The South Korean project of a promising 5th generation fighter has reached the stage of final assembly of the first prototype. The construction of the aircraft is planned to be completed next year, and the first flight will take place in 2022. Then, in just a few years, it is planned to carry out full-scale tests and in 2026 begin operating equipment in the Air Force.
Work in progress
Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) is responsible for the development and construction of the KF-X fighter. In her recent press release, she noted that minimal time was spent on the creation of the new aircraft. So, the design started at the very end of 2015.The preliminary design was ready in 2018, and in September 2019 its final version was approved. At the same time, since February 2019, the manufacture of individual components and assemblies has been going on.
KAI actively discloses information about the work being carried out and publishes interesting information. For example, in June of this year, current plans were announced, and photographs from the workshop of an aircraft building plant in Sacheon were published.
At that time, the public was shown a slipway with a partially assembled nose section of the fuselage. The product in a characteristic yellow color was a power kit with a partially installed casing. Apparently, there was no instrumental equipment at that time. Then KAI reported that the assembly of the prototype aircraft is proceeding in accordance with the schedule and will be completed by the end of this year.
Bow section under construction, June 2020
In early September, new materials were published, incl. a number of interesting photos and videos. To date, KAI has manufactured all major airframe components assembled into three large sections. They have already received some of the internal equipment and are now joining into a single structure. The aircraft will receive all the other components shortly.
For unnamed reasons, the deadlines for the work have been revised. Assembly is now said to be complete in the first half of 2021. Other plans remain in place for now. Flight tests will begin in May 2022 and will continue until 2026.
The airframe of the KF-X aircraft is structurally and technologically divided into three sections. The bow contains parts of the instrument compartments, the cockpit and air intakes. The center section unites the center section and the middle part of the fuselage. The tail is intended for mounting engines and empennage. It is curious that in the official photographs from the assembly shop, the aircraft has not yet received wing mechanics, stabilizers and keels.
Aircraft sections before docking, August-September 2020
The bow section, previously shown unfinished, is now equipped with the necessary cable routes and a piece of electronic equipment. The assembly of the cab interior has also begun. In the central and tail sections, both in the fuselage and in the wing, pipelines and cables for various purposes are laid.
KAI showed the glider before and immediately after docking. By connecting three large units, the aircraft builders continued to install various components. So, a phased array radar appeared in the nose, and the cockpit was closed with a lantern. The wing and previously exposed sections of the fuselage were covered with composite skin. Apparently, the saturation of the structure with internal components continued.
In the near future, Korean specialists will have to complete the assembly of the airframe and the installation of equipment. The aircraft will also receive two General Electric F414-GE-400K turbojet engines – these products arrived at the warehouse several months ago and are ready for installation.
In general, the progress of recent months is conducive to optimism and allows us to believe that KAI will cope with the task and will complete the construction of the experienced KF-X on time. At the same time, it should be borne in mind that not so long ago the completion of construction was planned for the end of the year, and now it has been postponed for several months to the right. This may indicate the occurrence of certain problems in production – in addition to the total project complexity.
Features of the appearance
The goal of the promising project was initially to create a modern fighter of the “4+” generation, but later the requirements changed, and the KF-X began to be referred to the next 5th. At the same time, the updated tactical and technical requirements do not fully correspond to foreign views on the 5th generation of fighters, and therefore the KF-X has some characteristic features
Stealth technology was used in the development of the aircraft. Because of this, it has a characteristic appearance without right angles, a construction of special materials, curved air intake channels, etc. In addition, one cannot fail to note the significant external similarity between the KF-X and the American F-22.
At the same time, South Korean engineers were unable to use one of the main methods of reducing visibility – internal cargo compartments. The KF-X will carry its combat payload on pylons under the wing or in a semi-recessed position under the fuselage. Accordingly, the design of the aircraft will not be able to hide ammunition from enemy radars. According to some reports, internal compartments will appear later, in a future modification of Block II.
The sections are connected and equipped with new units
The complex of onboard equipment includes a radar with AFAR developed by Hanwha Techwin with unnamed characteristics. The use of an infrared optical-location station is also proposed. Smart plating with multiple antennas throughout the airframe is not envisioned. To increase the surveillance and targeting potential, the aircraft will be able to carry outboard containers with one or another equipment. This decision is not typical for new generation foreign fighters, since it negatively affects visibility and, accordingly, combat effectiveness.
Plans for the future
According to recently updated plans, construction of the first prototype KF-X fighter will continue until the first half of next year, with flights only beginning in 2022. Then flight tests and preparation of serial production will be carried out almost simultaneously.
The South Korean Air Force plans to sign the first contract for the assembly of the serial KF-X version of Block I as early as 2024 – about two years before the completion of tests. Receiving serial equipment is expected in 2026. Thus, the development of aircraft in the army starts almost immediately after the completion of testing and development. In the future, it is planned to carry out modernization, and the aircraft of the Block II version will enter the series with a number of important differences from the basic version.
The KF-X fighter is intended to replace the outdated F-4E Phantom II and F-5E / F Tiger II aircraft, which are due to end in the foreseeable future. The Air Force plans to purchase 120 promising aircraft by 2032. This will make it possible to timely modernize tactical aviation to achieve the desired quantitative and qualitative indicators.
Risks of novelty
South Korean aircraft manufacturers have some experience in the development of fighters, but creating a modern aircraft of the latest generation is an extremely difficult task even for world leaders. In the case of the KAI project, such complexity led to the fact that preliminary studies took almost a decade and a half, and only after that the current stage of work began.
A direct consequence of the total of 5 generations are the characteristic features of the KF-X, which distinguish it from foreign vehicles of the same class. South Korea was unable to resolve a number of key issues, which is why some of the requirements for the 5th generation can only be met with subsequent modernization.
In the meantime, the main task of Korea Aerospace Industries is to complete the construction and launch the first experimental KF-X for testing. This aircraft has already reached the final assembly stage and will be ready next year. Of course, if new problems do not appear and the schedule does not have to be revised again. The same applies to the optimistic plans with the start of operation in 2026.