South Korea unveils three new variants for KF-21 Boramae fighter


Three new variants for KF-21 Boramae fighter

As noted by Alert 5 website, Bizhankook reports that Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF)’s next-generation fighter jet, the KF-21 Boramae (Hawk), is being developed into three distinct variants: the KF-21EA, EX, and SA. The development of the three variants aims to bolster South Korea’s own airpower as well as to unlock export potential in the global arms market for the Boramae.

The KF-21EA will take the two-seat KF-21B as its baseline and will accommodate a dedicated Electronic Warfare Officer (EWO) station in the (highly modified) rear cockpit. To enable the KF-21EA to perform its airborne electronic warfare mission, the Boramae will be fitted with two Electronic Intelligence (ESM) devices and three Electronic Attack (EA) devices. The KF-21EA will safeguard friendly aircraft during missions by disrupting enemy ground-based air defense systems using its jamming technology, playing a role similar to that of the US Navy EA-18G Growler. Moreover, to undertake the SEAD (suppression of enemy air defenses) mission it will be armed with anti-radiation missiles such as the AARGM-ER.

The KF-21EX is instead aimed to transform the Boramae into an aircraft capable to rival fifth-generation fighter jets. This variant will incorporate an internal weapon bay (IWB) to achieve this goal. An IWB would reduce the radar signature of the aircraft given that weapons would be stowed internally (as for the F-22 and the F-35) and would enable the KF-21 to achieve true fifth-generation stealth characteristics. Four Meteor long-range air-to-air missiles or eight smaller air-to-ground munitions would be stored into the IWB of the Boramae. The KF-21EX is also intended to play a crucial role of the Next Air Combat System (NACS), a future network that leverages unmanned aerial vehicles and satellite data links.

KF-21 program at risk as South Korea’s DAPA reconsiders cooperation with Indonesia

Feasibility study to upgrade KF-21 into a “5.5th gen” fighter jet

As already explained, ROKAF has officially ordered feasibility study to upgrade KF-21 into a “5.5th gen” fighter jet.

ROKAF could also pursue a larger aircraft based on the KF-21 platform. This would be a similar upgrade from legacy F/A-18 Hornet to F/A-18E Super Hornet, or F-15 Eagle to F-15E Strike Eagle.

The third variant of the Boramae, designated KF-21SA, would be specifically tailored for the needs of export customers. The KF-21SA, while retaining the base specifications that would closely resemble those of the ROKAF variant, would allow for customization of weapons and internal equipment to meet individual country requirements. Currently, even though final configurations for export models remain undetermined, negotiations with potential buyers like Indonesia are ongoing.

Significant hurdles for the development of KF-21 Boramae three new variants

However, significant hurdles remain for the development of all three variants because additional research and funding are required before full-scale development can commence, as Kim Min-seok, a member of the Korea Defense Security Forum, emphasized: “All three versions are just beginning basic research on development feasibility. It will take more than 10 years to receive detailed design and development costs and proceed to full-scale development.”

Specifically, because of the ambitious goal of achieving fifth-generation performance, the KF-21EX variant faces particularly daunting challenges. This variant could take more than ten years to materialize. Additionally, intense competition exists in the global market for existing fourth-generation fighters. Nevertheless, Kim Min-seok underscores the urgency of developing the KF-21 EX: “In order to enhance the export competitiveness of our KF-21, the development of the KF-21 EX with 5th-generation performance needs to be started early.”

KF-21 program at risk as South Korea’s DAPA reconsiders cooperation with Indonesia

The current status of the Boramae program

Moreover, as already explained, Seok Jong-gun, the chief of the Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) recently said that if allegations that Indonesian engineers stole significant KF-21 technologies (involving a 3D design modeling program of the aircraft) prove to be true his agency would “reexamine whether to cooperate in joint development” of the Boramae advanced multirole fighter jet with Indonesia.

In fact South Korea could continue to develop the fighter on its own without Indonesia given that according to Seok’s words Seoul holds the right to decide on technology transfers regarding the KF-21.

Nevertheless, questions about the future of the KF-21 program are raised by the potential termination of Indonesian involvement in the projects. In fact, even though Seoul retains the right to complete development independently, Jakarta’s planned purchase of 48 KF-21 aircraft (designated IFX in Indonesia) would have had established a foothold in the Southeast Asian defense market.

Only time will tell if the KF-21 program can overcome these significant challenges.

The KF-21 Boramae conducted its successful first flight on Jul. 19, 2022 and is currently designed to be a “4.5+” gen fighter intended to be one of the most capable in its class with its “stealthy” low-RCS design. Being larger than the F-35, KF-21 will be significantly more capable than the latest F-16V and eventually replace F-16Us in Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF) service.

The KF-21 is aimed at replacing the ROKAF’s dated McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II and Northrop F-5 fighter jets.

Mass production of the baseline KF-21 is slated to begin in 2026.

KF-21 program at risk as South Korea’s DAPA reconsiders cooperation with Indonesia
Photo credit: Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA), Republic of Korea Air Force and KAI