With its T-50 Golden Eagle, South Korea joined a select club of nations to have successfully developed a supersonic aircraft. Quite apart from breaking the sound barrier, South Korea is hoping to also break into new export markets with its advanced jet trainer. This article looks at the growing maturity of the Republic of Korea’s (ROK) aerospace industry, with a particular emphasis on specific platforms it is pinning its domestic and international hopes on. The remarkable growth of South Korea’s aerospace industry can be observed in the statistic that the 7,800 workers employed in this field in 2007 had burgeoned to 10,000+ just three years later.

6th Sep 2011


With its T-50 Golden Eagle, South Korea joined a select club of nations to have successfully developed a supersonic aircraft. Quite apart from breaking the sound barrier, South Korea is hoping to also break into new export markets with its advanced jet trainer. This article looks at the growing maturity of the Republic of Korea’s (ROK) aerospace industry, with a particular emphasis on specific platforms it is pinning its domestic and international hopes on. The remarkable growth of South Korea’s aerospace industry can be observed in the statistic that the 7,800 workers employed in this field in 2007 had burgeoned to 10,000+ just three years later.

Currently standing at number 16 in international aerospace production rankings, South Korea has set lofty goals for itself. Being ranked globally at number seven by 2020 is its chief ambition! This would involve multiplying aerospace production from the US$2 billion it achieved in 2009 to US$20 billion by 2020. Fully half this value is expected to stem from exports. Four task forces comprising civilian, government and military experts have been created to action these targets. The four groupings are a regional aircraft team; helicopter team; next-generation fighter team; and a maintenance, repair and operating (MRO) team. The MRO side will build upon existing service bases at Incheon and Cheongju International Airports.

Integral to this strategic 2020 plan are four major and far-reaching programmes: (1) utility military helicopter; (2) light/mid-weight attack helicopter; (3) cutting-edge next-generation fighter; and (4) regional 90-seat commercial jet. Midterm and long-term goals are elaborated in the Aerospace Industry Primary Plan (2010-2019) released in January 2010. Efforts are being made to create aerospace industry clusters in the specialist areas of aircraft production, research and development (R&D) and MRO. Aircraft production will focus on the southern Jinju/Sacheon area.

The Defence Acquisition Programme Administration (DAPA), an independent body established in 2006, oversees military procurement and sales at home and abroad. ROK defence exports surpassed the USD$1 billion mark for the first time in 2008, and rose to US$1.19 billion last year. The government hopes to break into the ranks of the top ten defence exporting countries, and to achieve annual sales of US$4 billion by the end of this decade. Aircraft obviously represent a significant percentage of these goals, and other aspirant nations could learn much from the deliberate yet progressive path that Seoul has charted.

Most prominent by far in these goals is Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) Limited, an enterprise formed at the behest of the ROK government on 1 October 1999. It emerged from a joint aerospace venture of Samsung, Daewoo and Hyundai that ran into difficulties after the 1997 financial crisis. KAI is South Korea’s major player in terms of aeronautic design and production, although Korean Air and other companies make valuable contributions in specialised areas. By 2006, KAI had paid off most of its outstanding debts, and in 2010 it held assets worth USD$1.32 billion and employed 2,950 workers. Approximately 40% of its income is derived from exports, while 63% of production is for the military. In 2009 the government signalled its intention to promote privatisation of KAI by selling its 30.5% stake in the company. KAI eventually floated on the stock exchange on 30 June 2011, offering foreign entities the opportunity to establish a strategic foothold on the Korean peninsular .

KAI produced the main wings and forward fuselages for Singapore’s F-15 fighters, as well as manufacturing AH-64D Apache composite fuselages for Boeing since 2004. Indeed Boeing awarded KAI the title of “Supplier of the Year” in 2010. KAI opened its Daejeon R&D Centre last year with the aim of strengthening competencies for future projects.

