December 4, 2014:
In October the South Korean Air Force accepted into service the first squadron of 20 locally made FA-50 fighter-bombers. These were ordered in 2012, cost $30 million each and are equipped with South Korean, American, and Israeli electronics. The first FA-50 was delivered in 2013 and the rest arrived by mid-2014. The single engine, single seat aircraft is intended to eventually replace South Korea's aging fleet of F-5 fighters. But the first FA-50 squadron will have to show what they can do in active service.
The FA-50 is the combat version of the South Korean designed and manufactured T-50 jet trainer. This aircraft began development after 2000 and all this cost of over two billion dollars. The first test flight of the T-50 took place in 2002. The 13 ton aircraft is actually a light fighter and can fly at supersonic speeds. With some added equipment (radars and fire control) the T-50 becomes the FA-50, a combat aircraft. This version carries a 20mm auto-cannon and up to 4.5 tons of smart bombs and missiles. The T-50 can stay in the air about four hours per sortie and has a service life of 8,000 hours in the air.
Meanwhile, the F-5 is another Cold War relic that still manages to find work, especially in South Korea. Over 2,200 F-5s were built between the late 1950s and 1987. The F-5 is a 12 ton fighter roughly similar to the 1950s era MiG-21 and is a contemporary of that Russian fighter. The F-5 was built mainly for export to nations that could not afford the top-line Western fighters but did not want the MiG-21s. The F-5 is normally armed with two 20mm cannon and three tons of missiles and bombs. The FA-50 is, to many observers, an updated and much improved F-5.
Then there is the elderly F-4. South Korea has been retiring its 222 F-4s for over a decade now. Many countries continue to use F-4s because the aircraft are sturdy and still effective as bombers. Of the 5,195 F-4s manufactured, some eight percent are still in service, plus a hundred converted to be unmanned targets for the U.S. Air Force. South Korea still has 68 F-4Es in service. The F-4 is a 1950s design that, for its day, was quite advanced. The two seat, 28 ton F-4 is still a credible fighter bomber, able to carry eight tons of bombs and missiles. Normal combat radius is about 700 kilometers. The average sortie lasts about two hours. The F-4 was also one of the first jet fighters to be quite safe to fly. The F-4 has been in service for over half a century and will probably hit 60 before the last of them are gone. South Korea wants to retire its F-4s before that day comes and put into service a local design that will last as long.