Podcast: South Korean Defense Industry Arrives

South Korea’s aspirations for building an aerospace and defense industry are gaining validation, with Poland’s announced intent to buy FA-50 light combat aircraft and the first flight of Korea Aerospace Industries’ KF-21 fighter.

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Rush transcript

Jen DiMascio:

Hi, and welcome to the Check 6 podcast. I'm Jen DiMascio, the executive editor for defense and space. And I'm here with Tony Osborne, our London bureau chief. Chen Chuanren, our Asia Pacific correspondent, and defense editor, Steve Trimble. And we are here to talk about the rise of the South Korean defense industry.

            Poland made a big decision and a big announcement yesterday that it was going to buy the FA-50 light combat aircraft from Korean Aerospace Industries. And that follows on the heels of last week, a first flight of South Korea's KF-21 fighter. So we're going to, in this podcast, unpack some of those news events and talk about what that means. Tony, Poland made a statement about intending to buy a lot of military kit. They talk about it a lot. But yesterday, I guess they actually made an order for the FA-50s. Why is this such a huge deal?

Tony Osborne:

I'll roll back on a little bit of context. So, I mean, Poland has been talking about upgrading its military equipment basically for the last eight years, and basically did very little about it until suddenly Russia invaded Ukraine on February the 24th. And now we've had basically a wave of defense procurements, everything from surface to air missile systems, to American tanks, to going back to World War II tank destroyers using missiles, and also helicopters.

            And then we've seen this enormous order for South Korea. So what came out yesterday on July 27th was essentially some framework arrangements. So the biggest ones were for main battle tanks, South Korean ones that would... The first batch would be produced in South Korea, and then license produced in Poland. And also self-propelled howitzers. And then there's this order for 48 K-50 Golden Eagle light attack aircraft.

            So this is significant, in part because this is Korea aerospace industry's first foray into Europe, possibly apart from its sale of KT-1 turboprop trainers to Turkey. So obviously, Asia or Europe, some people will argue about where Turkey sits. But Europe potentially is a massive market for KAI. They're looking also to sell into Slovakia. They also tried to sell the FA-50 into Croatia. Obviously, Croatia then subsequently decided to buy Rafales, so obviously a very different capability.

            The Poland deal is really interesting because Poland decided it urgently needs aircraft to replace the MiG-29 and the Su-22. It wanted F-16s, couldn't get them in time because the Block 70 program is heavily delayed, so it decided to look to Korea and say, "Look, can you deliver something rapidly?" So looks like the first 12 aircraft will be in service next year. There's various suggestions that some of these might be South Korean aircraft basically being rerouted to Poland.

            And then there'll be a second batch of 36 aircraft that will be virtually bespoke. They're called KA-50 PLs, and they're going to be equipped with an AESA radar and the ability to fire off advanced weapons, even up to the AIM-120 AMRAAM. That would be quite a considerable capability leap over the MiG-29s and the Su-22s that Poland is currently flying.

            Interestingly, it's also a really good match for the F-35s in the F-16s that Poland already flies, because if you look back at the development of the T-50, which was largely done with the help of Lockheed Martin, it was designed for... Pilots could jump in, train rapidly in the T-50, then leap straight into the F-16, as they do in the South Korean Air Force. So actually, it seems like a really good fit. And then once you consider adding these additional capabilities, such as self-defensive aids, the radar, and the weapons, it actually seems like quite a good fit.

            And one of my first thoughts was, I also imagined it to be like back in the Cold War, the West Germans operated loads of Alpha Jet trainers, but not as jet trainers. They were used as close support aircraft dropping bombs, cluster bombs, and Napalm into the front lines of a huge Soviet tank force coming across the East German plains. And I suspect this is probably a similar conclusion that Poland has come to, that they need something small, cheap, and light to come in that can come in behind the F-16s and the F-35s, and do some of that work.

Jen DiMascio:

Thanks Tony. Chuanren, you've been following the development of the KF-21. I mean, it had a huge milestone last week when it flew for the first time. What has intrigued you about the creation of this aircraft? And what, in your opinion, is the significance of what it showed that it could do last week?

