Procurement: A Neighborhood Enterprise


August 3, 2017: In Thailand the military is in a hurry to rebuild their armed forces after many decades of tight defense budgets and little public support. The Thai procurement officials want to buy locally and obtain stuff that will last. Thus in mid-2017 Thailand ordered another eight South Korean T-50 trainer aircraft, for $33 million each (including training, spare parts, and some tech support). Thailand had ordered four T-50s in 2015 with an option to buy more at about the same price and with some modifications (as the T-50TH) to suit specific local needs. The primary need was to replace 54 similar aircraft (19 Alpha jets and 35 L39s) purchased in the early 1980s to serve as jet trainers and light attack aircraft. These older aircraft are worn out, most are not operational and those that can still fly are used mainly for training. The T-50 is more effective as a jet trainer because Thailand uses more modern warplanes, mainly the F-16.

The single engine, two seat T-50 can also be used for combat with about $10 million worth of additions and upgrades. The South Korean designed and manufactured T-50 jet trainer was developed after more than a decade of effort at a 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 TA-50, a combat aircraft. This version carries a 20mm auto-cannon and up to 4.5 tons of smart bombs and missiles plus electronics to make all that work. The T-50 can stay in the air about four hours per sortie and has a service life of 8,000 flight hours. By mid-2017 over 240 T-50s had been delivered or were on order.

South Korea is new to the jet trainer business and has had to hustle to get sales against several long-established manufacturers. South Korea has lost some sales because it has to import some key components for the T-50. In late 2015 the United States blocked an effort by Uzbekistan to buy twelve T-50s. The United States was able to block the sale because the aircraft uses American jet engines and a lot of American electronics. All this stuff requires American permission before it can be exported as part of an aircraft. Normally this is not a problem. Indonesia, Iraq, the Philippines and Thailand have also bought the T-50s with no problem. None of those countries pose any technology theft risks. Uzbekistan however has close military, political and economic ties to Russia and China. Around the same time similar concerns also led to the refusal of the United States to transfer several key military technologies so South Korea could build the locally designed KFX jet fighter. The refusal was because of American security concerns. This is more of a problem in Asia as East Asian nations (like Japan several times in the past) have proved vulnerable to China spies seeking to obtain key military technologies. Not just the specifications but the more difficult to obtain details of actually manufacturing such tech. Most of the technologies the U.S. will not give South Korea access to are available from few sources, or only the United States. South Korea is working around those restrictions to keep the KFX program going.


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