Barrier-breaking aircraft

KAI commenced development of the indigenous KT-1 Woongbi basic trainer in 1988, and 85 were delivered to the ROK Air Force (ROKAF) from 2000-02. South Korea’s initial aerospace success in the export market occurred when Indonesia signed up for seven KT-1B aircraft in 2003. The Indonesian Air Force subsequently ordered five more in December 2008, these featuring customised avionics and a hybrid cockpit arrangement. Further success was scored in August 2007 when Turkey purchased 40 KT-1T trainers to replace its T-37C aircraft. A KT-1T rollout ceremony took place on 30 October 2009, and the first five deliveries were completed by December last year. These export aircraft have a pressurised glass cockpit, modified navigation system, and hands on throttle-and-stick (HOTAS).

However, KAI had its sights set much higher when it began designing the supersonic T-50 Golden Eagle. This advanced trainer was jointly developed with American aerospace giant Lockheed Martin. An initial ROKAF production order was placed in December 2003 and a follow-on contract was signed in October 2006. After entering service in 2007, the T-50 had reached full operational capability by May last year. With the induction of 50 aircraft and associated Ground-Based Training Facility (GBTF), the ROKAF now possesses a complete high-level training capability. The ROKAF claims the T-50 has reduced training time and costs by 25% and 30% respectively, as well as improving pilot skills by 40%.

The T-50 is just the first step in KAI’s supersonic aircraft programme, with the ongoing phase focusing on the twin-seat TA-50 lead-in flight trainer (LIFT). The armed TA-50 has dual use as a trainer or light-attack aircraft capable of carrying AIM-9 Sidewinder and AGM-65 Maverick missiles in addition to its integral General Dynamics 20mm A-50 cannon. The TA-50 rolled out at a ceremony on 24 January 2011, and the first squadron is now believed to be operational.

Development has not ended there either, since the ultimate variant is the dedicated attack version known as the FA-50. Intended to replace the ROKAF’s elderly inventory of F-4 and F-5 aircraft, this single-seat design will carry an Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) EL/M-2032 active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar system. One of the greatest difficulties with the FA-50 was accommodating the Elta radar, requiring KAI to reengineer the aircraft to provide more space, as well as Elta to scale down the radar unit’s size. The FA-50 will carry weapons such as the AIM-120 missile and JDAM, plus electronic countermeasure and targeting pods. It will have larger fuel tanks, upgraded avionics, a tactical data-link and GPS/inertial navigation system (INS) to give day/night interoperability with the KF-16. A maiden one-hour flight occurred on 4 May this year, and the ROKAF has a requirement for 60 FA-50s by 2013. This programme could eventually stretch to 150 fighters in the future.

The Golden Eagle’s manufacturer has been targeting significant export sales right from the outset. It was a strong contender in United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Singapore competitions, but on both occasions it lost out to the Aermacchi M-346 Master . However, the T-50 tasted its first success on 25 May 2011 when the Indonesian Air Force ordered 16 T-50I aircraft in a US$400 million deal to replace its BAE Hawk 53 aircraft. This sale meant South Korea is just the sixth nation in the world to export a supersonic jet. All 16 T-50I aircraft are to be delivered by the end of 2013. The order has buoyed the T-50 family’s chances for competitions in countries such as Israel, the Philippines, Poland, Taiwan and the USA. There were rumours South Korea was also going to exchange T-50 aircraft in return for Iraqi oil. The US Air Force (USAF) is looking for a large number of aircraft for its T-X Advanced Trainer Replacement programme. There is even speculation that South Korea will attempt to trade T-50s for F-35s from the USA.

KAI will play a pivotal role in the advanced KF-X fighter programme, with the ultimate aim of incorporating such advanced technologies as stealth, thrust vectoring, AESA radar and long-range missiles. Because the KF-X has already been covered in the previous article, details are not repeated here. KAI is attempting to diversify its product line so that it does not rely solely on the military sector too. It already manufactures components for Boeing and Airbus commercial jets, plus it has developed the KC-100 piston-engine aircraft for the leisure market. This four-passenger design is undergoing certification by the Korean Civil Aviation Safety Authority. Nicknamed Naraon, production of the 1,859km-range aircraft could commence in 2014.

