T-50 Update

By J.R. Wildridge Posted 20 May 2015

The T-50 program is a joint development between Lockheed Martin and Korea Aerospace Industries to meet the advanced jet pilot training needs of the Republic of Korea Air Force. More than 100 aircraft have been built and delivered to the ROKAF. A second variant that is currently in production is the FA-50 light combat aircraft.

The T-50 is not a Korea-only program. From the beginning, the T-50 was envisioned to be exported to other countries. In 2011, this vision became a reality when Indonesia ordered sixteen aircraft, called the T-50i. All the Indonesian aircraft have been delivered. 

In late 2013, the Government of Iraq ordered twenty-four T-50IQ aircraft, along with an integrated training center and ancillary support elements. In March 2014, the Philippines contracted for twelve FA-50PH variants of the aircraft. 

Early Program History

In the late 1980s, the economy of South Korea was rapidly expanding. At the same time, the Korean government wanted to modernize its fighter fleet and to develop an indigenous aerospace industry. The government also wanted to infuse new technologies and capabilities into the country’s defense sector. 

The use of industrial cooperation and offset programs was seen as a means of satisfying these multiple requirements.

The first procurement of F-16s under the Peace Bridge program began a long-term relationship for developing advanced aircraft capabilities in Korea. Korean industry built forty center fuselages for this program. Besides coproduction, offset programs resulted in the transfer of related technologies and training for Korean engineers.

After Peace Bridge, the Korea Fighter Program expanded the relationship to develop indigenous aircraft capabilities. The first phase of the program involved the purchase of twelve F-16s, which were built at the Lockheed Martin facility in Fort Worth, Texas. The second phase of the program involved the assembly of thirty-six F-16s in Korea. The third and final phase of the initial program involved the full production of seventy-two F-16s in Korea.

A follow-on program, called KFP-II, resulted in the production of twenty additional F-16s in Korea. In total, more than 125 F-16s were built by Korean industry.

As part of these programs, more than 600 Korean engineers were trained in the United States. And F-16 technical data were transferred to Korea through a series of technical assistance agreements.

One of the offsets projects for the KF-16 program consisted of market assessments, feasibility studies, and preliminary design of a new advanced jet trainer. The design project was known as KTX-2. 

The development project was presented to the ROKAF and then proposed to Korea’s Ministry of National Defense. The KTX-2 was subsequently approved by the Korean Ministry of National Defense in November 1991. The conceptual design was completed in December 1995. 

ROKAF Training Needs

The Republic of Korea Air Force recognized a growing capability gap between their existing fast jet trainers—such as the Hawk, T-38, and two-seat F-5s—and new fighters they were beginning to operate—the KF-16 and F-15K. This aircraft capability gap was contributing to an increasing gap in the skills their student pilots needed before entering a fighter aircraft.

The ROKAF was seeing its operational fighters being used to satisfy more of its fast jet training needs. The service reviewed available fast jet trainers that could be used to minimize this capability and skill gap and found that most lacked the modern cockpits, digital flight controls, aero performance, and avionics needed to bridge the growing skills gap between what operational units needed and training units were providing.

The ROKAF also observed that air forces worldwide were facing the same training gap as they modernized their fighter fleets. So a market existed outside of Korea for a new advanced jet trainer. 

Lockheed Martin Invests In KTX-2 Full-Scale Development Program

From Lockheed Martin’s perspective, a new advanced jet trainer would complement the F-16. The company’s own market studies led it to invest in the KTX-2 program.

Of the $2.1 billion full-scale development program, seventy percent was borne by the Korean government, seventeen percent by Korea Aircraft Industries, and thirteen percent by Lockheed Martin. The full-scale development program began in October 1997. Test articles were delivered between 1999 and 2001. In February 2000, the program name was changed from KTX-2 to T-50 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the ROKAF.

The rollout ceremony for the first T-50 took place at KAI’s plant in Sacheon, near the southern coast of the Korean peninsula, in October 2001. First flight, with KAI test pilot Hui Man Kwon at the controls, came on 20 August 2002. The full-scale development program was completed in January 2006. KAI and Lockheed Martin completed the contract requirements for the FSD program on time and within budget.

Transitioning To Production

In December 2003, KAI received initial production authorization for twenty-five T-50 advanced jet trainer aircraft for the ROKAF. The first two production aircraft were delivered twenty-four months later. The remaining aircraft were continuously delivered through 2008.

A follow-on contract for forty-seven aircraft was signed in October 2006. Of the total, twenty-five were for T-50 advanced jet trainers and twenty-two were for TA-50 lead-in fighter trainer aircraft. This more advanced TA-50 is being used for lead-in fighter training at Yecheon AB, about 150 miles southeast of Seoul.

Armaments and radar account for the primary difference between a T-50 and a TA-50. The TA-50 is equipped with an internally mounted 20mm gun and with external hardpoints for carrying a variety of weapons. A stores management system combined with a MIL-STD-1553 databus allows these weapons to be integrated on the aircraft. While the T-50 has no radar, the TA-50 features the Elta EL/M-2032 multimode radar. TA-50 aircraft were delivered in 2011 and 2012.

In March 2010, the ROKAF ordered ten T-50B aircraft for use as part of their aerial demonstration team called the Black Eagles. The T-50B carries equipment unique to the team, including smoke system, internal and external cameras, and high-visibility spotlights in the dummy Sidewinder missiles on the wingtips. These aircraft were delivered in 2010 and the team operates from its home at Wonju AB. The ROKAF demonstration team performs several flying demonstration a year in Korea and at selected events worldwide.

As of 2015, more than 1,000 pilots have been trained using the T-50. The aircraft fleet has accumulated more than 100,000 flight hours.

FA-50 Light Combat Aircraft

When it chose to develop the T-50, the ROKAF also planned a light attack version of the aircraft. Development of the FA-50, as it is called, began in December 2008 and was completed in late 2012. Key features of this aircraft included an upgraded cockpit, radar, self-protection systems, a tactical data link, and accommodations for precision guided weapons. 

The initial production contract for twenty FA-50s was awarded to KAI in December 2011. Deliveries began in August 2013. A follow-on contract was placed in early 2013 for an additional forty aircraft, and deliveries will continue through 2016. Initial operating capability for the FA-50 was achieved in October 2014.

Production of the FA-50 for the ROKAF continues through 2016. 

J.R. Wildridge is an international business development representative for Lockheed Martin.