More expensive than the US F-35, how advanced is South Korea's KF-X stealth fighter?

South Korea's KF-X stealth fighter
South Korea's KF-X stealth fighter
At a price that is estimated to be more expensive than the United States' F-35 fighter, is building a South Korean KF-X fighter worth the cost? - The Republic of Korea (ROK) South Korea announced it would buy 40 F-35A Lightning II stealth fighters. It is an addition to the 13 F-35A aircraft the country received in 2019. The announcement coincided with the deployment of South Korean tanks and troops into the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) along its border with North Korea.

Last month, The National Interest reported, South Korea also announced that as part of its recently published national plans for 2021-2025, the Asian country will build an aircraft carrier, allowing it to compete with its main regional rivals including China and Japan. The South Korean carrier will reportedly feature a flat flight deck, but it is unclear whether South Korea will acquire a vertical-landing version of the F-35B fighter from Lockheed Martin's Joint Strike Fighter program. South Korea has considered purchasing the F-35B to complement the country's ground-based F-35A.

A more likely scenario is that a future South Korean aircraft carrier will operate on the domestically made KF-X (Korean Fighter eXperimental) multirole fighter jet, which is expected to fly by 2022.The jets reportedly have a top speed of about 2,253 kilometers per hour or approximately Mach 1.83 and has a range of approximately 2,896 kilometers. The KF-X can carry a payload of up to 7,700 kilograms.

This is actually not entirely new news since the KF-X was announced in 2010 as a joint venture between South Korea and Indonesia, but details were scarce until full-size mockups were presented at trade events during last year's Seoul ADEX 2019 exhibition. The promotional video further highlights some of the advanced capabilities, but one interesting thing is that the aircraft has been labeled a 4.5 generation fighter. That means, the National Interest noted, it could be a step backwards for South Korea to adopt the jet instead of the F-35B for its upcoming aircraft carriers.

Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) is reported to have made serious progress on the first prototype. Pictures of the plane have been shared on many news channels including The Drive. KAI has stated that the aircraft will be produced in both single and tandem seat variants. Both versions will feature three hooks under each wing for the weapon and / or external fuel tank. The aircraft will be capable of carrying four missiles under the fuselage.

While this is expected to be an impressive aircraft (or even a true fifth-generation fighter) the tricky thing is the cost. The Eurasian Times reports that some aviation experts estimate KAI's KF-X costs more than Lockheed Martin's F-35. The fighter aircraft is already the largest local weapons development project in South Korean history. According to reports, the South Korean government has spent about 8.6 trillion won (US $ 7 billion) on the project.
South Korea's KF-X stealth fighter
South Korea's KF-X stealth fighter
By the time production begins to produce the 120 or so new jets the Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF) wants that could start in 2026, South Korea could face billions increasing by an additional 10 trillion won. The report from notes that each KF-X could cost around US $ 130 million, which is significantly more than the cost of a U.S.-made F-35 in 2019.

Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin has done a reasonable job of lowering the cost of the F-35, particularly by attracting foreign customers. The F-35 remains the only stealth fighter with many expert customers. It remains unclear whether South Korea can get the same attention from potential buyers around the world.

As South Korea needs 120 fighters to replace its aging McDonnell Douglas F-4D / E Phantom II and Northrop F-5E / F Tiger II fighters, The National Interest notes, the KF-X may be the most expensive option.