The U.S. Air Force’s patience is wearing thin… South Korea’s T-50 seizes its chance to dominate

Yowonjihwa (爎原之火).

There is no better word to describe the recent dominance of the Korean defense industry in the global market. The phrase refers to a wildfire burning in a terrifying manner, spreading so powerfully that it cannot be contained, and the Korean defense industry, especially in the aircraft sector, has been experiencing a flurry of good news lately.

Korea recently became a fighter jet exporter with the sale of FA-50 Block 20 models to Poland and Malaysia, but the total export volume to both countries was only 66 units, which did not seem to have a significant impact on the global military aircraft market. However, recently, there has been a move to purchase hundreds of Golden Eagles from the United States, possibly over 1,000 units. In fact, our “American Jackpot Dream” was shattered in 2018 when the Boeing-Saab alliance won the US T-X program.

FA-50 light attack aircraft. Courtesy of KAI

Five years ‘in development’…the T-7A stalled

At the time, the Boeing-Saab alliance was the preferred bidder for a $19.7 billion program to acquire 351 advanced training aircraft, with prices that went beyond “unbeatable” to “shocking. The Lockheed Martin-Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) alliance, touting the T-50A, offered $16 billion for 351 aircraft, while Boeing-Saab submitted a bid of $9.2 billion to deliver 475 aircraft, far more than the U.S. Air Force required, plus 120 simulators as a bonus. The prime contractor, Boeing, cited the “Fourth Industrial Revolution” as the key to being able to offer the trainers at a significantly lower price than its competitors. The company claimed to have achieved revolutionary cost savings by replacing costly experiments in aircraft development with state-of-the-art computer simulations and 3D printing key parts. Boeing confidently proclaimed that it would deliver the T-7A Redhawk as a trainer to the U.S. Air Force, and then develop armed and light fighter models based on it to dominate the global trainer and light fighter markets.

The Air Force’s 1st Fighter Wing began high-flying training with the first domestically produced supersonic high-flying trainer, the T-50, in 2021. Pictured here is a T-50 in flight. Yonhap

Five years after Boeing’s ambitious declaration in the fall of 2018, the T-7A is still “under development. Development was supposed to have been completed long ago, with production starting this year and initial operational capability (IOC) in 2024, but a series of critical defects have delayed the decision. The T-38, an aging aircraft that should have been replaced by the mass production of the T-7A, was produced between 1961 and 1972. In Korea, the U.S. Air Force is still using aircraft produced much earlier than the F-5 as the prototype for the F-5A/B ‘Freedom Fighter’, which was retired due to its extreme aging and frequent crashes.

As an airplane ages, its flight hours decrease each year and maintenance time increases dramatically. Naturally, maintenance costs skyrocket. As a result, in late April, U.S. Air Force Vice Chief of Staff David Irvin testified before the House Armed Services Committee and reported that the T-7A’s delays are causing major disruptions in the training of combat pilots each year, resulting in a severe pilot shortage. According to Irvin, U.S. Air Force pilots have to wait as little as 18 months and as long as 24 months for an airworthy trainer. This waiting period has pushed the training time for fighter pilots to nearly four years. It’s also costing the program $12.6 million in safety costs for flying aging aircraft. Irvin’s testimony to the House of Representatives was a message that the Air Force can no longer sacrifice for one company, Boeing.

Shortly after the Air Force trashed the T-7A, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the nation’s watchdog, also issued a report. The report addressed a number of deficiencies in the T-7A and the Air Force’s response to them, and its conclusion was that the company’s current schedule for completing development was likely to be delayed again. The T-7A cited in the GAO report suffered from two deficiencies that are extremely critical for a military aircraft. They were the “wingrock” and injection seat defects, which were caused by substituting computer simulations for aerodynamic testing that should have been done with mock-ups and full-scale aircraft. A wingrock defect is when an aircraft reaches a certain angle as it climbs or descends, causing the airframe to roll over, lose stability, and jerk. In military aircraft, where high maneuverability is required메이저놀이터, this defect can be devastating. “Air Force requirements specify that the airplane must be capable of climbing at high angles of attack, but the T-7A is more likely to overturn or lose stability during climbs,” the GAO said in its report, noting that the T-7A did not meet the military’s operational requirements.

From Dec. 12 to 19, the ROK Air Force conducted the first half of the ’23 Soaring Eagle, a large-scale, full-scale air combat exercise, at the 29th Tactical Development and Training Squadron in Cheongju Province. Pictured here are the pilots after completing their mission. Courtesy of Yonhap Air Force

Wing Lock-Injection Seat Problem… Cost Boeing $1.1 Billion

Of course, Boeing claims the problem can be fixed with software improvements, but the GAO cited reports from Air Force engineers that it will be at least two years behind the scheduled completion date. This would push the T-7A’s completion date beyond 2025-2026, with production pushed back to 2027-2028. This is an unacceptable schedule for the U.S. Air Force, which is already operating the T-38 to its limits.

The GAO report also highlighted the issue of faulty injection seats. The existing injection system was found to be overloaded with explosives, causing an explosion of pressure inside the canopy when the ejection lever is pulled, resulting in a 20 percent chance of concussion for the pilot. The T-7A’s improved injection system reduces the amount of explosives, but it does not completely shatter the canopy glass, and the shrapnel has been shown to seriously injure pilots. Even if concussions and shrapnel injuries were avoided, the rockets in the injection seats could malfunction, accelerating the seats even after the parachutes deployed.

Wing lock issues can cause unstable maneuvers

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