Jury remains out on T-50’s export potential

 - January 27, 2010, 10:43 AM

When Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) developed the T-50 Golden Eagle in partnership with Lockheed Martin in 2001 hopes were high in South Korea that the only supersonic trainer jet would become a hit around the world. Nine years later, industry opinion remains divided as to whether this potential will be fulfilled and what has actually been achieved to this end since KAI entered a joint marketing effort with Lockheed Martin in 2006.

South Korea’s Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) and KAI are jointly pushing for a first overseas sale of T-50, which they had hoped to achieve last year. The aircraft is on display here at the Singapore Airshow specifically to impress prospective customers here in Southeast Asia.

“The sale of T-50 is central to boosting South Korea’s defense exports,” said Jeon Young-bok, head of DAPA’s bureau on arms export policy. “We expect the first sale to be sealed this year, as several deals are in the works.”

The T-50 is competing for trainer selections here and in Poland, while Greece and the U.S. also have shown interest. Lockheed submitted the T-50 bid to Singapore in July, but it needs to overcome its Italian competitor–Alenia Aermacchi’s M-346–following the frustration of losing out in its first competitive bid for the United Arab Emirates (UAE) earlier this year, when it made it onto the shortlist.

KAI (Stand T87) could have an advantage in Lockheed’s involvement in the project since the U.S. company participated in Pilatus’ successful bid of its PC-21 single turboprop basic trainer to Singapore. Meanwhile, Aermacchi has teamed with Singapore’s state-run ST Aerospace.

The Korean OEM wants to secure about 30 percent of the global military trainer market within 25 years, and it believes the T-50’s position as the world’s sole supersonic high-performance trainer will play in its favor. However, some in the defense industry question whether governments will pay the higher price associated with this supersonic capability. The T-50’s flyaway cost is ranges from $16- to $20 million, while the slower M-346 is 20 percent cheaper.

The T-50 can fly at Mach 1.4, has an operational range of just over 1,000 nm and a service ceiling of 48,000 feet.

Poland is looking to acquire 16 lead-in fighter trainers for delivery beginning in the third quarter of this year to replace its PZL TS-11 Iskra; it is considering the T-50 as well as Finland’s surplus BAE Hawk 128 trainers. Also, KAI and Lockheed hope for at least 600 to 800 export orders if the T-50 succeeds in replacing U.S. Air Force’s T-38 platform in the long term.

South Korea’s air force, which has been flying the aircraft since 2005 when mass production began, wants to have 50 by 2013. It also wants another 10 T-50s for aerobatic displays and has ordered 22 FA-50s, the modified light attack version.

About $300 million is being spent to reconfigure four T-50s as FA-50s under a contract signed by DAPA and KAI in December 2008. Once mass production begins by 2013, FA-50s will replace A-37 attack jets and F-4/F-5 fighters in the low-tier backup to the air force’s frontline capability.

South Korea’s air force also wants more than 100 FA-50s to replace its older fighters. The FA-50 will be equipped with EL/M-2032 radar from Israel’s Elta Systems, which has look-up tracking range of between 35 and 55 nm. The aircraft will also feature advanced tactical data link systems, precision missile guidance equipment and enhanced avionics.

The lighter fighter will be outfitted with the wind-corrected munitions dispenser kit, incorporating an internal navigation system and flip-out control fins to guide bombs. This corrects weapons launch errors, determines atmospheric conditions and computes optimum flight paths and cluster bomb release points. The FA-50’s armaments will include AGM-65 Maverick air-to-surface missiles and joint direct attack munitions bombs.