoreaKF-21F-35MilitaryStealthAviation

Bad News: South Korea Guts KF-21 Fighter Order By Half

South Korea's Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) has announced plans to produce 20 KF-21 Boramae fighters this year, a reduction from the initially planned 40 units.

Summary: South Korea's Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) has announced plans to produce 20 KF-21 Boramae fighters this year, a reduction from the initially planned 40 units. This decision, part of a 7.92 trillion won ($5.92 billion) production plan, aims to address concerns from a feasibility study last year. The first batch of KF-21s, intended to become the backbone of the Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF), is expected in the second half of 2026, with aspirations to deploy over 120 by 2032. Recent tests include a successful aerial refueling, highlighting ongoing developments. The KF-21, a joint project between South Korea and Indonesia, seeks to replace older U.S.-made jets with a 4.5-generation fighter, incorporating stealth-like features without being a true stealth aircraft. Despite its external munitions storage compromising stealth, its design could delay enemy radar detection.

KF-21 Boramae: South Korea's Future Air Force Backbone Enters Next Phase with Reduced Initial Production

South Korea’s arms procurement agency announced March 22 that it would build twenty KF-21 "Boramae" fighters this year, down from the initial planned production volume of 40 units.

Seoul's Defense Project Promotion Committee made the decision as part of a 7.92 trillion won ($5.92 billion) production plan for the jet. A second batch of 20 units would follow next year, after additional performance tests.

According to South Korea's Yonhap News Agency, the phased production could address concerns raised by a feasibility study last year.

Defense Acquisition Program Administration officials reaffirmed the agency's commitment to the domestically produced fighter and said the planned production volume of 40 units remains unchanged. The Republic of Korea Air Force could receive its first KF-21 in the second half of 2026. The service wants to operate more than 120 of the advanced aircraft by 2032.

Last month, Seoul allocated 238.7 billion won to build the 40 Boramae jets, which were described as the future backbone of the ROKAF.

KF-21: Tests Continue

This week, a prototype KF-21 took part in a refueling test with a KC-330 multipurpose aerial refueling transport aircraft.

"The KF-21 prototype 5 took off from the runway of the 3rd Air Force Training Wing at 9:45 a.m. today and successfully performed an aerial refueling flight over the South Sea," DAPA said in a statement on March 19.

Images of the initial refueling test were shared on X.

The KF-21 Fighter in the Crosshairs 

South Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) launched the KF-21 fighter development program with Indonesia in 2015, intending to produce an indigenously built supersonic fighter to replace aging fleets of U.S.-made F-4 and F-5 jets.

As previously reported by Alex Hollings, "The KF-21 is a unique aircraft that incorporates a variety of 5th-generation (or stealth) design elements while still carrying munitions externally like older 4th-generation platforms."

Though not actually designated as a stealth fighter – its external stores will significantly compromise low observability – its overall radar-reflective design offers a degree of delayed detection against enemy surface-to-air radar arrays. The Boramae has been further noted for bearing a passing resemblance to the U.S. Air Force's F-22 Raptor, and as Hollings observed, the similarities are likely by design. Lockheed Martin – maker of the Raptor – partnered with KAI to provide technical support during the development of the KF-21.

The South Korean fighter has also been touted as a low-cost alternative to the Lockheed F-35 Lightning II. While not a fifth-generation aircraft, it could be a capable 4.5-generation multirole fighter. The KF-21's stealth capabilities are expected to be superior to the Dassault Rafale and Eurofighter Typhoon, while not matching the F-35.

Current plans call for 40 Block 1 aircraft to be integrated with Diehl Defense AIM-2000 (IRIS-T), Meteor, JDAM, LJDAM, and locally developed KGGB-guided bombs. In addition, the Block 1 models will have full air-to-air combat capability and limited air-to-ground capability to attain initial operating qualifications.

Already KAI is looking ahead to a Block 2 version that will offer full air-to-ground capability. The ROKAF is expected to receive 80 of these variants, with the delivery of the Block 2 aircraft expected to begin in 2028. The timing would allow for the aircraft to reach full operational capability status.

Author Experience and Expertise: Peter Suciu 

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer. He has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,200 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, politics, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes and Clearance Jobs. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu. You can email the author: [email protected].

Image Credit: ROK Government/Screenshot.