30.06.2021 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

The Problems with the KF-X Project

KFX

In one of his articles on how South Korea is arming itself, the author mentioned a fighter aircraft project called KF-X (Korean Fighter eXperimental) in Korea and IF-X (Indonesian Fighter eXperimental) in Indonesia. Jakarta agreed to become a partner in the South Korean KF-X project, which is aimed at developing a new fighter by 2026, and has pledged to shoulder 20 percent of the total cost of the development work – about 1.7 trillion won – in exchange for both 50 aircraft that are to be produced there for the Indonesian Air Force and technology transfer arrangements.

The country’s largest weapons development plan began in 2001, when the then President Kim Dae-jung pledged to develop Korea’s own combat aircraft by 2015. After a long, complex feasibility study and gauging public opinion, the country began exploratory research in 2011, and in December 2015, the Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) signed a contract with Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) to become seriously involved in the project that is geared toward producing 120 cutting-edge multifunctional fighter aircraft to replace the aging Korean Air Force’s fleet of F-4s and F-5s by 2032.

About 65 percent of the project’s components are to be manufactured domestically, including the Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, which is much more advanced than passive radar.

However, now the project is experiencing problems owing to the fact that the Indonesian side is getting ready to abandon it. Back in December 2020, The Korea Times wrote about “concerns about Indonesia’s delay in paying its share of the cost of the Korean-Indonesian joint fighter aircraft project.” Indonesia is allegedly actively seeking to buy advanced fighter jets from countries such as France, Russia, or the United States, while putting the payment of hundreds of billions of dollars for the KF-X on the back burner. This is supposedly because the development project will take at least another six years, while Indonesia wants to deploy advanced fighter jets as soon as it possibly can.

According to the Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA), the Indonesian government paid out 227.2 billion won ($208 million) between 2016 and 2020, but delayed payments for 604.4 billion won, or 73% of the 831.6 billion won it had promised to pay out by 2020.  Thankfully, back in 2018 Indonesian President Joko Widodo tried to adjust the burden borne by his country, citing financial difficulties.

Concerns were also expressed about Indonesia’s delay in payment for three 1,400-ton submarines from the Korean company Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering, which are part of a deal signed in April 2019. Indonesia has still not paid the 160-billion won deposit.

As justification for what is stated above, it was affirmed that Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto, who took office in October 2019, is supposedly critical of the KF-X and is considering procuring other options, including Boeing F-15EX and Dassault Rafale fighter aircraft.

On February 9, 2021, amidst rumors that Jakarta wants to withdraw from the project, a spokesman for the Ministry of Defense stated that negotiations are still in progress. “We are in the process of sounding out each other’s position”.

On April 1, 2021 media outlets reported that Prabowo Subianto will take part in an upcoming ceremony to launch a prototype of the fighter jet. This has engendered hope that defense cooperation between the two sides will return back to its former course. On the other hand, Shin Jong-woo, a senior researcher at the Korea Defense and Security Forum, said it was doubtful that the visit would have a positive impact on the KF-X project: “Indonesia is not seen as a bona fide purchaser in the international defense industry by countries other than France”. On top of that, it turns out there are rumors that Indonesia has requested a $5 billion loan to resume progress with it.

On April 7, Prabowo Subianto arrived in South Korea, and on the next day, Moon Jae-in personally invited him to his office – amidst speculation that the bilateral partnership could collapse.  As is customary, the South Korean president noted that the project to develop a new-generation fighter “symbolically demonstrates a high level of trust and cooperation between our two countries,” after which he described the minister’s trip as a manifestation of Indonesia’s strong commitment to successful cooperation in the defense industry, and expressed his hope for the commercial production of the fighter jets, technology transfer, and joint penetration into foreign markets. Moon Jae-in added that South Korea attaches great importance to its relations with Indonesia, which have a “strategic, partnership nature”.

Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong and Defense Minister Suh Wook talked about similar things with their guest, and ultimately the parties “agreed to work together to ensure continued, brisk cooperation in the defense industry,” since that “symbolizes the strong trust between the two countries.” In addition, it was decided to hold a meeting among senior officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Defense in a “two plus two” format, and in the near future to initiate a channel for dialogue at the deputy minister level that will enhance strategic communications.

The next day, on April 9, a presentation was given on a prototype for a fighter jet dubbed the KF-21 Boramae (Hawk) at the headquarters of Korea Aerospace Industries. However, essentially just the hull was on display for everyone – flight tests are scheduled for 2022, and all the development work is supposed to be completed by 2026.

For now, it is more likely that we are supposed to believe that with a maximum payload of 7,700 kilograms, the new combat aircraft will have 10 capsules for air-to-air missiles and other weapons capable of flying at a speed of 2,200 km/h, and with a range of 2,900 km. In addition, the KF-21 is not a stealth aircraft, although officials have said they will continue research on a potential conversion that has additional features.

President Moon nonetheless called the Hawk the opening of a new era for independent national defense, and a landmark moment in the history of the aerospace industry. Because when the development work is done, South Korea will become the 13th country to develop its own combat aircraft. This is something to brag about.

South Korean media outlets were joyful. “The KF-21 has significant export potential due to its competitive pricing. But the most important thing is that the new fighter will play a key role in safeguarding our airspace at a time when the security environment surrounding the Korean Peninsula is becoming increasingly unstable amid an intensifying Sino-US rivalry.”

However, off the record officials noted that “one of the main reasons the Seoul government has joined forces with Indonesia was to expand more successfully into the global market. If Indonesia withdraws from the project, our exports could experience failure.”

Moreover, there were reports that the parties settled on how to come up with specific ways to resolve the problems with payment. “To the extent that our budget allows, we will have to agree on a schedule for their payments. All these issues are on the table for discussion, and the position taken by our government is to move forward and quickly reach an agreement.” The official denied that Indonesia demanded that its contribution be decreased, but allegedly Prabowo Subianto asked South Korea to support the food security program he is in charge of.

On April 16, a representative from the Korean Agency for Defense Development announced that South Korea and Indonesia would resume negotiations on the KF-X/IF-X in the near future.   According to the official, during Prabowo Subianto’s visit an agreement was reached to immediately resume working negotiations on resuming the joint project, during which a payment schedule would be approved.

It was anticipated that the joint work would continue over the course of a few months. However, first the French media (), and then international media, reported that on June 7, 2021, during a visit made to Indonesia by Florence Parley, the Minister of the Armed Forces of the French Republic, the Indonesian Ministry of Defense signed a tentative agreement with the French company Dassault Aviation to purchase 36 Rafale fighters. According to preliminary data, the contract will enter into force in December 2021 if the Indonesian side puts up an advance payment, while the final signing for the contract is expected only toward the end of 2022. As South Korean media immediately reported, if that is true then this could scrap further cooperation between Seoul and Jakarta, and any prospects for exporting KF-21 Boramae to the countries of Southeast Asia.

Naturally, Seoul put on a brave face: “It cannot be ruled out that this represents a ‘deliberate leak’ of information designed to put pressure on the South Korean side in order to persuade it to revise the agreements on the project that were previously reached”.

At present, there is no news that further develops the topic, but the author does not get the feeling that this means temporary difficulties that will be overcome soon.  First, for Indonesia the Rafale is a tried-and-true fighter jet that is actively procured across the world – a bird in the hand that has been tested. Second, they say that at the demonstration of the prototype many people posed questions, since the estimated performance characteristics did not match those claimed in the specifications, and an approach of “do not worry about it, we will put the finishing touches on everything by the deadline” did not inspire much confidence. Third, Indonesia – striving to pursue an independent policy – allegedly did not want to be unduly dependent on a patent US ally.

What will happen next with this grandiose project is also up in the air, but the author assumes that against the backdrop of how briskly Seoul is becoming a strategic ally for the United States, it will need fighter jets, and assistance will be given to it.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.


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