Airframers in the Asia Pacific region are transitioning away from building under license to developing their own platforms.
The Asia Pacific region is the home to several airframers who cut their teeth in their early years with license manufacture of military platforms. Over the past three decades, there has been dramatic progress in the growth of the indigenous aerospace industry in India, South Korea, and Indonesia.
While South Korea has successfully transitioned from manufacturing aircraft under license, to exporting aircraft it has developed in partnership with globally recognised aircraft manufacturers; India has a growing list of indigenous aircraft and helicopters in development. Indonesia on the other hand has focussed on the production of transport aircraft, but is looking to spread its wings in its partnership with South Korea on the KF-X/IF-X fighter programme.
Coming of Age
Korean Aerospace Industries (KAI), South Korea’s leading aerospace firm followed the license production approach to aircraft manufacture, starting with the Northrop F-5 and Lockheed Martin F-16 (Known as KF-16 in Korea) in the 80s and 90s respectively. This was followed by development of the successful T-50 (Golden Eagle) / FA-50 supersonic fighter trainer/light fighter, in partnership with Lockheed Martin in the 2000s, with the American firm, later also being selected to partner in the development of the KF-21.
South Korea’s dramatic strides in its aerospace capability are ably showcased by its $7.8 billion effort to develop the 4.5+ gen KF-21 Boramae (Hawk) fighter. The Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF) is slated to acquire at least 120 KF-21s and KAI estimates an export potential for the type for up to 700 aircraft.
The KF-21 can carry 7.7 tonnes of weapons on 10 hard points, including four MBDA Meteor long range Beyond Visual Range Air-To-Air Missiles (BVRAAM) in semi-recessed fuselage stations.
The first KF-21 prototype made its maiden flight in July 2022 and Korea’s Defence Acquisition Programme Administration (DAPA), announced the type’s maiden supersonic flight on 17 January 2023. This makes it the first wholly indigenous Korean fighter to break the sound barrier, as the T-50 which first went supersonic in 2003 was designed with technical collaboration from Lockheed Martin. The third prototype KF-21 aircraft made its maiden flight on January 5 and this aircraft is being flight tested by Provisional Unit 3 belonging to the ROKAF’s 52nd Squadron.
Two additional KF-21 prototypes will join Provisional Units 4 to 6, starting flight tests sequentially by the first half of 2023. According to KAI estimates, KF-21 localisation levels during series production will be approximately 65 percent as compared to 59 percent for the T-50.
KAI broke into the European fighter market with the sale of 48 FA-50s in September 2022 and will deliver the first 12 aircraft to the Polish Air Force this year. Slovakia is also reportedly eyeing a purchase of 10 FA-50s. KAI’s T-50/FA-50 trainer/light fighter aircraft has proved a success with over 200 T-50/FA-50s in operational service with the Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF) and 120 export orders from Poland, Iraq (24), Indonesia (22), Thailand (14) and Philippines (12). KAI’s KT-1 ‘Woong Bee’ basic trainer has received orders from Turkey (40), Peru (20), Indonesia (11) and Senegal (4).
KAI is also nearing completion of the development of its next-generation Light Civil Helicopter (LCH) and Light Armed Helicopter (LAH) in partnership with Airbus Helicopters. The European rotorcraft manufacturer was selected by KAI to partner in the programme in 2015 and the 5-tonne class LCH/LAH are based on Airbus Helicopters’ H155, which is the newest evolution of its best-selling Dauphin family and includes the Panther military helicopter.
The LAH and LCH will share a commonality of more than 60 percent. KAI received an order for 10 LAH worth $325 million in December 2022 with deliveries to begin in 2024. The new armed helicopters will replace MD-500- helicopters and AH-1S attack helicopters in service with the Korean military.
DAPA also inked a contract with KAI in December 2022 to develop a maritime helicopter for minesweeping duties based on the KUH-1 Surion helicopter. The Head of Aircraft Business Division of DAPA, ROKAF Brigadier General Kim Jong-tae said the Navy will be able to conduct minesweeper operations quickly and three-dimensionally. The new helicopters would be a key weapon system to protect ports and maritime traffic routes, he added. The Korean Navy is expected to stand-up its first helicopter unit with the new type by 2030. In January, KAI also entered in a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Northrop Grumman to develop Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) for maritime missions.
Made In India
India has a unique approach to aircraft design and manufacture with its fighter programmes coming under the auspices of the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), which falls under the Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO). These include the development of the Tejas Mk1, Mk-1A; Tejas Mk2 and Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), and Twin-Engine Deck Based Fighter (TEDBF). These aircraft are developed in close partnership with state-owned airframer, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) as a developmental testing and production partner. HAL has received orders for 83 Tejas Mk 1As (73 single seat, 10 two-seat) with deliveries due to start in 2024 and be completed by 2029. The Tejas Mk2 is slated to make its maiden flight this year, with military certification expected in 2025.
