What do we know about the KF-21, South Korea’s response to the F-35?

On Tuesday, the KAI KF-21 Boramae, the all-new fighter jet from the South Korean Air Force, completed its first test flight. The aircraft, developed in collaboration with Indonesia, was to offer a cheaper alternative to the American Lockheed Martin F-35. But is it also a worthy competitor?

As early as March 2001, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung expressed his desire to develop his own modern fighter jet. At the time, the South Korean Air Force flew primarily U.S. F-4s and F-5s. The first is a two-seater from 1958 that can be used in a variety of roles, both in air combat and bombing. The F-5 Tiger II is a bit more modern, from 1972, and is simpler and cheaper than the F-4. However, the cost savings also have consequences for the armament, so the aircraft is light fighter jets is classified.

Not 4, not 5 but 4.5

These aircraft, while both models showed their usefulness, were simply too old to last long. KF-21 had to give an answer to that: it would be one stealth fighter which has the ability to stay under the radar, and should outperform the American F-16 and the European Dassault Rafale and Eurofighter Typhoon.

However, becoming a true competitor to the F-35 was a little harder: South Korea itself simply does not have the knowledge to design and produce such an advanced aircraft. That is why KF-21 is considered one generation 4.5 aircraft set: better than the 4th generation to which the F-16 and Rafale belong, but not as top notch as the F-35 or the Russian Sukhoi Su-57.

The end of the tunnel

South Korea turned to Indonesia to help develop the aircraft. The South Korean government will own 60 percent of the shares, Indonesia will receive 20 percent, and the remaining 20 percent will remain with the producer. Korea Aerospace Industries was able to get its fingers in the production, but consults with Lockheed Martin (the manufacturer of the F-35) for technology support.

The project, which really got underway in 2015 and cost about $ 6.7 billion for research and development to date, now looks set to move towards its final phase. On Tuesday’s first test flight, the plane took off from Sacheon Airport, where it landed after a 30-minute flight.

Wrong question

Whether the KF-21 can compete with the F-35 is actually the wrong question. Both aircraft are in the same area in terms of appearance: Both models are about sixteen meters long and have a wingspan of eleven meters. However, the American is slightly heavier than his South Korean counterpart, and can also carry more weight (bombs or missiles). However, the KF-21 is faster: The aircraft can cross through the air at Mach 1.81 (1.81x the speed of sound), where the F-35 only reaches Mach 1.6.

Similar, yet different

Both aircraft have 10 mounting points for bombs or missiles, and can also carry most of the same bombs. In addition, they each have a 20mm auto cannon in the nose. The main difference is the capacity for stealth to fly: The F-35 can carry four missiles internally, which (if it does not mount missiles under the wings) makes it much better under the radar. However, the KF-21 does not have this option: all ten mounting points are outside the aircraft itself: six under the wings and four under the fuselage. However, there is a chance that a later, further developed version will have internal missile spaces.

Despite the similarities, South Korea does not appear to have any intention of playing the two off against each other. On the contrary: the country recently purchased 40 F-35s from the United States. The first copies were delivered early this year. As South Korea is one of the United States’ close partners in Asia, both countries also work closely together on weapons, and the United States benefits from allowing South Korean pilots to fly with American equipment. For example, the KF-21 appears to be an additional tool in the South Korean Air Force’s toolbox, where the aircraft is to be placed next to the US F-35.


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