As well as KAI, other manufacturers are heavily involved in supplying aircraft components. Samsung Techwin license-produces F404-102 turbofan engines for the T-50, as well as engines, electronic jammers and radar warning receivers (RWR) for the F-15K. Hanwha Corporation produces aircraft flight control systems and actuators for the KT-1, T-50, KUH and F-15K. Boeing outsources various components to local companies as part of its offset obligations for the F-15K . For example, LIG Nex1 produces the head-up display (HUD), airborne communication system and radar assemblies. It also provides UHF/VHF radios for the KT-1, and radar/radios for the T-50

Utilising helicopter technology

A second area of expertise for KAI lies in helicopters, as demonstrated by the wide-ranging Korean Helicopter Programme (KHP). The first stage is the 8-tonne Korean Utility Helicopter (KUH), christened Surion by its maker, which has been in development since June 2006 as a replacement for South Korea’s venerable UH-1H and 500MD fleets. This resulted from a USD1.15 billion Ministry of National Defence (MND) R&D contract. The KUH is designed for utility transport, airborne assault, search and rescue, medevac and command-and-control missions. Designed from the outset to fulfil local requirements, the KUH enjoyed close technical assistance from Eurocopter, which holds 30% and 20% stakes in the development and production phases respectively. As prime subcontractor, the European company will provide the transmission, gearboxes, rotor mast and automatic flight control system.

The KUH’s 30-minute maiden flight occurred on 10 March 2010 at Sacheon, home of KAI’s headquarters in southern Gyeongsang Province. It operates with two pilots in the digital glass cockpit, plus it carries up to two door-gunners and nine passengers in the cabin. The Surion’s development phase should conclude in June 2012, with first deliveries to the ROK Armed Forces commencing in September. A KRW650 billion production contract was awarded on 31 December 2010, and 245 KUHs are to be delivered over a ten-year period at an average rate of two units per month.

The Surion’s two license-built 1,600shp T700-GE-701K turboshaft engines propel it to a maximum speed of 144 knots. Approximately 60% of KUH components are being made domestically, examples being the composite rotor blades, and prognostic health and usage monitoring systems (HUMS). It is reported Elbit Systems will supply ANVIS/HUD-24 helmet-mounted displays.

The tie-up between KAI and Eurocopter is particularly important since it represents South Korea’s largest defence contract with a country other than the USA. The two companies are seeking healthy export sales of both civilian- and military-configured Surions too. The partners created a 50/50 joint venture on 18 October 2007 to internationally market the KUH, and the target is 300 export sales within a 25-year period. In a further development between the European and South Korean aerospace heavyweights, the KAI-EC joint stock company to promote export of the Surion was formed on 3 May 2011.

Phase 2 of the KHP will see an armed/combat helicopter and civilian helicopter developed by 2015. More details on the Korean Attack Helicopter (KAH) project have already been mentioned in the preceding article. This KAH programme will lead to Phase 3 from 2016 onwards for a next-generation mid-size/large utility helicopter. The company even harbours dreams of creating a tilt-rotor design similar to the V-22 Osprey further down the track.

Unmanned aerial vehicles set to proliferate

The government announced in 2005 it would nurture the sphere of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) as an economic growth engine. Indeed, the 2009 edition of the Seoul International Aerospace & Defence Exhibition unveiled some interesting UAV designs. The ROK military acknowledges the need to upgrade its intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities, and UAVs are one effective way of doing that, especially considering the rugged, mountainous topography of the Korean peninsular.

It may come as a surprise that the flag carrier airline, Korean Air, is heavily involved in UAV development. However, it should be remembered that the Aerospace Division of Korean Air (KAL-ASD) has performed maintenance and/or system upgrades for KF-16, C-130, F-4 and P-3C aircraft, and CH-47 and Lynx helicopters. In addition, it has license-built UH-60 and 500MD helicopters for the ROK military. KAL-ASD employs 1,900 workers, and it has produced KT-1 centre and rear fuselage sections, and wing and aft fuselage parts for the KF-16.

