Heavy (or rather, light) Metal in the South, Pt. 5 – The Korean Bird Appears

While a relatively minor part of the framework agreement, what surprised defence analysts most was not the huge armour numbers, but the decision by Poland to buy the FA-50 Fighting Eagle light fighter for their Air Force.

A ROKAF FA-50 in front of two USAF A-10. The FA-50 is a true light fighter rather than an armed trainer, and while it might feel like an unlikely fit for Poland, there aren’t in fact many other options on the table. Source: ROKAF FB

The idea of the light fighter is not new. During the Cold War the complexity and cost of top-end fighters rose quickly, and in addition there was a general growth in size which added to operating costs. This was slowly crowding out defence budgets, and while it at first led simply to smaller numbers, by the time the F-4 Phantom came around it was already clear many countries were unable to afford the gold standard. By the time the F-14 Tomcat and F-15 Eagle came along, the number had dropped steadily towards zero. The answer was a lighter and cheaper fighter that could be used to keep numbers at an acceptable level. The most prolific was the F-5 Freedom Fighter/Tiger II-family out of Northrop, which saw huge success on the export market and is still found in (limited) use in a respectable number of air forces. In somewhat the same vein, the F-16 emerged out of the Lightweight Fighter Program which originally envisioned a light and cheap dogfighter able to fill out the numbers as the high-end F-15 grew in size and cost.

However, before the aircraft even was ordered the light Sidewinder-armed dayfighter had turned into a multirole aircraft, and if you state that the F-16s rolling off the production line today are ‘cheap and light’ the reply will likely be ‘compared to what?’ This is part of the issue Poland is facing, being one of the major F-16 users in Europe, and with an ageing fleet of MiG-29 and Su-22 complementing their F-16s. These are to be backed up by 32 F-35A which will start arriving in-country by 2026, but that is only part of the answer. The F-16 fleet is modern, consisting of a total of 48 F-16C and -16D versions of the Block 52 standard. The MiG-29A (9.12) and Su-22M4 that are found are so in dwindling numbers, from original fleets numbering some 40 MiG-29 and some 30 Su-22 (including small numbers of two-seaters of both) around twenty MiG-29 and just over a dozen Su-22 remain in service. Neither have received any serious upgrades, and largely still represent the finest of Soviet engineering from the first half of the 80’s. For those wondering what that means, this interview with an ex-Luftwaffe pilot who flew the aircraft inherited from DDR (and which eventually went to Poland) nicely illustrate the difference between a MiG-29 and anything western.

The F-35A as a MiG-29-replacement should come with a sticker warning for serious cultural shock for the pilots doing the transition, it is a revolutionary step up in capability that is difficult to overstate. 32 fighters replacing the current fleet of 20+ MiG-29s also mean that Poland is one of few air forces to get more F-35A than the number of aircraft they are replacing, so nice job on that one. However, that still leaves the Su-22 fleet, which while only providing rudimentary fair-weather air to ground capability (it’s never a good sign when the fact sheet at ‘Radar’ just goes ‘Nope’) still represent 15-20 % of the total Polish fast jet fleet when it comes to numbers.

The obvious replacement would be more F-16 or F-35, but both are costly and delivery times are not great – Lockheed Martin is also famously not overly interested in selling F-16s to potential F-35-customers, and Poland is obviously in that category. The market for used aircraft is also largely dried up, and while the airframes floating around would certainly be interesting to Ukraine, they are in most cases beat up to the extent that they don’t offer the kind of long-term solution the Polish Air Force is looking for.

So for the final time in this series of posts: Enter the Republic of Korea.

ROKAF’s ‘Black Eagles’ brought the T-50 trainer version to Poland for a show earlier this year in anticipation of the FA-50 coming to Poland next year. Source: Polish Air Force/4 Skrzydło Lotnictwa Szkolnego FB

Poland has already inked a contract for the Italian M-346 advanced trainer, half-sibling to the Yak-130 and fierce rival to the Korean KAI T-50 Golden Eagle. As such, an order for the Korean trainer seemed as unlikely as, well, an order for a 1,000 K2 Black Panther tanks. An order for a light fighter, on the other hand, is something else.

The idea to take an advanced trainer, put a radar in the nose (and often strip out one of the seats) and tailor it to the light multirole fighter-role is not new. The Hawk 200 based on the hugely successful trainer is probably the most famous one, having score orders for between 12 and 23 fighters from three countries (Oman, Indonesia, Malaysia), but closer to home the Czech Aero L-159 ALCA has also reached series production. The FA-50 is however significantly larger than the other two (in fact, the maximum take-off weight is higher than the earlier mentioned F-5E Tiger II at 13.5 tons compared to 11.1 tons), giving it higher combat potential than the earlier two (as well as retaining the second seat, allowing it to continue in the advanced training role as well). This is significant, as air combat is one of the more technical domains of combat, and as opposed to firearms or guns which have a tendency to provide useful service long after having been state of the art, in air combat not having modern equipment is often comparable to fighting with one arm behind your back – and usually end up with you being punched in the face.

