South Korea is accelerating its efforts to develop an indigenous warplane with a plan to give public notice of bids for the so-called KFX project as early as August.
The military plans to confirm its required operational capabilities for the project at the Joint Chiefs of Staff Council session in mid-July, and finalize the bidding plan during a session of the national defense acquisition program committee next month.
The KFX program, which includes both the development and production of the home-built warplane, is expected to cost nearly 20 trillion won ($19.7 billion). Under the project, Seoul seeks to deploy 120 fighters after 2023 to replace its aging fleets of F-4s and F-5s.
Since February, a Defense Ministry task force consisting of officials from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Defense Program Acquisition Administration and Air Force has been conducting research for the development project.
The task force has had heated discussions particularly on whether to opt for a single- or double-engine platform. Sources said that the taskforce had chosen a double-engine platform.
The Agency for Defense Development and Air Force have demanded a double-engine type. They argued that a plane with two engines could carry more weapons and fuel, and improve the plane’s mobility with a greater thrust. They also said the survivability of pilots would be raised given that one engine would still function should the other break down.
But those favoring a single-engine platform have maintained that the double-engine type carries a higher price tag, thus making it less attractive for foreign buyers. They also argued that thanks to current advanced engine technology, the chances of engine-related accidents were not high.
According to government research, the development of a single-engine platform would cost 6.4 trillion won, while the double-engine platform would cost 8.6 trillion won.
Seoul’s efforts to accelerate the development of the new fighter underscores growing concerns over the potential air security vacuum. The Air Force is expected to face a shortage of around 100 fighters in 2019 when almost all of the F-4s and F-5s will be decommissioned.