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Why Poland Passed on F-16s for New FA-50 Fighter Jets

FA-50
FA-50 light fighter. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Russia’s brutal yet clumsy attempt to overrun all of Ukraine, and failing that, lop off its eastern and southern territories has stirred a familiar sense of horror in neighboring Poland, the subject of prior geopolitical ‘revisions’ from Moscow.

In response, Warsaw donated a significant chunk of its heavy military assets (T-72 tanksKrab howitzersPiourun anti-aircraft missiles, Warmate kamikaze drones) to aid Ukraine. It also embarked on a massive and urgent expansion and recapitalization of its military, fearing direct conflict with Russia could be just around the corner.

The Polish Air Force’s legacy fleet of 29 Soviet-era MiG-29 fighters and 18 Su-22 supersonic bombers was already on its way to retirement—but assistance to Ukraine has dramatically sped up the timetable.

Polish military analyst Krzyzstof Kuska wrote to me “…probably all of the spare parts for the Polish MiG-29 are already in Ukraine (speculation from my side, [entire] aircraft might also have been sent). The Su-22s are [only] good for air shows, so there is a need for new aircraft.”

Indeed, MiG-29 ‘spare parts’ from Poland and other countries—possibly including entire disassembled aircraft—enabled the Ukrainian MiG-29 fleet to actually grow by 20 airframes in April.

An obvious way to replace the Soviet jets would be to expand the Polish Air Force’s fleet of 48 F-16C/D Fighting Falcon multi-role jets by acquiring 48 more (three additional squadrons) of the heavily modernized F-16V model. The versatile short-range fighter could handle frontline combat duties while Poland’s forthcoming fleet of 32 F-35A stealth jets focus on striking targets deep inside an adversary’s air defense zones.

But late in July, Warsaw revealed it had instead inked a $2.5 billion deal for 48 FA-50 two-seat light fighters from South Korean firm KAI, with the first twelve FA-50s Block 10s delivered by 2023. (Reportedly, these may be recently assembled TA-50 Block 2 attack/trainer jets that will be refitted to the FA-50 fighter configuration).

The following 36 FA-50s will be a customized FA-50PL Block 20 model that will arrive 2025-2027 or 2028. FA-50 training and service centers will also be established in Poland by 2026 as an industrial offset. These could serve as regional hubs if the FA-50 finds other European operators.

The Golden Eagle order is part of a larger $14.5 billion package with Seoul including 1,000 K2 Black Panther tanks and 670 K9 Thunder howitzers, as detailed in this companion article.

Warsaw passed on extra F-16s because there was a long backlog of orders, meaning Poland would have to wait many years to receive new Fighting Falcons. The Golden Eagles can be delivered by 2023, are cheaper and have a higher mission availability rate than Poland’s M-346 trainers, which beat out the training model of the Golden Eagle a decade ago.

“[The Polish Air Force] would need another batch of 48 F-16s, but when would they arrive and at what cost?” Kuska explained. “Considering peace time duties, the FA-50 could take a lot of the work from the F-16/F-35 especially if upgraded to the Block 20 standard [see below]. It is also assumed that the FA-50 will be delivered faster than any other piece of military equipment.”

The F-16’s Little Brother

In the 2000s, Korea Aerospace Industries partnered with Lockheed to develop the T-50 Golden Eagle supersonic trainer incorporating F-16 technology. The T-50 evolved into the TA-50 trainer/attack jet, and finally the FA-50 light fighter.

Costing between one-half and one-third the price of modern Western 4th-generation jets at $35-40 million apiece, the Golden Eagle has become the heart of the reborn Philippine Air Force with which it has racked up a combat record bombing extremists.

The FA-50 isn’t a perfect substitute for the bigger F-16, which has a greater maximum speed (Mach 2 versus Mach 1.5) and payload (up to 8 tons versus 4 tons); and new F-16s come out the gate supporting a broader spectrum of weapons and avionics systems.

