KAI displays model plane at defense exhibition as potential carrier-born aircraft

By Lim Chang-won Posted : September 21, 2022, 17:27 Updated : September 22, 2022, 07:45

[Yonhap News Photo]

SEOUL -- Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI), the sole aircraft maker in South Korea, has displayed a model ship plane at a defense exhibition and attached an explanatory note describing it as carrier-born aircraft, although a military project to develop a homemade light aircraft carrier got dormant due to the lack of interest among policymakers and unresolved disputes over its necessity.

The model plane codenamed KF-21N on display at KAI's booth at an exhibition center in western Seoul is a variant of South Korea's first homemade KF-21 fighter jet that made a successful maiden flight in July 2022. The KF-21 project is aimed at manufacturing 120 fighter jets that would replace South Korea's aging fleet of US-made F-4 and F-5 fighters. 

KAI proposed a catapult-assisted take-off barrier arrested recovery (CATOBAR) system and a short take-off, barrier-arrested recovery (STOBAR) system, which are considered suitable for mid-sized aircraft carriers.

CATOBAR is used for the launch and recovery of aircraft from the deck using a catapult-assisted take-off and land using arrestor wires. It provides greater flexibility in carrier operations and can launch aircraft that lack a high thrust-to-weight ratio. STOBAR, which combines elements of short take-off and vertical landing with catapult-assisted take-off but arrested recovery, requires arrestor wires to land.

KF-21N's specifications included a wing folding method, a U.S.-made F414-GE-400K twin engine used for KF-21, a maximum speed of Mach 1.6, a maximum onboard weight of 7,620kg, a maximum takeoff weight of 25,600kg, a total length of 17.1m, an overall height of 5.2m, and a width of 12.3m. KF-21N has the same maximum thrust and maximum takeoff weight as KF-21, which features a maximum payload of 7,700kg, a total length of 16.9m, an overall height of 4.7m, and a width of 11.2m.

KAI tried to block any hasty speculation, saying that the KF-21N model just showed the possibility of developing a ship plane. In February 2021, the Defense Ministry formalized a CVX project to develop a light aircraft carrier with an injection of some 2.33 trillion won ($1.7 billion) from 2022 to 2033 only on basic design and construction. However, expenses were not reflected in a government budget proposal.

Originally, the defense ministry came up with the idea of building a 30,000-ton light aircraft carrier manned by more than 400 crew members, causing debate over whether South Korea really needs an expensive ship for far-seas operations.

To cope with an ever-growing arms race in Northeast Asia, South Korea has envisioned a smart navy because it's not able to gain a quantitative advantage over its neighboring countries. South Korea's naval buildup program is basically aimed at keeping North Korea in check. However, military leaders think about a naval fleet covering the ocean beyond coastal waters.

The CVX project can be ditched if the defense ministry fails to secure national consensus and parliament approval. The ministry should also solve a dispute over the type of ship lanes. Air Force commanders have favored F-35B, the short take-off and vertical landing variant of Lockheed Martin's F-35A stealth fighters. The F-35B armed with two precision-guided bombs and two air-to-air missiles can capture a ballistic missile some 1,300 kilometers away. 

Critics say F-35Bs have limitations in removing ballistic missiles hidden in tunnels. Defense firms have supported a bigger aircraft carrier to accommodate the variant of homemade fighter jets. 
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