South Korea seeks to join major arms traffickers with new fighter jet engine

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South Korea’s largest defense company is developing a fighter jet engine as the country works to move up the value chain of arms exporters and boost its security self-sufficiency.

The head of aeronautical systems at Hanwha Aerospace said the company wanted to develop the engine as early as 2036. It is working in partnership with the South Korean government, one of the world’s biggest spenders on weapons development.

“We should develop our own aircraft engines before it is too late for our long-term national security as well as economic benefits,” Kwangmin Lee said in an interview with the Financial Times at the company’s headquarters in Seoul.

“It will take at least 10 years and more than 5 trillion won ($3.7 billion). “We face high barriers to entry, but we have experience in engine production, albeit under licensing agreements, and we have developed our own small engines and have a strong supply chain,” he said.

South Korea has become one of the world’s top 10 defense exporters, and the war in Ukraine is driving demand for conventional weapons such as tanks, howitzers and low-end fighter jets.

Hanwha makes its own engines for ships, missiles and helicopters, but has not yet produced an advanced engine for fighter jets. It is a major supplier of spare parts to General Electric, Pratt & Whitney and Rolls-Royce, which together dominate the global aviation engine market.

The company is targeting 25 trillion won in total sales of its own engines by 2050. The engines are expected to be used in upgraded versions of the country’s first indigenous fighter jet, the KF-21, which Korea Aerospace Industries plans to produce in mass in the second semester. of 2026.

Hanwha is currently assembling the F414 turbofan engines used in the KF-21 under license from GE. “We will develop engines similar to GE’s F414 class, but with much better thrust and fuel consumption,” Lee said.

He admitted that it was a difficult task. “There is a lot of skepticism about whether Ford will be able to catch up to Ferrari, but you can’t achieve anything without trying,” Lee said, referring to the American automaker’s battle to develop a racing car to rival the Italian group.

Only six countries have indigenous engines to power the most modern fighter jets: the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, Ukraine and China.

Japanese industrial group IHI presented a prototype engine when the country wanted to independently develop its own fighter aircraft. But it is now working alongside Rolls-Royce under the trilateral Global Combat Air Program to build a supersonic aircraft with the United Kingdom and Italy.

After years of delays, the Indian government is collaborating with GE to develop its Kaveri engines. Türkiye has also held talks with Rolls-Royce to jointly develop engines for its fighter jet.

France’s Safran, Russia’s UEC-Aviadvigatel, Britain’s Ivchenko-Progress and China’s AECC also produce aircraft engines.

Hanwha is building a $30 million aircraft engine factory in South Korea and plans to triple the number of its domestic engineers to 600. It plans to set up overseas research centers in the United States and Europe and is considering collaborating with other companies. for your own engine project. .

The company expects South Korea’s air force to purchase the upgraded KF-21s with its own engines and hopes to eventually sell them to countries in the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe.

“We will focus on those who cannot buy US fighter jets for geopolitical reasons or those who cannot afford to buy expensive US aircraft,” Lee said.

Douglas Barrie, senior researcher at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said Hanwha had the “industrial technical base to at least give it a good chance, but the challenges involved should still not be underestimated.”

Kim Ho-sung, a professor of advanced defense engineering at Changwon National University, warned that the technology was difficult to develop.

“Developing a jet engine is the most complex technological feat, as the materials must withstand the heat of combustion above 2,000 degrees Celsius,” Kim said. “Even China had trouble overcoming technological challenges until recently.”

South Korea produces high-quality weapons for less money, making them attractive to buyers in emerging markets. But Kim warned that Hanwha should not use the same strategy for the aircraft engine market, predicting that it would be difficult for the company to achieve economies of scale.

“Countries can easily purchase the (U.S.-made) F-15 with proven safety and superior performance. Why would they bother buying the KF-21 with Korean-made engines at similar prices? Kim said. “It will be difficult to ensure cost competitiveness without economies of scale. “Global collaboration might be a better option for Korea.”

Additional reporting by Sylvia Pfeifer in London

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