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KF-21: South Korea’s ‘F-35’ Is Now Armed with Cruise Missiles

KF-21 Fighter. Image Credit: Screenshot.

North Korea is known for placing its huge numbers of artillery pieces in caves and hardened emplacements. There are an estimated 6,000 artillery systems that could hit cities in the South. Thus, South Korea needs a weapon that can destroy these types of targets. Enter a bunker-busting munition that can be launched by the newest fighter of the Republic of Korea’s (ROK) air force. The ROK’s indigenously produced KF-21 warplane will be getting a new high-impact air-launched cruise missile that can teach the North a lesson if war ever crops up on the Korean peninsula.

A Bunker Busting Cruise Missile Is Needed

The ROK military is also concerned about the North’s nuclear weapons testing infrastructure, which is often underground. The new cruise missile could threaten those facilities. The Korea Aerospace Industries’ KF-21 is called the Boramae or “Fighting Hawk” and it is a perfect candidate for the cruise missile. South Korea is investing $145 million in the new program for a missile that will hopefully be ready by 2028. 

North Korea Won’t Like This Weapon

The new missile is unlike any munition currently in the ROK’s inventory. It has ample range – 310 miles. Most targets in North Korea could be reached at those distances. The KF-21 would not have to leave South Korean air space for the deadly of armaments. The air-launched cruise missile was previously tested in 2019 and 2021 by ROK air force F-4E Phantom IIs.

Fighting Hawk Is a New Bird 

The KF-21, on the other hand, is new. It made its first flight in July and the South Koreans are excited about its future. The new air-launched cruise missile will give it more offensive punch and make it an indispensable platform for the ROK air force. South Korea should have 40 new fighters in 2026 and 120 KF-21s by 2032. The fighter costs about $60 million each.

Improving Radar Evasion

The KF-21 has a top-of-the-line infrared targeting system and advanced active electronically scanning phased array radar. This will give it a sensor package superior to any fighter the North Koreans put in the sky. Later versions will be stealthier.

As of now, the KF-21 has its weapons stored externally but there are plans for the fighter to have internal weapons bays.

Sky Dragon Carried By the Fighting Hawk

This new bunker-busting cruise missile is called the Cheonryong, or “Sky Dragon.” It is South Korea’s first homegrown weapon for the KF-21. The Boromae is also able to fire munitions including JDAMS and Small Diameter Bombs.

Missile Could Be Used on Day One of Potential Conflict 

The new cruise missile could allow the South Koreans to make a pre-emptive strike on the North’s nuclear weapons infrastructure if they felt war was imminent. This gives the ROK military peace of mind knowing that in perhaps six years they could launch an earth-penetrating cruise missile from within its own air space to target Kim Jong Un’s forces.

The missile could also destroy North Korean command and control centers and radar installations. This could blind the North in the early days of a conflict.

Kudos to Indigenous Technology Development

The homegrown South Korean defense industry is chugging along. There is much to like about the new airplane. Plus, an air-launched cruise missile that could do damage to the North’s nuclear weapons program, not to mention targeting hardened emplacements that protect artillery pieces, is welcome.

When there is no peace treaty in place with the North, only an armistice, and Kim Jong Un is testing ballistic missiles at a rapid pace, the South Koreans have no choice but to add high levels of innovation to its defense industry. The KF-21 and the new cruise missile are valuable products of these engineering and design feats.

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Expert Biography: Serving as 1945’s Defense and National Security Editor, Dr. Brent M. Eastwood is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer. You can follow him on Twitter @BMEastwood. He holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and Foreign Policy/ International Relations.

Written By

Now serving as 1945s New Defense and National Security Editor, Brent M. Eastwood, PhD, is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is an Emerging Threats expert and former U.S. Army Infantry officer.