With increasing pressure on the budget because of COVID-19 it is hardly surprising that the government of Indonesia is looking to save money – and a casualty looks like being the level of investment in the KF-X/IFX combat aircraft project. In 2010 the country signed up to pay 20% of the development costs of the twin-jet engine 4++ generation fighter but is now seeking to reduce that to 15%. Jakarta also has a longstanding, if somewhat vague, commitment to purchase up to 50 of the production jets, which should start to become available toward the middle of the decade.
This is not the first time that Indonesia has sought to change the commercial terms of the deal and last year had to come to an arrangement with the Koreans and prime contractor KAI when it was significantly late with payments. The total cost of the design and development of six KF-X prototypes is estimated as being around US $8 billion – which looks to be very much on the low side – meaning that Indonesia’s original commitment was for $1.6 billion, for which it would receive one of the test aircraft. Indonesia improbably claimed that it was in arrears because of an administrative oversight.
KAI is making good progress on the prototype aircraft, which seem to have little – if any – Indonesian content. Constructed at the company’s headquarters in Sacheon on the far south coast of the country, the KF-X will benefit from the significant investment KAI has made in robotic assembly over several years, using the T-50 Golden Eagle series of trainer / light attack jets to introduce a number of innovative technologies. These include the use of autonomous vehicles to move large aircraft parts around the assembly floor and also a fully automated paint shop that greatly reduces the time and cost of applying numerous coatings now required on combat aircraft.
Speaking of innovation, another high technology Korean company Huneed Technologies is supplying parts for the KF-X using additive manufacturing – more commonly known as 3D printing. Huneed is the first and so far only Korean company to be certified by both KAI and the government to provide metal parts using this revolutionary process. It is predicted that additive manufacturing will change the face of the aerospace sector in particular with previously milled parts – the production of which involves a great deal of wastage, especially for titanium – now being made much faster and cheaper than was previously considered possible.
The aircraft are a blend of Korean, US and European technologies with a “best of breed” approach being followed – such as GE F-414 engines being locally produced by Hanwha. Other notable companies involved are Martin Baker; Cobham; Elta; United Technologies; Honeywell; and Curtis-Wright. Previously Saab had indicated a possible role in the development of the AESA radar, along with local company LIG Nex1.
The flight test program is on schedule to begin next year – with or without Indonesian involvement. It is due to conclude in 2026 and it is expected that a production order will be placed by the RoK Air Force during this period for a first batch of jets. However, there are concerns about the overall cost of the program. While these might be acceptable to the government as part of a nation building approach to the aerospace sector, they will have to be contained if the KF-X is to have any meaningful success as an export product.