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Military 101: FA-50 Fighting Eagles Light Combat Jet Fighter Finalised For Malaysia’s RMAF

KAI F-50 FA-50 RMAF Korean Jet Fighter

The FA-50 “Fighting Eagle” which started as an advanced trainer, T-50 is a joint venture between South Korea’s Korea Aerospace Industries with US-based Lockheed Martin and is in service primarily in the South Korean Air Force with 60 fighter jets and in all South East Asia countries except Singapore & Brunei. Image source: Wikipedia

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Disclaimers: Information herein was extracted from various sources on the internet & use of ChatGPT

Malaysia’s Next LCA Finalised

After the uncertainty between the Indian-made HAL Tejas and Korean-made FA-50 light fighter jets to replace the ageing British-made Hawk-208, the final decision has been made.

Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) has announced a USD920 million deal with Malaysia’s Ministry of Defense (MINDEF) to supply 18 FA-50 light combat aircraft (LCA).

The announcement, which was made on 24 February, comprises an improved variant of the FA-50 aircraft.

Janes previously reported that this is the FA-50 Block 20 aircraft. According to KAI, the aircraft will have an “aerial refuelling function and armed expansion, in line with customer demands”.

The Block 20 can also integrate the Lockheed Martin Sniper Advanced Targeting Pod (ATP), 500 lb GBU-38 Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM), GBU-12 Paveway II laser-guided bombs, and the AGM-65 Maverick missile. The aircraft also has a Link 16 Block 2 upgrade.

The company said that the initial delivery is scheduled to take place in 2026.

The acquisition of the FA-50 is for Malaysia’s Fighter Lead-in Trainer (FLIT) programme. The project will acquire the initial batch of 18 LCA as part of the Royal Malaysian Air Force’s (RMAF’s) Capability Development 2055 plan.

According to KAI, Malaysia “is planning to introduce another 18 units of the same model as the FA-50, so the volume is expected to expand to up to 36”.

The deal follows months of negotiations between the MINDEF and several international bidders since the FLIT tender was first announced in July 2021.

(Source: Janes)

The tender for RMAF’s next light combat aircraft which will handle various missions from training, and ground attack to providing secondary air interception missions has been in place since 2019.

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The Korean-made FA-50 will also be supplied to Poland which gets the latest version i.e. the Block 20 version which is also supplied to Malaysia and other defence assets for the army. India is also considering some procurement from Korea for its military which speaks on the strength and quality of this Korean-made hardware, 

FA-50 Blocks & Usages

With this procurement, Malaysia will join South Korea, Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines that have FA-50 or variants of it in their air force but as the newest customer to FA-50, Malaysia will get the latest variant, Block 20 which comes with aerial refuelling capability & newer avionics.

Block 5

Block 5 is the original production version of the FA-50, with 12 delivered to the Philippine Air Force in 2015-2017. It features a basic avionics suite and weapons systems, including a 20mm cannon, air-to-air missiles, and air-to-surface missiles.

Philippine Air Force (Block 5): The Philippine Air Force (PAF) operates 12 FA-50s, which were delivered in 2015-2017. These aircraft are designated as Block 5 and are primarily used for air defence and ground attack missions.

Royal Thai Air Force (Block 5): The Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF) operates four FA-50s, which were delivered in 2018-2019. These aircraft are also designated as Block 5 and are used for training and light combat missions.

Block 10/10A

Block 10/10A is the most advanced version of the FA-50 currently in operation, with a total of 60 aircraft delivered to the Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF). It features advanced avionics and weapons systems, including a modernized mission computer, enhanced radar and communication systems, and an improved electronic warfare suite.

The Republic of Korea Air Force (Block 10/10A): The Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF) operates the largest fleet of FA-50s, with a total of 60 aircraft delivered as of 2021. These aircraft are designated as Block 10/10A and are equipped with advanced avionics and weapons systems.

Block 15

Block 15 is the latest version of the FA-50, with eight aircraft on order for the Indonesian Air Force. It features upgrades over the Block 10/10A, including an improved mission computer, enhanced radar and communication systems, and an improved electronic warfare suite.

Indonesia (Block 15): Indonesia has ordered eight FA-50s, which will be delivered starting in 2021. These aircraft are designated as Block 15 and are expected to be used for both training and combat missions.

Block 20

Block 20 is a proposed upgrade to the FA-50, which would include further enhancements to the avionics and weapons systems. This includes the integration of telescopic probe solution from Cobham Mission Systems for inflight refuelling capability, conformal 300-gallon fuel tank for better range, integration of mid-range air-to-surface missiles and beyond-visual-range air-to-air missiles (BVRAAMs), avionics upgrade and possible AESA radar.