Chen Chuanren:

So thank you, Jen. The story of KF-21 is pretty interesting, because it was born from former president dream to produce a South Korean fighter within South Korea itself. But of course, his plan to have one in 2015 was delayed when he couldn't get the technology required from America. So it went on the world trip to find partners and find capabilities to make sure that it has everything it needs, from IRST, from AESA radars, as well as munitions. So what KF-21 shows is simply the ingenuity of the Koreans to perhaps partner with foreign companies, be it Europeans, be it the Israelis, and make it themselves, something uniquely Korean.

            So, I remember when I was in KAI in sometime around late 2018, there were four lines in the Sancheong factory, and they had already started emptying one line to prepare for the assembly of the first KF-21. And that was around 2018. And you can see it took four years for them to build six prototypes. And of course, the first one flew in July 19, for about 40 minutes. But of course, it was a rather conservative flight. It was a low speed flight with two T-50s as chase. But of course, it was lastly in an empty shell, because the radars were not installed, and there's only about four material captive missiles on board, just to show its load.

            So the whole journey of KF-21, it would be pretty interesting, because they're going to be built in two blocks. The first block, hopefully by 2026, will be purely an air superiority fighter with limited air to ground capabilities. So 40 aircraft will be built. And at the same time, they're going to develop or make sure that the air to ground munitions, one of the system is almost like a Taurus cousin, a smaller Taurus. So they call the Korean guided bomb, KGGB, with folding wings, and essentially is a standoff weapon and enables the Koreans to perform their kill chain function whenever should there be a conflict with enough.

            The block two should commence construction by around 2028. That would be the full capability of the KF-21, and around 80 will be built for the Korean Air Force. So I think that the currents are taking a step by step basis right now. It's their first major and perhaps the most complicated aerospace technology they are embarked on, and will be interesting to see what happens in the next four to five years.

Jen DiMascio:

Thank you. Steve, I'm hoping you could maybe pull these data points together a bit. What do you see happening and changing? How does this change the global marketplace?

Steve Trimble:

Sure. Well, what I'd like to do is zoom out very quickly at the beginning and then zoom in to what this means in Korea in particular. But on the global scale, on the global market, what Korea is doing here is very interesting and very important, because very similar efforts are happening right now in Turkey, with the TF-X, and in India, with AMCA. Of course, Japan is teamed up with the UK now on Tempest, so that's a little bit different.

            But this is an indigenous fighter program that leans on external suppliers for some things and the domestic industrial base for quite a bit of it. And that industrial base has been built up over time and steadily over several decades through a very deliberate and focused process that I also want to talk to, because this is what happens when... I mean, you're, you're seeing what it looks like when an industrial policy works over time.

            And this is something that South Korea has already demonstrated in ship building, the number one country in the world for shipbuilding. They're in the top five of electronics and automotive. And they also, 40 years ago, decided to get involved in aviation. And this was a national policy, and it has transcended politics, it descended the fractious partisanship of South Korean politics, and they've dedicated themselves to this. And that's what it takes to bring these things to fruition.

            Now, in the process with KF-21, this started, as my colleague, Chuanren, rightly points out, over 20 years ago, with former several different presidential administrations. They had hoped to bring it to market a bit sooner. I think 2015 was the original target for getting it into service. 2022 isn't so bad if you compare it to some other programs, especially in the US, that I'm aware of. But in the process, South Korea had to make a lot of choices about what kind of configuration they needed what they could build themselves versus what they would need external support for.

            And what we saw, I mean, it's been pretty interesting. There's an American engine on it. There were 20 technologies that Lockheed agreed to transfer to South Korea. Four were prohibited by the US State Department from being transferred by Lockheed. Those included the radar, the EW, IRST. And there was another one, but I forget what that was. But it was four major systems.

            But South Korea has built up those technologies themselves. Now, with the radar, it appears they had some assistance from Israel and either LTA or LBA systems. So they're building on that, and they've come up with what seems to be a pretty effective fighter for what their needs are. What they're going to do is replace their F-5s and F-4s with this aircraft.

            Now, in a global market perspective, I mean, as this aircraft comes into service, whether it's 2026 or maybe a year or two later, depending on how long flight testing actually takes, they're going to have a capability that, on paper, could rival some fourth to fifth generation fighters, right at the outset, so aircraft like the Typhoon, the Rafale, the F-16, and the Gripen will have a new competitor.