However, the Golden Eagle’s modern instrumentation shares a lot in common with the F-16, meaning the pilot of one plane can allegedly learn how to fly the other in just six hours. The PAF even plans to save money by having F-16 pilots conduct more of their training on Golden Eagles, claimed to have half or less the cost per flight hour

In its primary light attack role, the FA-50 can match the capabilities (if not the maximum payload) of many fourth-generation fighters by precisely delivering GPS-guided JDAM bombs and Maverick anti-tank missiles. The Block 10 model Poland is initially receiving also supports the Sniper targeting pod and the GBU-12 Paveway II laser-guided bomb.

The base FA-50 also has moderate air-to-air capacity, is able to launch older, shorter-range Sidewinder and Sparrow missiles, and dogfight with its built-in 20-millimeter cannon. The forthcoming FA-50 Block 20 will seriously improve on that by integrating long-range AIM-120 air-to-air missiles (65 to 100 miles range) and a top-class Active Electronically Scanned Array radar (possibly the APG-83 SABR  used on the F-16V) allowing engagement of enemies from beyond-visual range.

Within-visual range capability will also be enhanced with AIM-9X missile support—an extra maneuverable Sidewinder model allowing the pilot to target enemy aircraft using a helmet-mounted sight.

The FA-50PL is also set to incorporate air-to-air refueling capability which could allow far more flexible operational employment, if supported by NATO tankers, electronic warfare systems enhancing survivability, Polish Identify Friend-or-Foe transponders, and Link-16 datalinks for networking with friendly NATO forces.

The FA-50 platform could eventually integrate Naval Strike Missiles (already used in Polish Navy coastal batteries) or the German-Swedish Taurus KEPD 350K-2 cruise missile (range 186 miles). While it’s unclear whether Warsaw would seek those capabilities, talks are reportedly underway for integration of the MBDA’s Brimstone laser/radar guided anti-tank missile on the FA-50PL.

The FA-50 could thus fill a lower-end combat role compared to Poland’s F-16s and future F-35s, including launch of longer-range missile weapons, and more cost-efficiently performing training and air policing missions in peace time.

The Warsaw-Seoul long game?

Polish defense plans still call for standing up two more squadrons by 2035 on top of the three FA-50 units. Polish defense minister Mariusz Błaszczak stated Warsaw would like to procure beefier fighters—calling out Boeing’s revamped F-15EX multi-role heavy fightermore F-35s—and/or possibly South Korea’s KF-21 Boramae fighter, which made its first flight in July 2022.

“…Poland might jump the ship and chip in to this program at some point,” Kuska noted. Poland’s F-16Cs will likely be upgraded to the F-16V’s standard.

Conversely, KAI will hope the Polish FA-50 buy furthers ambitions to break into the European market, starting with a possible tender for 10 FA-50s to replace the Slovakian Air Force’s old L-39 trainers.

Still, one wonders how Poland can afford the $14.5 billion it plans to spend on the FA-50 and around 1,700 armored vehicles from South Korea. But Russia’s war with Ukraine has changed thing profoundly, according to Kuska:

“When it goes for the financing aspect, it will be very hard to pull this off, but the money most certainly will come not only from the Ministry of Defense budget. One can assume that special budgetary programs will be triggered that will finance all the acquisitions. In the end the money will probably come from debt, but in these crazy times, it is better to have military equipment and a debt to pay than have no military equipment and a nation in danger or even no nation at all.”

Sébastien Roblin writes on the technical, historical and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including the The National InterestNBC NewsForbes.comWar is Boring and 19FortyFive, where he is Defense-in-Depth editor.  He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China.  You can follow his articles on Twitter.

Written By

Sebastien Roblin writes on the technical, historical, and political aspects of international security and conflict for publications including the 19FortyFive, The National Interest, NBC News, Forbes.com, and War is Boring. He holds a Master’s degree from Georgetown University and served with the Peace Corps in China.  

10 Comments

10 Comments

  1. Paavo Riekkinen

    August 5, 2022 at 2:32 pm

    The money for these weapons comes from the net payers of EU like Germany. Nordic and Benelux countries. Poland is indeed very much at the receiving end of EU financing and receives financial aid more than at other EU country.
    Well at least once I can wholeheartedly support the policy of the polish government.

