With South Korea emerging as a major defence producer, its KAI T-50 trainer and light attack jet has emerged as perhaps the most formidable platform of its kind - far surpassing European made alternatives and a close contender with the Chinese JL-10. Indeed, the design was so sophisticated that the South Korean military had intended to develop the T-50 into a fully capable fighter jet comparable to the F-16 Fighting Falcon, deploying superior radar systems for air to air engagements and modifying the design to allow the jets to incorporate American made AIM-120 air to air missiles - which depending on the variant used would give it an engagement range of 75 or 105km against enemy aircraft. This option was scrapped in favour of investment in an alternative weapons program, the KAI KF-X stealth fighter, which is set to provide the Korean Air Force with a fifth generation fighter jet comparable to but considerably cheaper than the U.S. F-35A.
While marketed primarily as a trainer, the T-50 is also highly capable in a combat role and has been popular with a number of states facing insurgencies domestically, for which the aircraft’s reliability and low operational costs are highly prized over more costly and specialised combat jets. Iraq and the Philippines in particular, both engaging Islamic State militants on the ground and seeing considerable territories occupied by jihadist forces, have been leading clients for the South Korean jet. The fighter has reportedly been so successful that the Philippines Air Force is looking to acquire a further 12 fighters, doubling the size of the existing fleet. According to Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, President Rodrigo Duterte had personally ordered a follow on procurement “when he saw how effective (the fighter) was” in combat against jihadist militants in Marawi City in 2017. “We may acquire an additional 12 but it depends on what kind of build up the air force wants,” Minister Lorenzana continued. The country's Air Force has prioritised acquiring further T-50 jets over the purchase of light fighters such as the F-16.
The success of the T-50 has come as part of South Korea’s drive to become one of the world’s major defence producers, a goal on which it is well on its way to achieving with a number of cutting edge weapons systems having been developed entirely indigenously. Korean Sejong the Great Class destroyers, K9 mobile artillery pieces and K2 Black Panther battle tanks have long been considered the most capable systems of their kind in the world, while the country has moved to expand its market share in a number of fields long held by Western producers. The F-15K Slam Eagle, 40% of which is Korean made, is also considered the most sophisticated variant of the F-15 ever designed. Marketing of the KAI KUH-1 Surion twin engine helicopters to the Philippines to replace Bell 412 Canadian platforms, the acquisition of which had been cancelled by Manilla due to extensive terms imposed by Ottawa for the aircrafts’ use which were viewed as interference in the country’s domestic affairs, has been but one example. Ultimately South Korea is set to continue to develop its arms industries considerably, and despite an inter Korean detente under the Moon Jae In administration the new President has if anything further encouraged an expansion of the country’s defence industry. Whether the KF-X stealth fighter, set to be marketed as a low cost alternative to the F-35A, will go on to see the same success as the T-50 jets, remains to be seen - but this remains a considerable possibility.