            And so, it is going to be interesting to see how South Korea is able to leverage this new capability in the international marketplace, because selling defense equipment is not like selling ships, or electronics, or cars. It's not just about price. It's not just about performance and capabilities. It is also about diplomacy. It's about relationships. It's a security partnership that countries get involved in, and sometimes, that can get really tricky.

            I think that's also why this deal in Poland, even though it was for FA-50s, is so important, because it shows, one, that they now have a market to upgrade from the FA-50 to the KF-21 Boramae, perhaps later, if that becomes available. And secondly, it shows that Poland was willing to trust and put part of their security in the hands of the South Korean supplier for the first time. And that's a big deal in the international market.

            At the same time, we've also seen how that's being done differently in South Korea with this deal. You can see Macron at Dubai or Abu Dhabi back in November, announcing this blockbuster deal for 80 Rafales by the UAE with much fanfare. And you see that when he goes to Greece or to Croatia. And same thing in the United States, or in other European countries that are selling these things. These are big deals when this happened.

            In South Korea, it was actually subdued. As we were just looking up, there was no announcement by the South Korean president, or the Defense Ministry, or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. There were some statements in the press by DAPA, the acquisition agency that was managing the FA-50 program, but not that full-throated marketing blitz led by the government.

            And there's some reasons for that. I mean, for one thing, South Korea is in the neighborhood of Russia. And in fact, they depend on Russia for part of their own security. They license build 9M96 surface to air missile systems, or the interceptors from Russia's S-300 and S-400 complexes, in Korea for the KF-SAM, surface to air missile system. They also use Ka-30 helicopters for their coast guard, and search and rescue, and firefighting from Kamov.

            So, they have to walk a line where they're using Russia as a supplier for some of their security needs, as well as supplying these weapon systems to, whereas right now, not necessarily a hostile enemy or combatant, but certainly an adversary in Europe, and in a very tense moment in that whole relationship. So there's going to be some interesting things about how this evolves, but I do think that, just in the last week, I mean, this has been just a huge validation of South Korea's national strategy that was formed 40 years ago to break into the aviation market. They have a lot of ambitions to do a lot of other things, and this is a big step in that direction.

Jen DiMascio:

Steve, what are some of those other ambitions? What more might we see?

Steve Trimble:

Well, there's so many things. I mean, Tony could probably chime in on some of their helicopter programs and what their ambitions are there. They've leaned on Airbus with license built versions of Super Puma, with the Surion, and with the Dauphin for the light combat aircraft. Korean Air and KAI have a whole bunch of UAV projects in the works, some of them quite sophisticated. And there have been designs put out there for some pretty advanced capabilities, like ISR aircraft that could be converted into say regional airliners.

            Those ideas and proposals have been coming up in the last few years, as well as, they just started a scramjet powered cruise missile development program just in the last year. So, they do want to grow on this and build on this. I mean, I think their ultimate ambition is to break into the commercial aviation market somehow. There was a partnership they tried to do with Bombardier at one point on regional transports. I think there's been talks with Embraer at different times. But they've never been able to get that partnership consummated into a real commercial program. But that, of course, would be the biggest thing for their industry, not just defense, but also commercial.

Tony Osborne:

Just to follow on from that, I mean, South Korea has made really massive inroads, certainly, in the armored vehicle world, which is obviously where the Polish program actually is really where it's in depth, apart from the combat aircraft owners. The tanks and the artillery pieces are becoming quite widely recognized as some of the best in class. I mean, Norway is already selected the K9 Thunder artillery system. It's also been chosen in several other countries. And I think it's being looked at here in the UK, as well, as a potential solution for future artillery pieces.

            So what was once a very European market, often dominated by Germany with systems like Leopard main battle tanks, Korea is now becoming a real key competitor for countries like Germany. And I think Steve is right. I think as Korea expands its capabilities in surface to air and air launch weapons, I think you're going to see a lot more of those systems coming into the international market as well. If Korea can make, say, a satisfactory decent standoff weapon, for example, I think that would probably track quite a lot of interest.

Chen Chuanren:

Just to add on, I think it's timely to remind our listeners that Korea is actually still in a state of war. The armistice days was just yesterday. So whatever that Korea is making is actually for their own self defense as well. So, we can tell that the systems that they're producing, they're manufacturing, they are real stuff to fight in a real, full scale conflict.

