South Korea has joined Japan and Turkey in the group of middle powers that all are trying to develop unique stealth fighters.
Be skeptical. The world’s biggest economies barely can support the development and acquisition of a true radar-evading fighter. South Korea is unlikely to join that exclusive club.
“The biggest homegrown weapons development project in Korean history is about to take off as Seoul begins production for its new cutting-edge, multi-role fighter jets known as the KFX,” Korea Joongang Daily reported on Oct. 2, 2019.
“The design for the KFX, which stands for ‘Korean Fighter Experimental,’ is the result of almost two decades of planning that cost the government approximately 8.6 trillion won ($7 billion),” the newspaper continued. “Once production begins on 120 units of the new jet, which is scheduled to start in 2026, an additional 10 trillion won will be needed, putting the bill for the entire project at around 18.6 trillion won,” or $16 billion.
If Korea Joongang Daily’s figures are accurate, each KFX could cost around $130 million. That’s slightly more than a U.S.-made F-35 costs in 2019. But there are reasons to doubt Korean industry can get the price of a KFX down that low.
The main reason is scale. The only reason that an F-35 costs only around $100 million is that Lockheed Martin and its partners are building thousands of the single-engine planes for dozens of countries.
It’s likely the KF-X would end up cost much, much more than Korea Joongang Daily reported. It takes around $100 billion in total to develop, build and operate a fleet of a few dozen stealth fighters, Japanese air force general Hideyuki Yoshioka recently asserted.
Japan, not coincidentally, has been developing a boutique stealth fighter that also appears to be going nowhere.
Lockheed built just 195 bigger F-22 stealth fighters for the U.S. Air Force between the late 1990s and 2011. Federal law prohibited the company from exporting the plane, so the program never achieved a meaningful economy of scale.
One result is that each F-22 setback taxpayers as much as $300 million, not counting ongoing upgrades and operating costs that could boost the overall program cost to, you guessed it, nearly $100 billion.