HAL, however, undertakes design and development of trainer aircraft such as the turboprop HTT-40 and HJT-36 jet trainer on its own, as well as indigenous helicopters such as the Dhruv, Light Combat Helicopter (LCH), Light Utility Helicopter (LUH) and the future Indian Multi-Role Helicopter (IMRH), which are handled by HAL’s Rotary Wing Research & Development Centre (RWRDC). Interestingly just prior to the start of the biennial ‘Aero India’ airshow, HAL unveiled the Hindustan Lead in Fighter Trainer (HLFT)-42, which it is developing with company funding. The HLFT-42 is being touted by HAL as a next-generation supersonic trainer and will feature Fly-by-Wire control (FBW), Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, Electronic Warfare (EW) Suite and Infrared Search and Track (IRST) sensor.
HAL also undertakes upgrade efforts related to air force aircraft such as the Sepecat Jaguar, Dassault Mirage 2000 and is working on a company funded upgrade to the BAE Systems Hawk Mk132 ,called Hawk-i, while the Indian Air Force (IAF) manages some upgrade efforts on its own (MiG-29 UPG, Antonov An-32 RE) at its Base Repair Depots (BRD), with support from the Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM).
The development of India’s indigenous aerospace industry suffered in the 70s and 80s, when the urgent need to reequip the Indian armed forces, sent HAL on a license-production spree, churning out the HS-748 ‘Avro’, SA-315 Alouette II (known locally as Cheetah), SA 316 Alouette III (Chetak), MiG-21 and MiG-27, Sepecat Jaguar and Dorner Do-228s. The Indian Air Force and Indian Navy underwent an unprecedented expansion in the 80s with the induction of the Jaguar, MiG-23, MiG-25, MiG-27, MiG-29, Mirage 2000, An-32, IL-76, Mi-17, Mi-24, Mi-26 and Mi-35; while the Sea Harrier, Sea King, IL-38, Tu-142, Ka-25 and Ka-28 entered service with the Navy in the same period. License production of imported aircraft started to decline in the 90s, and it was only between 2000-2010, that HAL commenced license-production of the Sukhoi SU-30 MKI and Hawk Mk132 Advanced Jet Trainer (AJT).
Indian efforts to manufacture a state-of-the-art fighter aircraft under license as part of the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) procurement for 126 jets, began in 2007 and never saw the light of day. It eventually resulted in an order for 36 Dassault Aviation Rafale F3-Rs in 2016, procured as fly-aways. All 36 aircraft are now in service. Since 2018, the IAF has been pursuing a Multi-Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA) requirement for 114 aircraft, which has received interest from eight contenders. It is unlikely that swift progress will be made in the MRFA tender, which is expected to cost a good deal over $20 billion.
The Indian Ministry of Defence (MoD) awarded Airbus Defence and a Tata-led consortium a contract in September 2021 for transport aircraft, destined to replace the 60s-era HS-748. The nearly $2.5 billion deal involves the manufacture of 40 aircraft in India, to be built by the Tata Consortium in a new factory, located in Vadodara, in the State of Gujarat. This is the first instance of a private sector Indian firm being awarded an aircraft manufacturing contract in India, as hitherto, all military aircraft procurement were in HAL’s realm.
The first 16 C295MWs are to be delivered by Airbus and production is already underway at its facility in Spain. The first aircraft is to be delivered in September this year, and the final aircraft in August 2025. The Tata Consortium is expected to deliver the first license produced C295MW in September 2026.
With the C295MW being able to carry nine tonnes of payload, the IAF appears to be considering the type as a replacement for its accident-prone fleet of Antonov An-32s, which complete 40 years in service in 2024. Approximately 105 of the type are said to be in service and an upgrade to the An-32 RE standard which began in 2009 is yet to be concluded. Upgraded An-32 REs have a payload capacity of 7.5 tonne.
In February, the Indian MoD issued a Request for Information (RFI) for procurement of a new Medium Transport Aircraft (MTA) which will have a payload capacity of 18-30 tonnes. Both Lockheed Martin and Embraer have confirmed that they will participate in the tender with the C-130 J Super Hercules and C-390 respectively.
PT Dirgantara Indonesia (PTDI) is now expanding its horizons from its heritage of manufacturing transport and light aircraft. PTDI, which is also known as Indonesian Aerospace, continues producing the CN-235 turboprop transport, in addition to the N219 and NC212i. It has partnered with KAI on the KF-21 programme, with the Indonesian Air Force (Tentara Nasional Indonesia Angkatan Udara (TNI-AU)) slated to require approximately 50 the type. PTDI is also developing the Elang Hitam (Black Eagle) Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) UAV.