  2. Mich

    August 5, 2022 at 9:51 pm

    Most Poles are aware of the financial help. The quality of life improved since joining the EU and still does.
    I’m looking forward to when this evil happening will be finally over.

  3. Guillaume

    August 5, 2022 at 11:38 pm

    “The Golden Eagles can be delivered by 2023, are cheaper and have a higher mission availability rate than Poland’s M-346 trainers, which beat out the training model of the Golden Eagle a decade ago.”

    This is false. The M-346 beat out the T-50 with a huge difference in price, among other reasons. Not only is the M-346 significantly cheaper, it does this despite being twin-engine (it should be more expensive, as the T-50 is mono engine).

    The availability of the M-346 in both Italy and Israel is much higher than the FA-50. The difference with Poland is that they are not maintaining the aircraft.

    Paavo: no shame at all with the Nazi – sorry “Nordic” – rhetoric? France at Italy are also net contributors, and always have been. You should read up on Dieselgate and the German trainer (Mako).

  4. Edward Kim

    August 7, 2022 at 6:16 pm

    Guillaume, your comment has a lot of issues. Let’s start with the engine. They are totally different engines. The Master has two smaller engines (made by America’s Honeywell) whereas the T-50 has one larger (and more expensive) GE F404. Total thrust for the Master is 12,600 lbf but for the T-50 is 17,700 lbf. From a thrust-to-weight ratio the T-50 is also greater: 0.96 vs. 0.84. The weaker engines in the Master eliminated it pretty early from the USAF TX (advanced trainer) competition as it cannot simulate high angles of attack.

    The FA-50 is a superior ground attack plane than the Master because whereas the Master only has payload capacity of about 3 tons the FA-50 can have 4.5 tons of payload. The FA-50 is compatible with laser guided JDAMs and American Maverick missiles. The Master has no gun no it and needs a separate pod attachment whereas the FA-50 has a gun internal, a three barrel version of the M60 20mm.

    The availability of the Master vs. the T-50 is related to spare parts and MRO, for which the T-50’s is superior because there are more T-50s around. This means a greater availability of spare parts. There are over 250 T-50 and variants in existence worldwide but only about 80 Masters.

    Lastly, the FA-50 was built with F-16 technology (with Lockheed as a partner) and shares a lot of the avionics and aeronautical characteristics of the bigger F-16, making training on the FA-50 more efficient.

  5. Guillaume

    August 7, 2022 at 11:22 pm

    Edward: if you read the comment again, there is no claim whatsoever that they are the same engine, simply that the M346 has 2 engines. All other things being equal, the M346 should be more expensive, but it was far cheaper than the T-50 when it won. Obviously two engines imply a far greater survivability, and there have been so far 5 deaths on the T-50, though there aren’t that many planes operating.

    As for which is the superior ground attack plane, I think it best to let the real experts decide this. The M-346 customers include customers of the calibre of Israel and Greece. BTW 3000t is the external payload only.

    In terms of sharing avionics and CBT training, CAE has teamed with the M346 for a reason, and several countries are training now in Sardegna and will do so in Greece. The T-50 isn’t even in the same league when it comes to simulation and training.

  6. Edward Kim

    August 8, 2022 at 2:22 pm

    Guillaume, I’m not an FA-50 defender, but clearly the market has chosen the FA-50 in many situations, over the Master, for a variety of reasons and I think those reasons should be fairly explained.

    The Master is not more expensive because of primarily two reasons: 1) the basic airframe is a direct port from a Russia Yak-130 trainer, so lower development costs and 2) the T-50 is designed, from the ground up, to be a light fighter, then a trainer whereas the Master is a trainer shoehorned into a light fighter role. You get more for your money with a FA-50 IF you want a “lead-in” trainer that can do some combat roles.

