Can Korea’s FA-50 Light Attack Aircraft Conquer the Lucrative US Market?

In particular, the military industry, including KAI, has found President Seok-Yeol Yoon, dubbed "Korea's No. 1 salesperson," to be an invaluable asset when it comes to closing deals at summits.

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Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P. Chacko is the publisher of Frontier India. He holds an M.B.A in International Business. Books: Author: Foxtrot to Arihant: The Story of Indian Navy's Submarine Arm; Co Author : Warring Navies - India and Pakistan. *views are Personal

Since the previous year, defence exports from Korea have garnered a lot of domestic and international interest. In 2017, the total value of defence exports hit a new all-time high of $17.3 billion. The FA-50 Fighting Eagle light attack aircraft is the most significant contributor to aviation weaponry for such Korean Defence exports. In February of this year, Korea successfully negotiated a deal to sell 18 units to Malaysia. In February of the previous year, the country negotiated a contract to export 48 units to Poland. The US market presents the FA-50 with an enormous playing field that cannot be matched to anything the company has exported. 

Export of FA-50 light attack aircraft to Malaysia after Poland

In February, KAI stated it had signed a $920 million contract with the Malaysian Ministry of Defence to export 18 FA-50s. It was the largest export contract ever with a single Southeast Asian country. The FA-50, which Malaysia will fly, has enhanced capabilities, such as an aerial refuelling function and an AESA (satellite array) radar, and the first delivery is scheduled for 2026. In particular, Malaysia plans to buy 18 more FA-50-type aircraft, bringing the total to 36.

Six aircraft were up for grabs: the FA-50, India’s HAL LCA Tejas, Sino-Pakistani JF-17, Russia’s MIG-35, and Turkey’s Hurjet. The accelerated export performance to Poland reportedly played a crucial role. After successfully breaking into the Indonesian, Philippine, and Thai markets, this is KAI’s fourth time exporting domestic aircraft to Southeast Asia. Meanwhile, KAI has shipped 68 planes from the T-50 and KT-1 series abroad, primarily to the three nations mentioned above. 

AI has shipped out 222 planes; if Malaysia decides to purchase more, that number might rise to 240. KAI claims this is a good place since economies of scale can be realised.

It is reported that the Korean government was instrumental in these sales. In particular, the military industry, including KAI, has found President Seok-Yeol Yoon, dubbed “Korea’s No. 1 salesperson,” to be an invaluable asset when it comes to closing deals at summits. During the Korea-ASEAN meeting in November of the previous year, President Yoon discussed with the leaders of ASEAN about working together in the defence industry. He is said to have requested that the government of Malaysia become invested in the endeavour and support the project.

The Air Force also updated the Malaysian inspection team on operational statuses such as flight training and maintenance systems, support for assessment flights, and improved dependability of aircraft performance during their visit to Korea in October of last year. KAI President Koo-Young Kang credited increased collaboration between the two governments for this export’s success. The same is true for Poland and the UAE.

500 to 700 US Navy and Air Force next-generation trainers market

The United States currently represents the FA-50’s largest market. Since last year, KAI has partnered with Lockheed Martin to enter the US market. The United States Navy and Air Force will begin three key trainer projects during the next two to three years. These projects include the Advanced Tactical Trainer (ATT) project for the Air Force and the Tactical Alternative Aircraft (TSA) and New Trainer (UJTS) projects for the Navy. It is anticipated that these requirements will require between 500 and 700 planes.

The Lockheed Martin T-50A, the US export version of the KAI T-50, was not selected for the 2018 US Air Force Next Advanced Trainer (APT) project. Instead, the Boeing–Saab T-7 Red Hawk was given the go-ahead for the project. However, the Boeing T-7, which “won” the competition at a much lower cost than was estimated, is currently experiencing difficulties and is not expected to be ready for a low-rate first production decision until February 2025, primarily because of issues with the ejection seats. The $9 billion T-7 contract was approximately $10 billion less than the Air Force’s estimates for the programme and significantly less than Boeing’s T-X competitors.

The FA-50 will be able to create a dominant market position in the global trainer and light attack aircraft markets if it progresses into the US market, which demands large-scale volumes. The Korean aircraft can corner over half of the future attack aircraft/ light fighter market. Since Lockheed Martin provided technical assistance during the initial development of the T-50 advanced trainer, it has been seen as a symbol of the ROK-US partnership. 

Coincidentally, at the end of this month, the super salesman President Yoon Suk-yeol will pay a state visit to the United States and hold a Korea-US summit. 


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