Indonesia has opted to share 20 percent ($1.3 billion) of the R&D costs in the Korean KF-21 programme and PTDI has been actively involved in the programme since 2011, to develop an Indonesian specific version of the aircraft called IF-X. There have been some delays in the IF-X programme due to issues related to Indonesia fulfilling its 20 percent cost-sharing obligation and the COVID-19 pandemic, but these were resolved by late 2021, when Indonesian engineers resumed work on the programme in September that same year.
As the Indonesian Industrial Participant (IIP) in the IF-X programme, PTDI is involved in the Engineering Work Package (EWP) as part of the Engineering & Manufacturing Development (EMD) activities carried out at PTDI facilities in Indonesia. Analysis and design of the KFX/IFX structure is being done by the Indonesian team as part of the EMD effort under the direct supervision of the senior KAI engineers. According to company officials, this work was completed in September 2022.
PTDI also has a workshare in producing components for KF-21 prototype aircraft. The work being carried out at PTDI and is specifically related to some of the metal components of the aircraft’s wing and tail. PTDI is also producing pylon components for prototype aircraft one to six. This work is expected to be completed later this year.
PTDI in cooperation with a consortium of five other Indonesian institutions is now developing the Elang Hitam MALE UAV. The other consortium partners are the Indonesian MoD, the TNI-AU, PT Len Industri, the National Institute of Aeronautics and Space (LAPAN), the Indonesian Agency for the Assessment and Application of Technology (BPPT), and the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB).
The first prototype of the Elang Hitam was rolled out from PTDI’s facilities in Bandung in December 2019. Work is now underway to conduct the maiden flight of the Elang Hitam. PTDI has also been developing the Wulung UAV, which is powered by a pusher type single piston engine and made using composite materials. The Wulung has the capability to perform Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance (ISR) missions.
PTDI began its aircraft manufacturing journey in the 80s when it partnered with CASA of Spain for the CN-235 and C-212. Then known as IPTIN, it partnered with CASA in 1979 to design the CN235 and the first prototype aircraft flew in 1983 and series production commenced in 1986.
PTDI has delivered over 40 CN-235s, mainly to domestic customers in Indonesia, but also to those Brunei, Malaysia and Thailand. Over 100 NC-212s have been delivered in Indonesia, with some to the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. Company officials say that they are hopeful of obtaining orders for 16 CN-235s, 21 for NC-212i by 2026-27. Company officials speaking at Indo Defence 2022, said they were confident of sustained demand for the CN-235 aircraft, which is well proven in the region.
They also stated that there was interest from Malaysia and Nigeria in the CN-235 with the Bangladesh Air Force and Bangladesh Army also cited as potential customers. The Indonesian Navy (Tentara Nasional Indonesia Angkatan Laut, TNI-AL)) is also expected to order two aircraft, while the army is looking at three additional aircraft. PTDI received an order for 10 CN-235s from the Indonesian MoD in February 2022. Africa and the Middle East also remain important markets for PTDI, with Senegal having ordered two CN-235 Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) in 2018 of which the first one was delivered in 2021, while the United Arab Emirates (UAE) has ordered four.
PTDI has also worked on the customisation of Bell 412 EPIs for the Indonesian Army (Tentara Nasional Indonesia-Angkatan Darat, TNI-AD)) completing delivery of all nine helicopters in February 2022.
A New Era
For India, South Korea and Indonesia, the ability to develop and sustain their homegrown defence industry has been hard won and all three nations are expected to continue with budgetary allocations to ensure that programmes in the pipeline enter into service. South Korea has had the greatest success in terms of exports, with 120 orders for KAI’s T-50/FA-50, including an order from a European air force in Poland. The Korean industry has also shown the ability to rapidly deliver on orders contracted and had developed a reputation for timely and efficient customer support for its products. Fighter exports are the preserve of only a few nations and with the KF-21, Korea could be well placed to garner a greater share of global fighter contracts post 2030.
India’s defence industry is coming of age with new indigenously developed aircraft and helicopters entering service and several new platforms in the pipeline. While orders from India’s large military will sustain a domestic manufacturing base, export orders will be much harder to come by. The Indian military also imposes exacting specifications on homegrown products which often make them uncompetitive in export markets.
Indonesia is likely to continue with its existing transport and light aircraft programmes and the culmination of the IF-X programme will be a major milestone and KF-21 exports could provide useful work for decades.
by Mike Rajkumar