KAI FA-50 RMAF Fighter Jet LCA

There are some similarities in design, avionics & weapons with the US-made F-16 Fighting Falcon, F-5E Tiger II and even the F/A-18 Hornet which makes the FA-50 a formidable fighter for RMAF. Image source: Wikipedia

FA-50 Basic Specifications

The basic specifications of FA-50 are as follows:-

Length: 43.1 ft (13.14 m)
Wingspan: 31.7 ft (9.66 m)
Height: 16.7 ft (5.09 m)

Maximum speed: Mach 1.5 (1,100 mph or 1,800 km/h)
Service ceiling: 50,000 ft (15,000 m)
Range: 1,000 nautical miles (1,852 km)

One General Electric F404-102 turbofan engine
Thrust: 17,700 lbs (78.7 kN) with afterburner

One 20mm General Dynamics M61A1 Vulcan 6-barrel rotary cannon
Up to 4,400 lbs (2,000 kg) of weapons, including:
Air-to-air missiles: AIM-9 Sidewinder, AIM-120 AMRAAM
Air-to-surface missiles: AGM-65 Maverick, AGM-84 Harpoon
Bombs: JDAM, CBU-87, CBU-97

Elbit Systems’ advanced avionics suite, including:
Head-up display (HUD) and helmet-mounted display (HMD)
Multi-mode radar
Electronic warfare (EW) suite
Link 16 datalink

FA-50 General Electric Fighter Jet Engine

An interesting fact is that Indian-made HAL Tejas also uses the same General Electric F404 jet engine but with a higher thrust capability than the one fitted to the Korean-made FA-50 fighter jet. The F404 after-burner turbofan engine was developed for the F/A-18 Hornet and also powered the F-20 Tigershark fighter jet. Image source: Wikipedia

Key Operational Advantages

Now that RMAF has settled down on FA-50 as the next light combat fighter jet, there are several advantages of operating them along with the other fighter jets in RMAF namely the 8 nimble F/A-18D Hornet multi-role fighter which was procured in 1997.

Mission, Avionics & Weapons

For start, both FA-50 and F/A-18 Hornet are capable of carrying out a variety of missions including air-to-air combat, air-to-ground strikes, and reconnaissance given the fact that they are multi-role fighters. So they can complement each other in primary and secondary roles with the same range of missiles and weapons. And on the very top, we have the top of range Russian made Sukhoi Su-30MKM

Afterburner Jet Engine

Another advantage is the fact that both FA-50 and F/A-18 Hornet are running on the same F404 after burning turbofan engines with some variations.

The RMAF’s F/A-18D Hornet is powered by 2 General Electric F404-GE-400 afterburning turbofan engines with each engine giving a maximum thrust of approximately 17,750 pounds (79 kN). The FA-50 designated for RMAF is likely to have the General Electric F404-102 after-burning turbofan engine which has a maximum thrust of 17,700 pounds.

This means some shared spare parts & expertise to ensure longer operability of the fighter jets and reduction of maintenance cost.

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Whilst there were technical & financial reasons for RMAF opting for FA-50 instead of HAL Tejas, it boils down to the fact that the FA-50 Block 20 is superior to HAL Tejas Mark 1 and it is available for deployment faster with FA-50 instead of HAL Tejas. 

Final Say

One has to say that one key driving factor for RMAF to pick FA-50 as their next light combat fighter jet is the failure of HAL to impress the RMAF selection team on the readiness of HAL Tejas Mark 2 which is superior to the trouble-riddled Mark 1 which was offered initially. It is obvious that HAL will not be able to meet the demands of the Indian Air Force which leaves no room for the export market for the time being.

Make no mistake, FA-50 is a fantastic light combat aircraft considering that it was jointly developed by Lockheed Martin who had also developed F-22 Raptor & F-35 Lightning stealth aircraft for the US.

To some extent, it is a lighter version of the heavier F/A-18D Hornet which begs the question – will RMAF consider adding more F/A-18 Hornet or even F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jets into its inventory in future? There were attempts in the past to procure second-hand F/A-18 Hornets from a Middle East country but the sale has not been concluded to date.

For the time being, the responsibility of the main frontline fighter still falls on the Russian-made Sukhoi Su-30MKM but these too will need replacement in the near future. By then perhaps we may revisit the more improved HAL Tejas Mark 2 or the next version of the multi-role fighter from Sukhoi.

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