            And of course, the fact that the FA-50 is breaking into Poland, not just Europe, it's a NATO country, so it speaks a lot for the FA-50s. And to be quite honest, I would have thought the FA-50 is a poor man's fighter in Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, to some certain extent. But now that it is making ways into a NATO country and perhaps as a leading trainer fighter for F-35s, people will think otherwise soon.

Jen DiMascio:

Well, I also think it's interesting from the perspective of just industrial base issues, where US or European countries can have problems pumping out enough equipment. And if you're looking at Pacific theater and need more equipment quickly, the US and its allies are maybe going to need more oomph in that region. And so, I think the default in the US is to look at this as an economic competitive issue sometimes, but it could be a diplomatic enhancement in another sense. I guess I'm keying off of, Tony, what you said earlier about the commonalities between the FA-50 as something that Lockheed helped to build heavily, and some of the other equipment that Poland uses.

Tony Osborne:

Yeah. I see where you... I mean, it's difficult to say where that's going to go. The other thing that Poland has been doing recently is it's buying an awful lot of equipment, and some of it seems to mix with what they're trying to do here with Poland. So they've ordered hundreds of Abrams tanks also, from the United States. Suddenly it's hard to see. They have an extreme force mix of equipment. It's hard to see how those things will all come together.

            And I think there has also been some questions about whether Poland is using these agreements with South Korea to try and leverage better prices out of some of those other suppliers as well. It's going to be interesting to see where the next few weeks go and whether these really turn into real contracts. At the moment, these are just framework agreements. But the size of them would suggest that there's some very serious interest in pursuing this arrangement with South Korea.

Jen DiMascio:

Well, Tony, can you break down what Poland is exactly looking at right now, because it's massive? Maybe enumerate some of the things that they have on their list.

Tony Osborne:

So in the South Korean deal, we've got the, as previously mentioned, the 48 FA-50s, and 36 of those, of this more advanced, bespoke variant. When it comes to armored vehicles, there's 600 K9 Thunder or advanced derivative of K9 Thunder self-propelled guns. And then we've got the 900 or so K2 tanks, which are quite an advanced main battle tank, with about 800 of those that Poland wants to produce in country.

            Before that, we had seen signatures for what we call an advanced tank destroyer system, which will use MBDA's Brimstone missile. And this is quite an intriguing notion of the idea of a tank destroyer goes back to the Second World War, where you have specialist tracked vehicle that was lightly armored, but designed to kill heavily armored tanks. Poland has revisited this using guided missiles and basically lofting a whole load of them into the air, and then the missiles will basically come back down on top of the tanks.

            We've also seen accelerations in programs for surface to air missiles, Narew and Vistula. Vistula is the program that buys Patriot missile system. Narew is a short range system that will use the MBDA's CAMM system. And then we've also got new battlefield helicopters. Big surprise was the purchase of AW149 super medium platforms to basically take on a whole load of roles within the Polish army.

            Poland had been looking at buying new helicopters since 2014, and had never actually signed up to any particular program. If you remember, it canceled a deal with the French government to buy H225 Caracals, because of the minister at the time, who some say was possibly slightly mad, didn't think it was a good idea to have yet another helicopter manufacturer coming into the country. And there was a court case over that, which Airbus ultimately won. The approach that the Polish took was deemed unlawful.

            And then, more recently we've seen other tank arrangements with United States. There's orders for UAVs. Don't forget, we've also got the agreement with Bayraktar to buy TB2 drones, which we obviously agreed before the conflict. But obviously, since the conflict, has proven that Bayraktar has, obviously, significant interest in that capability in Poland.

            And obviously, Poland already has F-35s on order. It also has large numbers of Patriot batteries. But ever since the war, there's just this constant wave of new activity out of Poland. Some of it appears to be a little bit panicked, possibly. I think it's literally having waited for years and years and years to make a decision. Some of those decisions still haven't been in place, and then suddenly, the war has started, and we need to get this new equipment in. And you can see in the quotes from the defense minister that we are in a rush, Poland needs this equipment.

Steve Trimble:

The bizarre thing is they're sort of... Oh, sorry. The bizarre thing is they're recreating the US Air Force's fighter force structure. They'll have F-35s, F-16s, FA-50s, which is like the T-7, and now they're talking about buying F-15s. So, without the A-10 and the F-22, which the US Air Force says they want to get rid of by the end of the decade, Poland will be another US Air Force force structure in NATO.

