With indigenous carrier-capable fighter design, S. Korea seeks to rework naval plans

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The Korean defense firm KAI shows of a model fighter. (Andrew White for Breaking Defense)

SEOUL — With the unveiling of a new carrier-capable version of its future indigenous fighter, the Republic of Korea has taken a big step in a months-long reworking of its future aircraft carrier capability.

Korean Aerospace Industries (KAI) used the DX Korea exhibition in Seoul this week to display a scale model of the KF-21N — a maritime version of the KF-21 next-generation fighter, previously known as the KF-X program.

But the push for a naval version of the jet would likely not have happened if not for a series of decisions that dates back to May, when the Ministry of National Defense (MND) decided to drop 2023 funding for a planned small carrier, known as the CVX. Envisioned as a next-generation amphibious assault ship for the RoK Navy, CVX would have the added capability of being able to operate fixed-wing aircraft, including jet fighters. The ship had an in-service target of 2033.

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Following the decision not to fund CVX, the RoK announced it was changing long-held plans to purchase the F-35B short-take off and vertical landing variant, which would have been launched from the CVX. Instead, the MND announced it would be buying 20 of the conventional F-35A models.

Everything snapped into clarity on Monday of this week, when Gen. Kim Seung-kyum, the Chairman of the RoK’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, informed the National Defense Committee that the MND would consider purchasing a larger aircraft carrier than the previously proposed CVX design if a maritime jet fighter could be developed indigenously.

“Major changes need to be made [to CVX], so these changes will be evaluated together,” Kim said, while referring to the MND’s quest for a medium-sized carrier over the lighter CVX-class amphibious assault ship.

“There are differing opinions about whether aircraft carried on board should be developed domestically. CVX was left out of the defense budget for next year because we want to prudently reevaluate major assets so that they can be designed to adequately respond to threats,” Kim added.

According to a spokesperson for KAI, the KF-21N now lies in a preliminary design concept phase, hardly surprising given the fact the Republic of Korea Navy does not currently operate an aircraft carrier. (For his part, Kim said that the KF-21 will not be STOVL-capable.)

KAI’s spokesperson confirmed to Breaking Defense how KF-21N will comprise a folding wing design, thereby enabling it to be stowed under the deck on board a carrier. The air frame will also be capable of CATOBAR (catapult assisted take off but arrested recovery) and STOBAR (short take off but arrested recovery) operations on board an aircraft carrier, the spokeperson claimed.

The KF-21N stands to feature a pair of General Electric F414 turbofan engine, each capable of producing 22,000lbs in thrust. This will provide the KF-21N a maximum speed of 1.6M. the KAI spokesperson added.

Furthermore, the KF-21N will have a maximum take-off weight of 25,600kg and maximum available payload of 7,620kg. It will also measure 17.1m in length, 5.2m in height and 12.3m in width, company documents state.

KAI’s spokesperson also suggested to Breaking Defense how the design, development and manufacture of a technology demonstrator of the KF-21N would heavily depend upon “government” decision makers moving forward.

Meanwhile, KAI also displayed a scale model of its KF-21 ‘Boramae’ multi-role fighter. KF-21 recently completed its maiden flight in July. The air frame is destined to replace the RoK Air Force’s legacy fleets of McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom IIs and Northrop F-5 jets.





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