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South Korea (2026)

Detailing the development and operational history of the KAI KF-X 5th Generation Multirole Fighter Aircraft.

 Entry last updated on 2/22/2018; Authored by Staff Writer; Content ©

  KAI KF-X  
Picture of KAI KF-X 5th Generation Multirole Fighter Aircraft
Picture of KAI KF-X 5th Generation Multirole Fighter Aircraft

The South Korean KAI KF-X 5th Generation Fighter program reached full-scale development approval in January 2016 and continues to evolve.

The "5th Generation Fighter" - along with the "Unmanned Aerial Vehicle" - is the current buzzword in the aviation defense industry. The 5th Generation fighter is a technological marvel, intended to surpass the capabilities of both modern 4th and 4.5th Generation mounts in wide circulation today through powerful tracking and engagement facilities, advanced avionics, high-end engine installations, agile performance, composite structures and inherent stealth features to help dominate the battlefield. To date, there is only one operational 5th Generation Fighter design in the skies - the American Lockheed F-22 Raptor air superiority fighter - though several major developments have since emerged from Russia and China. The United States is undoubtedly leading the way with their F-22 and upcoming Lockheed F-35 Lightning II in weapons testing (2012) while the Chinese Chengdu J-20 has been strategically unveiled through propaganda and the Russian Sukhoi PAK FA has seen her first flight. India is in joint development with the Russians for a local-produced version of the PAK FA and a Turkish endeavor has been announced. A Japanese 5th Generation fighter design (the Mitsubishi ATD-X) is advancing. Conversely, a South Korean imitative - noted as the "KF-X" program - is facing tough issues in both the political and the economic realms.

NOTE: Presented performance values on this page are estimates only. As the KF-X project aircraft remains in development, this article will be updated to reflect any announced changes.

The Korean War (1950-1953) cost the lives of tens of thousands of military and civilian personnel, becoming one of the major battlegrounds of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States (ahead of the Vietnam War). Prior to the war, and after World War 2 and the fall of the Japanese Empire, the Korean Peninsula was divided between a communist northern sphere and a democratic southern sphere. With Stalin's blessing, the North moved in to invade the South and the UN responded in force over the three-year conflict that saw the advent of the jet fighter and jet-versus-jet duels that eventually incorporated Soviet-versus-American pilots. The war ended with a loose armistice and tensions have been high and low ever since.

With that said, the South Korean government has worked well over the decades to field a capable and modern fighting force to counter the size and strength of the North. Outnumbered in most respects, the South manages through the latest technology and modern tactics, hoping to employ its military might (aided largely by the United States) to content with any endeavor the North may pursue. There is much intrigue in the region for Japan, the Philippines, Indonesia, China, Taiwan, Thailand and Malaysia all have stakes in a stable Asia-Pacific region though all are now faced with a very public arms race.

The South Korean KF-X fighter program seeks to design, develop and produce a wholly indigenous 5th Generation Fighter of the multirole type to create an imbalance of the playing field against the North. The North fields a collection of Soviet/Russian aircraft with a portion of its fleet dating back to the Cold War years. An indigenous initiative would seemingly provide the South Koreans with complete autonomy in the future aerial defense of their country and allow the option to export the system to interested allied parties for self-economical gain. However, indigenous 5th Generation Fighter programs are costly beasts and consume much research and development effort as they do time to implement in full (as proven by the bloated Lockheed F-35 program which initially promised several financial and logistical benefits). Despite the inherent benefits of such a program, there are obvious drawbacks to threaten the future of the KF-X. To date, several configurations have been studied with no clear concrete direction established as the future of the program remains in doubt. The South Korean Air Force may very well be forced to settle on existing fighter mounts - most likely 4.5th Generation Types - for the near future. The front-running designs of the KF-X program - like other current 5th Generation Fighter designs appearing globally - imitate the design lines established by the Lockheed F-22 Raptor utilizing low-observable features and inherent stealth benefits.
South Korea has only been able to convince Indonesia to commit (20%) to the venture in which South Korea controls at least a 60% majority stake in the program, giving it the rights it covets for future export gain. Turkey was considering participation in the KF-X program but removed itself from contention when an equal share would not be granted - having since moved on to undertake a 5th Generation Fighter program all their own. Additionally, current South Korean technological capabilities require foreign assistance and overtures have been made to Lockheed, Saab, EADS and Boeing for help (the only true South Korean aircraft initiative remains the KAI T-50/FA-50 advanced trainer/light strike aircraft - the program being largely directed by Lockheed). The KF-X would be fielded alongside, or replace outright, the KF-16 - the South Korean version of the Lockheed F-16 "Fighting Falcon". The South Koreans intend the KF-X to fill the technological and performance void between their F-16 derivative and the more advanced F-35 Lightning II in the lightweight multirole fighter mold.