Tony Osborne:

I'm not sure I'd read very much into the F-15 statements by the prime minister at this point. It just doesn't-

Steve Trimble:

It is bizarre.

Tony Osborne:

What they're looking... It is extremely bizarre. I do wonder if it was a misquote, or not necessarily by him, or a misnaming. But I just don't see F-15s fitting into the Polish force mix. F-35 and F-16 is probably pretty much firmly ensconced in the Polish Air Force. Those MiG-29s and actually Su-22s will still be moving out, sadly, for those of us who are massively interested in those platforms.

Jen DiMascio:

Chuanren, I think you wanted to jump in there.

Chen Chuanren:

Just to add on to your point of competition versus collaboration. We have to remember that in June, KAI actually signed a corporation marketing deal with Lockheed-Martin to market the FA-50s into North America, essentially to pitch the aircraft to the US Air Force, the US Navy, as well as the Canadian Future Fighter Lead-In Training program.

            So in a way, I think what the Koreans can provide to the market is actually a risk free platform. As we can see, the T-X has been facing some delays in the States and the T-50 will probably be a timely, I don't know, stop gap measure for the Americans or even the Canadians. So what is seen in Europe, that the Korean tanks, Korean artillery are reliable, again, risk free. And I think that's what the world wants right now, a risk free approach to arms procurement.

Tony Osborne:

And just to follow on from that, I think the other thing about Polish procurement at the moment is that the European union here has made big statements about how countries should cooperate in buying this new equipment. We haven't seen any of that from Poland, and I think that's just how panicked they are about trying to get this new gear into service. There's been this malaise about trying to get new equipment into service for so long, and then suddenly, a war is on their doorstep, and they're literally just going to everyone and seeing what's available.

            They know that they need this in emergency. And they're probably going to pay quite an inflated price for some of this capability, but they're definitely going to bring a lot of it in. But it's sad, really, that they hadn't really taken the opportunity to cooperate with other nations. I think probably the F-35 is the only place where they're really going to end up cooperating with neighbors. I think a lot of this other kit is going to be quite bespoke to Poland's needs, and that might leave them suffering in the future.

Jen DiMascio:

Does anybody have any final thoughts before we wrap up?

Tony Osborne:

Just coming back to the point about Korean aerospace breaking into the European market. I think that's quite a big move. It would be interesting... And so, one of the other things that Korean aerospace is planning to do is to develop a service center for the T-50 here in Europe. And they obviously have some big ambitions. I think we already mentioned they were trying to sell it in Slovakia, they're trying to sell it in Croatia. The Korean Air Force aerobatic team has been here in Europe. It was present at the Royal International Air Tattoo. They made fleeting appearances at the Farnborough Air Show with the T-50 platform, the second time the team has been to Europe in 10 years.

            And obviously, that's part of that marketing push to sell the aircraft, to sell that Korean technology into Europe. And they'll be making their way back, step by step, across Europe, into North Africa, and then into the Middle East and as part of that sales thing. So South Korea has global ambitions, I think. Even if you just follow their aerobatic team, I'd be watching those countries where that aerobatic team stops with interest.

Jen DiMascio:

Great point, Tony. Good way to end this. Unfortunately, that's all the time we have for today, but join us again next week for another episode. Until then, check out Aviation Week's Window Seat podcast, which this week, focuses on the air transport chaos in Europe and the ongoing blame game. You can find Window Seat wherever you're listening to Check 6. One last request. If you're listening to us on Apple Podcasts and you want to support us, please leave a star rating or review. Bye for now. Thanks.

Jen DiMascio

Based in Washington, Jen manages Aviation Week’s worldwide defense, space and security coverage.

Tony Osborne

Based in London, Tony covers European defense programs. Prior to joining Aviation Week in November 2012, Tony was at Shephard Media Group where he was deputy editor for Rotorhub and Defence Helicopter magazines.

Chen Chuanren

Chen Chuanren is the Southeast Asia and China Editor for the Aviation Week Network’s (AWN) Air Transport World (ATW) and the Asia-Pacific Defense Correspondent for AWN, joining the team in 2017.

Steve Trimble

Steve covers military aviation, missiles and space for the Aviation Week Network, based in Washington DC.