All other things being equal, developing smaller aircraft is cheaper. The equipment for making them is less expensive, too, so if the project turns bad, the losses are lower. It is not surprising, then, that countries that want to develop jet transports repeatedly look at business aircraft as a first step.

China is determined to build business jets, Japan's Fuji Heavy Industries has long nursed a plan for one, and a business jet is shaping up in South Korea as one of two likely projects that would become the foundation of a civil aeronautics industry capable of building its own complete aircraft. If the program goes ahead, as it may in a year or two, the manufacturer will be Korea Aerospace Industries, probably the only company in the country with sufficient engineering resources.

For the moment, the Korea Advanced Business Jet (KABJ) is the backstop to a priority program: development of a turboprop airliner. The turboprop is not progressing smoothly, however; South Korea is struggling to find a partner for it. Moreover, a business jet project has advantages for a country that also wants to develop its own combat aircraft. It is quite likely that either the turboprop or the bizjet will go ahead: All the signs are that South Korea has a strong ambition to develop its own civil aircraft.

Crucially, either aircraft could serve as the basis of a Bilateral Aviation Safety Agreement, under which the FAA would coach South Korea's air safety authorities in certifying an aircraft to U.S. standards. Once South Korea completes that process, its airworthiness certificates will be recognized globally, and its industry will have learned how to achieve them. South Korea is already well on the way to achieving recognition of its certification for small aircraft under Part 23 of the FAA regulations. But the real prize is for Part 25 certifications for larger transports.

A business jet with a maximum weight as low as 5.7 metric tons (12,500 lb.) would have qualified, says Cho Jinsoo, an influential figure in the South Korean aeronautics sector who proposed development of the KABJ. But a 9-ton aircraft was chosen as the smallest that would attract a significant market in South Korea; range would be 4,100 km (2,200 nm). “A 40,000-lb. aircraft would be most attractive for the market,” says Cho. “But it would cost much more to build.”

Hanyang University, where Cho is a professor, has prepared a concept design for the KABJ, adopting a quite conventional configuration. Development cost is estimated at 700 billion won ($620 million). Preliminary development would take two years and full-scale development six years.

An experienced partner is needed, possibly Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), which has worked with KAI since at least the middle of the last decade. IAI is similarly offering its expertise in business jet design to Avic combat-aircraft division AAT, which wants to build a larger business jet. According to one South Korean government official, IAI would like South Korea to buy Israeli weapons in return for help with the business jet. The South Korean industry has learned much since the 1990s, when it began developing the T-50 supersonic trainer under the supervision—at least—of Lockheed Martin. For the KABJ, the partner would play a smaller role, though still an essential one.

South Korea's recurring problem in seeking to develop civil aircraft is that, in contrast to countries such as China and Brazil, its domestic market is small. Hanyang University estimates that tens, rather than hundreds, of KABJs could be sold domestically. South Korean conglomerates could be expected to buy it, in the usual manner of coordinated South Korean economic development, and the aircraft would be useful to the government for surveillance and as a ministerial transport.

Sales and commercial success are not the key aim, anyway. The program would succeed by enlisting government funds for the process of gaining FAA recognition and for investing in test facilities that could be used for later programs.

An alternative for a Part 25 certification effort would have been a 19-seat turboprop transport, but South Korean researchers see a limited market for such an aircraft. Importantly, they stress the technological and developmental overlaps between business jets and fighters, notably in aerodynamics, structure and systems integration. The KABJ could therefore help support development of the proposed KF-X stealth fighter—or compete with it, if the country undertakes both projects at the same time, stretching its supply of engineers.

The business jet would also serve as a suitably sized host for a proposed South Korean turbofan, which would necessarily be small as the country's first attempt at a civil jet engine. At first, a foreign engine would be needed for the aircraft, however.

KABJ Concept Specifications
Max. takeoff weight 9 metric tons (20,000 lb.)
Crew + passengers 2 + 8
Range 4,100 km (2,200 nm)
Max. true air speed 850 kph (460 kt.)
Wingspan 17.5 meters (57.4 ft.)
Length 16.8 meters (55.1 ft.)
Height 5.6 meters (18.4 ft.)
Leading edge sweep 25 deg.
Source: Hanyang University