KAI FA-50 fighters stand ground against F-16s at half the price

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When the time came for Thailand to consider upgrading its fleet of fourth-generation fighter aircraft, Boeing’s F-16 and SAAB’s Gripen were leading the pack. However, another contender has now dipped its hat into the ring, giving Bangkok more to mull over. 

Photo credit: KAI

The South Korean firm Korea Aerospace Industries [KAI] is feeling confident after racking up several successful exports. Their latest venture? Pitching their FA-50 light fighter aircraft to the Royal Thai Air Force [RTAF]. The RTAF is beginning its search for a new combat machine, with purchases planned for the fiscal year [FY] 2025. 

According to the word on the street, KAI’s sales pitch is a direct response to an unofficial call for proposals [RFP] sent out by the RTAF in late 2023. To give more context, in its 2024 White Paper, the RTAF revealed plans to rejuvenate the fleet of the 102 Squadron. They aim to replace their aging Lockheed Martin F-16A/Bs with a dozen or so fresh fighter jets between FY 2025 and FY 2034.

Photo credit: European Post

KAI’s proposal

Insiders revealed to Janes that the RTAF’s aircraft purchase plan was slated to be presented to the Thai cabinet on April 2. However, instead of approval, an RTAF representative stated on April 3 that their funding proposal was turned down by the Thai government. Despite this setback, the source indicated, “the Air Force is gearing up to make another attempt in May.” 

As highlighted by local press reports, during his recent visit to South Korea, Thai Defense Minister Sutin Klungsang received a pitch for the FA-50 from KAI’s CEO Kang Goo-young. It’s relevant to note that the KAI T-50 Golden Eagle – a light combat aircraft and supersonic advanced jet trainer – is already in use by the RTAF. 

Photo credit: NATO

In promoting the FA-50 fighters, Kang Goo-young underscored the jet’s multirole capabilities that are on par with the US-manufactured F-16, but at just half its cost and requiring less upkeep. Significantly, this cost-benefit argument has been consistently used by the South Korean manufacturer to entice potential customers.

First was Poland

In addition to the robust features of the FA-50, clients have expressed immense satisfaction with the prompt delivery of these South Korean fighter jets. Take Poland as an example: barely a year after they entered a contract with KAI for the FA-50, the first duo of aircraft was gracefully delivered to Polish officials. Analysts believe that Poland opted for the FA-50 over enhanced F-16s solely due to the latter’s extensive delivery timeline. 

Photo by Sgt Müller Marin

Modeled as a combat-ready variant of the Korea Aerospace Industries’ T-50 Golden Eagle supersonic trainer aircraft, the FA-50 has significantly made waves in the export market. Notably, KAI has recently garnered substantial orders for the FA-50 from both Poland and Malaysia, further consolidating the aircraft’s standout reputation. 

As stated on KAI’s official website, the FA-50 has seen remarkable improvements based mainly on the stellar performance of the T-50 trainer. This includes the integration of impressive capabilities such as Tactical Data Link, Precision Guided Munitions, and self-protection subsystems. This enhanced version presents a flight performance that rivals that of traditional fighter jets. Since 2013, it has been deployed and utilized to great effect by the Republic of Korea Air Force [ROKAF].

The FA-50 is an advanced aircraft

Photo credit: Pinterest

Constructed for international air forces seeking a lightweight yet advanced fighter, the FA-50 boasts a superior radar system comparable to the American-made, license-produced KF-16 fighter. The future of its acceptance by the Royal Thai Air Force [RTAF] hangs in balance though, as previous inclinations leaned towards the fifth-generation F-35 Lightning II crafts. 

The Chief of the Royal Thai Air Force [RTAF], Air Chief Marshal Phanpakdee Pattanakul, emphasized the necessity to phase out outdated aircraft. According to him, this is key to preserving the RTAF’s fighter strength, keeping pace with training and operational requirements, and staying at par with the number of fighters retained by neighboring countries. KAI stands to benefit from this situation, given the fact that both The Philippines and Malaysia have made purchases of the FA-50. 

In fiscal terms, the FA-50 exhibits a clear advantage over its contemporaries and other aircraft falling within the same category, since it is relatively less expensive. Given Thailand’s current economic constraints, the FA-50 could very well be a perfect match. Accordingly, the competition now involves the FA-50, ready for a face-off against two powerhouse combat jets: the F-16s and the Gripens, thereby morphing the competition into a three-way race.


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