With the recent winning of several important contracts, KAL-ASD is even drawing away business from KAI. Korean Air’s first UAV design was the short-range Korean Unmanned System 7 (KUS-7), which was fully developed by 2007 using mainly local components. The company began working on the second-generation KUS-9 in 2006 after a government contract was awarded. The blended wing body (BWB) KUS-9 weighs 150kg and it can operate in all weather conditions day or night. The craft is powered by a 38hp engine from UAV Engines Limited that gives an eight-hour endurance. The 3.4m-long craft carries an IAI POP300 surveillance payload. Test flights commenced in mid-2009. DAPA issued a USD30 million contract on 7 September 2010 to develop a divisional-level craft (D-UAV) for the ROK Army (ROKA). Based on the KUS-9, the D-UAV could be in service by 2014.

In late 2008 Korean Air was selected as developer of a medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) design capable of 24-hour endurance. Development of the so-called MUAV started in mid-2009, and it is slated to be operational by 2016. The MUAV will integrate foreign technology, and its specifications will be somewhat similar to the MQ-1 Predator. US$375 million was awarded under the R&D contract. KAL-ASD was also commissioned in mid-2010 to produce a scaled-down, stealthy unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV). Testing of two airframes should be completed by 2014.

We return again to KAI, as any discussion of South Korean aerospace inevitably does. The country’s first operational military UAV was the Night Intruder 300 (RQ-101), developed jointly with the Agency for Defence Development (ADD) from 1991-2000. Approximately 30 RQ-101 craft have been in ROKA service at the corps level for day/night battlefield reconnaissance tasks since 2005. Tipping the scales at 300kg and able to carry a 45kg payload, this craft has a 120km range and can cruise at 185km/h. With a 6.4m wingspan, it is bigger than the KUS-9. Government funding has permitted development of an improved ground control station (GCS), enhanced payload capacity and upgrades to the avionics and image detection system. These improvements were to be implemented in 2011.

KAI has not rested on its laurels, for it has also been working on a next-generation corps-level UAV to supersede the RQ-101. The Night Intruder 100N (NI-100N) is one-third the weight and 65% the size of the RQ-101, while its 21hp engine permits a 60km range and six-hour endurance. One research engineer told Defence Review Asia that this tactical UAV project kicked off in 2008. However, KAI will be facing competition from Korean Air, because the latter will be bidding with its own corps-level design too.

KAI looks into the future with its stealthy K-UCAV. Still at the conceptual stage, its creators imagine it will employ a fan engine and carry internal air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons. With a 9.1m wingspan, the futuristic-looking K-UCAV can achieve speeds of Mach 0.86 and range of 280km. KAI expects the ROKAF to be a user, but it is developing the fly-by-wire design privately at present. A demonstrator could be flying by 2015/16.

South Korea’s carefully planned policy of research and gaining technical knowhow seems destined to bear fruit in coming years. Exports of military and civilian UAVs have always been a major goal. Worthy of mention is the Smart UAV Development Programme launched by the Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI) in 2002. The aim of the government-funded US$91.7 million programme is to develop and integrate advanced core technologies as part of South Korea’s plans to become a world UAV leader. One design KARI has been working on is a tilt-rotor UAV capable of high-speed flight. The third phase of Smart UAV, expected to end in March 2012, will focus on technologies such as data-links, collision avoidance and self-diagnostic systems. Samsung Thales is prominent in providing UAV electro-optical tracking systems (EOTS), while DAPA selected Ucon Systems to develop miniature UAVs.

Aiming for the stars

Although it is beyond the remit of this article, brief mention should be made of South Korean space aspirations too. KARI established the Naro Space Centre on Oenaro Island, and the country is vigorously pursuing its National Space Programme. It is doing so with Russian technical help and despite US resistance. The programme includes its own network of multipurpose satellites and Korea Space Launch Vehicles (KSLV) that will one day offer launch service to other nations. Korean Air is the prime contractor for the KSLV-I (later renamed Naro-1), although the first two launches in 2009 and 2010 failed. The country’s first Cheollian communication/ocean and meteorological satellite was put into orbit by an Ariane 5 rocket in mid-2010.

Turkey and Indonesia have already opted for South Korean aerospace technology, one of its competitive advantages being cheaper pricing compared to equivalent US or European equipment. South Korea also offers an alternative source to countries leery of relying too heavily on US equipment and its proscriptive political/technical policies.


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