KAI rolls out KF-21 Boramae, first Korean-made fighter jet

KAI rolls out KF-21 Boramae, first Korean-made fighter jet. This 20-year-old pledge finally came to fruition this year, as KF-21 Boramae, the first prototype of the KF-X project, learned citing koreaherald.

KAI rolls out KF-21 Boramae

At a commencement ceremony of Korea Air Force Academy on March 20, 2001, President Kim Dae-jung made a promise to cadets that signaled the beginning KAI’s KF-X project, the country’s single largest defense development program worth 8.8 trillion won ($7.8 billion).

“We’ll let you cadets ride fighter jets developed by Korea,” he said.

This 20-year-old pledge finally came to fruition this year, as KF-21 Boramae, the first prototype of the KF-X project, was unveiled Friday at a roll-out ceremony at Korea Aerospace Industries’ manufacturing facility in Sacheon, South Gyeongsang Province.

At the event, President Moon-jae paid tribute to the technicians of KAI, the nation’s sole aircraft manufacturer who have led the KF-X project since 2016.

“From its design to production, Korean technicians led all stages of the development of KF-21. In this process, Korea localized key equipment essential for a 4.5-generation fighter such as active electronically scanned array, or AESA radar,” a Cheong Wa Dae official said.

When KF-21 Boramae successfully completes its test flights, Korea will become the 13th country in the world to indigenously develop a fighter jet.

“When a program director of Lockheed Martin first looked at the timeline of KF-X project, the official said that the project would need a miracle to succeed,’” said Ryu Kwang-su, head of aircraft program division, during an interview with The Herald Business, the Korean-language sister paper of The Korea Herald.

It took Lockheed Martin almost 20 years and at least $59.2 billion to develop F-35 fighter jets. KAI, which embarked on the project in January 2016, managed to come up with a prototype in five years with a budget less than one-sixth as big.

“A Lockheed Martin manger looked at us and said that KAI needs twice as many staff to develop the KF-X project, but we said we can do it and we did,” Ryu said.

Due to its similar design with Lockheed Martin’s F-22 Raptor, the world’s most lethal fighter jet, KAI’s KF-21 Boramae is often nicknamed “Baby Raptor.”

The maiden flight is scheduled in July after tests on the ground. Mass production will proceed when six prototypes complete 2,200 sorties over the next four years.

KF-21 not only holds a symbolic significance but also has practical advantages.

The Air Force’s main KF-16 and F-15K fighter jets are all American-made and an unstable parts supply has posed hiccups for operations. In the past five years, there were 535 and 548 cases where the Air Force couldn’t scramble F-15K and KF-16 fighters, respectively, due to lack of parts. The target ratio of localization of KF-21 is 65 percent.

Another key advantage is the freedom of weapon choice. To load Korea-made missiles on F-15Ks, for example, the Air Force has to pay tens of millions of dollars to the US in the name of “weapons system integration.” In this process, the Air Force has to disclose source codes of those missiles. The Air Force paid 80 billion won to mount Swedish-German Taurus missiles on the F-15K.

However, thanks to the independent platform of KF-21, the Air Force can now load Korean-made missiles without having to worry about extra installation fees. The homegrown fighter has total 10 weapons stations, with three on each wing and four under the fuselage.

The Air Force has 120 KF-21s on order and plans to put them all into active service by 2032. The single-seat twin-engine fighter will replace Korea’s aging F-4D and F-5E fleet.

With price expected at $65 million per unit, KAI plans to export the midrange jets starting 2028. KF-21 jets exhibit low operational costs and ease of maintenance, which would be key to successfully marketing the jet in Southeast Asia.

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