On August 2nd, 2011, a research facility related to the KF-X program opened its doors in Daejeon along the central-western portion of the country. "Concept definition" was ongoing as of this writing (2012) and KAI (Korea Aerospace Industries) became the prime contractor of the program. Samsung Techwin was selected to develop the required powerplant - though this would be based on an existing and proven foreign design to speed development. Electronics would be managed by the LIG Next concern.

Two designs, the "KF-X-101" and the "KF-X-102", are competing for the overall rights to the KF-X program. The KF-X-101 is a conventional single-engine arrangement while the KF-X-102 is a twin-engine, delta-winged configuration with forward canards. The KF-X-101 would be less expensive and less technological to develop and produce (though sport lesser capabilities as a result) while the KF-X-102 would provide the needed performance for interception and air superiority sorties required of the mount, making her more complicated and expensive to produce in the numbers required. It is expected that some 130 total aircraft would be manufactured in an initial production batch for South Korean and Indonesia, with Indonesia being granted 50 of these for their early financial involvement. Operational service year is optimistically eyed for 2020.

To date, however, there remains many hurdles in bringing the KF-X to light. There is serious doubt as to the feasibility of the South Koreans (even internally) to complete such a large-scale intensive program due to the high-level state-of-the-art technologies, production and cost involved with no perceived guarantees from the end-product. The dangers of failing the initiative, however, could set the South Korean aerial defense industry back several years in its goal in trying to outpace the North (as well as China, who is already developing two advanced fighters). It may work out that the South Korean Air Force - amidst upcoming elections and further budget meandering - settles on other foreign aircraft designs for purchase including additional F-16s, the F-35, the Saab Gripen, the Eurofighter Typhoon or the French Dassault Rafale - the latter of which was recently selected by the Indian Navy.

October 2014 - The KF-X program has officially received conditional defense ministry approval for development. The KF-X-200 twin-engined design has been selected over the single-engined KF-X-100 proposal.

January 2016 - Full-scale development of the KF-X fighter has been announced. Indonesia remains an active partner and the first batch of 40 aircraft is expected for 2026. As many as 120 may be available into the early 2030s.

May 2016 - The General Electric F414-400 turbofan engine has been selected ahead of the EuroJet EJ200 offering for the KF-X fighter program. A first-flight is tentatively scheduled for sometime in 2020. The engines will be built locally (under license) under the Hanwha Techwin brand label. This selection of engine may impact export value of the KF-X system.

October 2017 - The revised KF-X design reflects a dimensionally larger and heavier aircraft. Engineers have also confirmed a two-seat variant is in the works. Weapons support includes the European MBDA Meteor missile series. As it stands, the KF-X program will see a first-flight in 2022 with development continuing into the mid-2020s. Deliveries are set for sometime in 2026.
KAI KF-X Specifications
National Flag Graphic
South Korea
Year: 2026
Status: In-Development
Type: 5th Generation Multirole Fighter Aircraft
Manufacturer(s): KAI (Korean Aerospace Industries) - South Korea
Production: 0
Supported Mission Types
Ground Attack
Close-Air Support
Airborne Early Warning
Electronic Warfare
Aerial Tanker
Passenger Industry
VIP Travel
Business Travel
Special Forces
Crew: 1
Length: 55.12 ft (16.8 m)
Width: 36.75 ft (11.20 m)
Height: 15.75 ft (4.80 m)
Empty Weight: 22,046 lb (10,000 kg)
MTOW: 50,706 lb (23,000 kg)

Installed Power
2 x EuroJet EJ200 OR General Electric F144 turbofan engines with afterburner capability developing 22,000lb of thrust each (estimated as of mid-2017).

Standard Day Performance
Maximum Speed: 1,553 mph (2,500 kph; 1,350 kts)
Maximum Range: 2,361 mi (3,800 km; 2,052 nm)
Service Ceiling: 64,961 ft (19,800 m; 12.30 mi)
Rate-of-Climb: 60,000 ft/min (18,288 m/min)

1 x 20mm internal cannon

External weapons hardpoints and an internal weapons bay for the carrying of air-to-air missiles, air-to-surface missiles, precision-guided drop-ordnance and jettisonable fuel tanks.

Operators List
South Korea (planned)

Series Model Variants
• KF-X - Program Designation
• C103 - Initial design proposal
• C104 - Secondary design proposal
• C105 - Third design proposal
• C106 - Fourth design proposal
• C107 - Model proposal of mid-2017
• KF-X-100 - Single-engine proposal; conventional wing configuration.
• KF-X-200 - Twin-engine proposal; delta-winged configuration with forward canards.

Supported Weapon Systems
Graphical image of an air-to-air missile weapon
Graphical image of a short-range air-to-air missile
Graphical image of an aircrat automatic cannon
Graphical image of an aircraft air-to-surface missile
Graphical image of an aircraft conventional drop bomb munition
Graphical image of an aircraft guided bomb munition
Graphical image of an aircraft external fuel tank

Images Gallery