    The Israeli trials said it best. They chose the Master because the T-50 was essentially a mini-F16 and the Israelis just wanted a trainer, not a mini-F16. The Israelis wanted to save some money. However, if you want a plane as a trainer, especially for Lockheed aircraft like the F16 or F35, AND you want it to do light combat roles like ground support, air escort, etc. then the FA-50 is the more effective and efficient choice. This is the role that the Poles and the Filipinos want it to fill.

    I talked about the limitations of the Honeywell engine already, but you are ignoring me. The single F404 engine provides both afterburning AND greater thrust than two Honeywell F124-GA-200 engines combined, so if you want a trainer that more accurately simulates the aeronautics of high performance American made combat jets then the you want the GE 404 engine. Heck, the T-7 Red Hawk, which won the USAF TX competition, uses THE SAME engine (GE F404)! As I mentioned earlier the Master was eliminated very early in that competition. Two non-afterburning F124-GA-200 engines is less than one afterburning F404 engine. The USAF wanted a trainer that better simulated its high thrust-to-weight ratio jets better and two F124 just didn’t make the cut. It is what it is. Deal with it.

    Now, the USAF and the Navy want a trainer that helps train pilots in air-to-air fights and ground attack and the T-50 is being reentered into those new competitions given that the T-7A has deficiencies in those departments.

    In terms of safety, the issue has never been with the F404, which has an excellent safety record and as I mentioned earlier the USAF will use that same engine in their TX program.

    Anyways, in closing the reasons for Poland selecting the FA-50 instead of buying more Masters is as follows:

    – Poland CLAIMS that MRO and spare parts from Alenia Aermacchi and Leonardo just takes too long, which cuts into the Master’s availability to actually do it’s job effectively.

    – The FA-50’s ability to not only do training but also light combat roles to replace their Mig-29s and Su-22s.

    – The FA-50’s similar aeronautics and avionics with other Lockheed designed jets such as the F-16 and F-35, which cuts training time & costs.

    – The FA-50’s ability to use the SNIPER targeting pod, made by Lockheed and thus used by the F-16 also, as well as the FA-50’s ability to use a broad range of JDAMs and laser guided bombs. The FA-50 also has the potential to integrate AMRAAMs and the Brimstone missile.

    – The FA-50 just has greater weapons compatibility than the Master and it has the kinematic capability to use BVR missiles better than the Master due to its superior thrust-to-weight ratio.

    The Master is what it is. A good trainer but a limited light fighter. The Poles, in addition to greater MRO and spare parts support, want a plane that’s not only a good trainer, but also a good light fighter too. The market has spoken and instead of being a defender of the Master, you should try to understand why the market made the decision that it did.

  7. Guillaume

    August 8, 2022 at 5:25 pm

    Edward: The Israelis chose the M346 because they wanted a mini F-16 and have been using them this way for years now.

    M346: 82 purchased by Israel, Poland, Singapore and Qatar. 12 M346FA sold to Turkmenistan. Yes, I agree that the market has spoken.

  8. Edward Kim

    August 8, 2022 at 7:24 pm

    Guillaume the T-50 / FA-50 will be a better mini-F16 than the Master could ever be because the T-50 / FA-50 was designed with Lockheed’s assistance. I believe Lockheed still owns 20% of the JV with Korea Aerospace Industries in the T-50 family of planes. The Master cannot be a better mini-F16 because it has a Yak airframe and underpowered, non-afterburning, engines. The T-50 / FA-50 is more per unit than the Master, but you are also getting more for the price too.

  9. Logano

    August 8, 2022 at 9:09 pm

    Guillaume, it is becoming painfully obvious that you are a shill, as your logic is flawed and not supported by concrete facts whereas Edward has been patiently shooting out fact after fact after fact.

  10. Guillaume

    August 11, 2022 at 8:49 am

    If the T-50 were better than the M346, then Israel, Singapore, Poland, Turkmenistan (fighter attack), Qatar, and Nigeria (fighter attack) would not have preferred the M346 over the T-50. Simple. Fact.

    There are two international training schools set up (Italy and Greece) with the M346. Japanese, Qatari and German aviators have already graduated on the M346.

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