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South Korea’s KF-21 Fighter Takes Flight: A Cheaper ‘F-35’ Alternative?

KF-21 screenshot from first flight. Image Credit: YouTube Screenshot.

On Tuesday, South Korea announced that it had successfully completed the maiden flight of its domestically designed KF-21 “Boramae” fighter jet. The aircraft is being developed by Korea Aerospace Industries as part of a $6.6 billion project to replace the Republic of Korea Air Force’s aging fleet of F-4 fighters, while also offering a cheaper alternative to the American-made Lockheed Martin F-35 Lighting II.

The KF-21 project is partially backed by Indonesia.

The news of the successful first flight comes as Seoul has looked to bolster its defensive capabilities amid increasing threats from North Korea.

“South Korea’s first homegrown KF-21 fighter jet successfully completed its inaugural test flight Tuesday afternoon, the country’s arms procurement agency @dapapr announced,” the official social media account for The Korea Herald reported via a tweet early Tuesday. The Herald also shared images of the fourth-generation-plus aircraft taking off from an air force base in the southeastern city of Sacheon.

KF-21 Maiden Flight Completed

Maj. Ahn Jun-hyun piloted the KF-21 prototype No.1, which features the national flags of South Korea and Indonesia, during a flight taking off at 3:40 p.m. local time and landing at 4:13 p.m.

The maiden flight allows engineers to examine the KF-21’s basic flight performance, including takeoff and landing. It also provides an estimation of the jet’s structural integrity in advance of what will likely be thousands of test flights. Ground tests included low, medium, and high-speed taxi testing, as well as engine ignition testing, and these took place in advance of Tuesday’s flight. During the flight, the aircraft flew at speeds of around 400 km per hour.

The prototype KF-21 was reportedly equipped with full-scale mock-ups of four Meteor beyond-visual-range air-to-air missiles, and an infrared search-and-track system.

To date, Korea Aerospace Industries has completed the assembly of six KF-21 prototype aircraft, including two twin-seat variants. The aircraft will be used in a combined total of 2,200 sorties over the next four years before the Block 1 model enters production in 2026.

Block Efforts 

Current plans call for 40 Block 1 aircraft to be manufactured and integrated with IRIS-T, Meteor, JDAM, and LJDAM, as well as locally developed KGGB precision-guided bombs. In addition, the Block 1 models will have full air-to-air combat capability and limited air-to-ground capability.

KAI is already looking ahead to the Block 2 version. The Republic of Korea Air Force is expected to receive an additional 80 of these variants, which will also offer full air-to-ground capability. Delivery of the Block 2 aircraft is expected to begin in 2028, allowing for the aircraft to reach full operational capability status.


KF-21 Fighter. Image Credit: Screenshot.

While an advanced aircraft, the KF-21 isn’t meant to supersede the Lockheed Martin F-35. It lacks the stealth capabilities of the American-built aircraft, as it carries weapons externally on its six underwing and four under-fuselage hardpoints. However, a Block 3 variant is under consideration, and this aircraft could incorporate fifth-generation fighter standards including stealth and joint-operation capability, as well as an enlarged fuselage that could include an internal weapons bay.

First flight of Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) ?? KF-21

— Joseph Dempsey (@JosephHDempsey) July 19, 2022

Slow Rollout for the KF-21

This month’s maiden flight is a major step forward for the program, which was first initiated in 2014 when South Korea and Indonesia agreed to jointly develop the jet. As a junior partner, Indonesia was originally set to fund one-fifth of a total cost of approximately $6.16 billion. In 2018, Jakarta sought to renegotiate the terms of the deal and later offered to pay its share in the form of barter. The two nations concluded a deal last November under which Jakarta would keep its pledge to cover 20% of the development costs, including in-kind payments for a third of its share, Reuters reported.

The assembly of the first prototype started in 2020, and the roll-out of the aircraft took place last year. The KF-21 program is currently about a month behind schedule, due largely to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, once operational, it could be among the most advanced fighters flying over the Korean Peninsula. Its capabilities could help deter Pyongyang from making any rash moves.

Now a Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes.

Written By

Expert Biography: A Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers, and websites with over 3,000 published pieces over a twenty-year career in journalism. He regularly writes about military hardware, firearms history, cybersecurity, and international affairs. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes. You can follow him on Twitter: @PeterSuciu.