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 tanks, Krab howitzers, Piourun 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 fighter, more 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 Interest, NBC News, Forbes.com, War 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.