So is that the case for Poland as well? The Polish order is planned to be split into two batches, the first 12 of which will be the current Block 10 standard which provide a basic initial operational capability through the usage of AGM-65 Maverick air-to-ground missiles, JDAM, and unguided Mk 80-series of bombs, as well as the older AIM-9L/M-series of missiles for self-defence.

Let’s be clear, Block 10 is not an impressive combat aircraft, and while still light-years better than the Su-22, serious questions can be raised about its combat value on the modern battlefield. However, this is just a temporary stop, before the train moves on at speed to the eventual destination: FA-50PL Block 20.

If you feel like you’ve read this before, yes, you have. Quick delivery of a basic version, followed by a tailored version developed to meet Polish needs following in the next few years, as well as an upgrade of the earlier delivered ones to the new baseline.

The FA-50PL Block will be a rather more serious beast, including a new AESA-radar, Link 16, NATO-standard IFF, AIM-120 AMRAAM giving it a beyond visual range capability, AIM-9X Sidewinders replacing the older L/M-versions, a Sniper targeting pod (there’s some discussion about whether this is already integrated on the Block 10, but the answer seems to be ‘No’), as well more advanced air-to-ground munitions. Exactly which weapons are to be included is uncertain, but earlier there has been talk about integrating e.g. the JSM or the Korean lightweight version of the KEPD-350 Taurus – the KEPD-350K-2. In essence, the end-result will be an aircraft with F-16-like capability in a smaller package (now, exactly which F-16 it will be comparable to is up to debate). Being lighter the weapons load will be reduced, the radar is likely to be shorter-legged and with lesser power and cooling, giving it overall worse performance, and so forth. However, at the same time the vast majority of F-16s running around are not of the latest generation, so everything depends on your yardstick. What is important to understand is that this is not your armed trainer, a concept which has proved to be of dubious value in a high-intensity conflict (even in the case of the Israelis in the Six-Day War they had to pull their Fouga CM.170 Magisters from combat despite enjoying total air superiority as the losses were too high). Instead, the FA-50 sports the same afterburning GE F404 as is found in the F/A-18 Hornet, giving the small fighter over 78 kN of thrust and a thrust to weight ratio of 0.59 at maximum take-off and 0.90 at full fuel – comparable to the 0.57 and 0.84 for the F-35A or 0.69 and 1.10 for the F-16 Block 52.

The FA-50PL will start arriving in Poland by 2025, and over the next two-three years a total of 36 aircraft will be added to the inventory. Together with the 12 Block 10 – which will be upgraded to ensure a single standard for all Polish FA-50 – that will make 48 light fighters to equip a total of three squadrons. In other words, the current fleet of F-16 (48 aircraft), MiG-29 (~20), and  Su-22 (~15) will be converted into a mix of F-16 (still 48 aircraft), F-35A (32), and FA-50PL (48), giving both a serious increase in capability as well as in numbers (to be honest, even the simple FA-50 Block 10 with AIM-9M might be a closer fought fight against the MiG-29A with R-27 than a quick glance at the numbers might indicate).

Two Polish M-346, an aircraft that apparently isn’t evoking warm feelings in the Polish Air Force despite its solid track record on the export market. Source: Polish Air Force/4 Skrzydło Lotnictwa Szkolnego FB

But again, why the FA-50PL? This interview with Polish defence minister Mariusz Błaszczak gives a quite clear picture of the reasoning behind the decision. The first thing he brings up is how close the FA-50 is to the F-16, and the possibility to introduce a training path for F-16 pilots that passes through the FA-50 – similarly to ROKAF. Apparently the minister is not happy with the M-346 in Polish service, which is interesting to note. The fact that Lockheed Martin isn’t selling F-16s to Poland, and their long delivery times to Slovakia are also ruling out additional orders for the Viper, as at the same time the MiG-29 and Su-22 have become safety hazards for the Polish fighter pilots due to their age. As such, the FA-50 offer a unique combination of training opportunities as well as multirole combat capability at a relatively low cost (it is notable that the Su-22 has been doing some work that would correspond to lead-in fighter training in the later years). But as is the case with the tanks and artillery, it is also important to look at the industrial aspect of the framework agreement. Poland has a long history of a domestic aviation industry, but the jet-side of things have not seen much in the way of development in recent years. The Koreans are here as well promising a serious technology transfer and aiding the Polish industry in setting up a service centre, and in the future looms the Korean stealth fighter, the KF-21 Boramae. Polish involvement in that program is certainly a possibility given the current trend. But it is also notable that there are plans for an additional two multirole squadrons for the Polish Air Force in the near-future. In the interview the possibility of additional F-35A or F-15 Eagles is discussed, while the KF-21 is “monitored”. However, as noted plans can change quickly in the Polish armed forces (and the F-15 feels about as unlikely as the KF-21 to be honest).

All in all, while the FA-50 wasn’t an obvious choice, a combination of tight schedules, Lockheed Martin-policy, industrial considerations, unhappy feelings about the M-346, and old Soviet airframes falling out of the skies all conspired to make it one of the only options left in the game (I hear you Swedish followers asking about the Gripen, but the lack of an JAS 39F outside of Brazil likely is an issue). And suddenly, the serious light fighter is staging a comeback in Europe.