At the recent ADEX defense expo in Seoul, South Korea was showing off its KF-X next-generation fighter jet. Although just a large plastic model for now, a lot is riding on this program. The KF-X embodies the future of South Korean aerospace, and if it succeeds, it will cement the country’s place as a frontrunner in the global aviation industry.

The KF-X is expected to achieve first flight by 2022, with deliveries to the Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF) starting in 2024. But even if the KF-X flies, will it ever get off the ground?

The ambitious KF-X program

The KF-X fighter is a twin-engine stealthy fighter jet, and it will feature an AESA (active electronically scanned array) radar and other advanced avionics. Consequently, it has been deemed a “4.5-generation” combat aircraft, ostensibly an improvement over standard 4th-generation fighters like the F-16, but not as advanced as the F-22 or F-35 (so-called 5th-generation fighters). This puts the KF-X in roughly the same class as the Eurofighter Typhoon, the Swedish Gripen, or the Russian Su-35.

The KF-X is being jointly developed by Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) and US aerospace giant Lockheed Martin, as part of a deal in which the ROKAF purchased 40 F-35 fighters from the United States. The South Korean government is investing more than US$7 billion in the KF-X, and the ROKAF expects to buy 120 of these fighters to replace its aging fleet of F-4 Phantoms and F-5s. In addition, Seoul has succeeded in signing up Indonesia as a partner in the program, and Jakarta could acquire as many as 80 fighters to meet its own “IF-X” requirements.

Under the terms of the project contract, the KAI-Lockheed team will underwrite 20% of incurred development costs, with the ROKAF and Indonesia will cover 60% and 20% of the costs, respectively.

The technonationalist driver

All this, however, begs the question: if the ROKAF is already getting the F-35, why build something that is less capable? The answer lies mainly in something called military technonationalism.

MIT professor Richard Samuels has argued that technonationalism is nothing less than the ‘struggle for independence and autonomy through the indigenization of technology’

Military technonationalism (a word first coined by Robert Reich in the 1980s) is about becoming more self-reliant in armaments, but it is also much more than that. It is as much about geopolitics as it is about economic independence or technological self-sufficiency. MIT professor Richard Samuels has argued that technonationalism is nothing less than the “struggle for independence and autonomy through the indigenization of technology,” and the “embrace of technology for national security.” As such, technonationalism serves broad, bold national strategic ambitions, particularly the emergence of a country as a modern, independent, even powerful, nation-state.

Of course, technonationalism is not limited just to armaments production or just to South Korea. For instance, countries like Brazil and South Africa have also pursued technonationalist “security and development” strategies when it came to arms manufacturing.

Few countries, however, have raised technonationalism to a fine art as much as South Korea. This driver can be found in nearly every aspect of the economy: iron and steel industries, automobiles, shipbuilding, electronics, and so on. These same strategies are now being applied to aerospace and defense.

One of the best examples is KAI. This company, the product of a forced merger between three money-losing smaller aviation firms, is the personification of Korea’s hopes and dreams for its defense industry. The ROK has the ambition of becoming a world-class airframe designer and manufacturer, and it expects KAI to eventually be among the world’s leading aerospace-producing companies. In turn, KAI’s current vision is to be a “Total Solution Provider” and to rank among the world’s top 15 aerospace companies by 2020.

Arms exports and the sad case of the T-50

Technonationalism alone, however, cannot build a sustainable, economically viable defense industry. The cold, hard truth is, Korea’s own defense market is too small to support a national fighter jet program. To be profitable, a company must sell hundreds of combat aircraft; even with Indonesia chipping in and buying – perhaps – 80 KF-Xs, Korea and KAI have to find other customers for the bulk of its fighter jet production.

In fact, Korea expects to export up to 600 KF-X fighters to other countries. However, this is likely to be way over-optimistic, and perhaps dangerously so.

Take the case of the T-50 Golden Eagle, Korea’s first indigenous jet aircraft program. Launched in in the mid-1990s, the T-50 was an ambitious program to design and manufacture an advanced trainer/light attack jet capable of supersonic speeds and equipped with a sophisticated avionics package. In addition to being a trainer jet, this aircraft was adapted in other versions, including the TA-50 lead-in fighter/light attack plane, and the FA-50, a fighter aircraft outfitted with a radar and capable of firing a broader suite of weapons. It was intended to replace T-38, A-37, and F-5 fighters in the ROKAF.

Export sales, however, were to account for most of the program. At one time, KAI expected to export up 1,000 T-50s and capture one-quarter of the world’s market. In fact, over the past decade, Korea has sold just 64 T-50s to just four countries: Indonesia, Iraq, the Philippines, and Thailand.

An uphill road for South Korea’s aerospace business

The South Koreans are finding that breaking into the international fighter jet business is incredibly difficult. The barriers to entry are high. The market is already saturated with a number of highly capable competing products, such as the F-35 and the Su-30. Moreover, American, Russian, and European aerospace companies have spent decades cultivating their customer base, and it is hard to win them away.

South Korea’s strength has always been in its optimism, its ability to believe that if it perseveres and just tries harder, it can overcome any barrier or setback. This positivity has worked before, and ultimately South Korea’s aerospace and defense sector expects to grow out of its problems. Optimism alone, however, is not going to sell fighter jets, and technonationalism may be leading South Korea toward a rude awakening.

The opinions expressed here are the author’s own.