South Korea has big plans for the KF-21 “Hawk,” the culmination of a 22-year effort to build an indigenous Korean fighter.
The Republic of Korea’s first ever purpose-built fighter jet flew for the first time, an important milestone in Seoul’s aviation history. The KF-21 Boramae (“Northern Goshawk”) was the culmination of a 22-year effort to build an indigenous Korean fighter. South Korea plans to manufacture the KF-21 not only for itself but also for the international fighter jet market.
The KF-21 prototype, per South Korea’s Ministry of Defense, took off from a military airfield at Sacheon, Gyeongsangnam-do Province and flew for 33 minutes before landing without incident. The jet flew at a maximum speed of 248 miles an hour, deferring supersonic flight to a later test date. Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) plans a total of 2,200 flight test sorties before the aircraft will reach production status in 2026.
South Korea plans to build six flyable prototypes, wrapping up development and testing by 2026. The KF-21 will be a multi-role aircraft capable of air-to-air and air-to-ground missions. Production of the first forty jets, known as KF-21 Block 1, will take place from 2026 to 2028. Block 1 will be fully air-to-air capable but only partially air-to-ground capable. The next batch of 80 jets, Block 2, will add full air-to-ground capability, with production wrapping up in 2032.
KF-21 bears a resemblance to the American F-35 Joint Strike Fighter but is not a full fifth generation fighter. The KF-21 lacks the level of anti-radar stealth a fifth gen jet requires, instead making it a “fourth generation plus” jet. This is in large part due to Boramae’s lack of an weapons bay, allowing it to carry missiles and bombs internally and preserve the fighter’s stealthy shaping. (The first prototype flew with four Meteor air-to-air missiles clinging to the fuselage.) South Korea is reportedly considering a Block 3 version that will incorporate an internal bay.
The KF-21 will replace obsolete F-4 Phantoms and F-5 Tiger IIs in the Republic of Korea Air Force. The ROKAF is also buying the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, and the two advanced jets will join South Korean F-16s and a multi-role version of the Boeing F-15 Eagle, the F-15K Slam Eagle.
South Korea is one of the most trade-focused countries in the world, with exports accounting for approximately 40 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product. The country exports electronics, cars, steel and chemicals…and now weapons. South Korea has had several recent successes exporting military hardware in recent years, including the KAI/Lockheed Martin T-50 “Golden Eagle” trainer/light fighterand the K-9 “Thunder” self-propelled howitzer.
South Korea’s weapons are modern and affordable, with an emphasis on affordable. The United States, which once produced a whole line of fighter jets of varying costs and capabilities, today offers just a handful of older fourth generation airframes such as the Super Hornet and Eagle, and the high end $80 million F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is now considered the affordable fighter.
Whatever the KF-21 ends up costing, it will be substantially less than $80 million. Early versions may be less capable than the F-35, but not every country needs this high end jet. The rise of aggressive, totalitarian states has resulted in countries clamoring for the military version of a Hyundai sedan. The United States, on the other hand, is stuck churning out Cadillacs. There will always be a demand for Cadillacs, but there will always be an even greater demand for Hyundais.