Poland and South Korea are reportedly close to finalising a major arms deal which will include the sale of 48 Korean F-50 lightweight fighter jets as well as 850 tanks and self propelled artillery pieces, with the sale marking the latest of several successes for the aircraft which first flew in 2002 and has seen orders from over half a dozen countries in both combat and trainer variants. The F-50 is a derivative of the T-50 trainer, which in terms of combat capabilities is considered the most capable in the world outside Taiwan and the Chinese mainland, and inherits the trainer’s low operational costs and ease of maintenance while improving its lethality considerably. With Taiwan’s competing Brave Eagle jet having yet to materialise, the T-50 is widely considered the most advanced trainer produced to be compatible with U.S. and NATO hardware, leading the U.S. Air Force among others to show strong interest in acquisitions. F-50 orders come as Poland seeks to maximise its combat potential in the face of growing tensions with neighbouring Russia, and as retirement of existing squadrons of Su-22 and MiG-29 fighters acquired from the Soviet Union is expected in the near future. The T/F-50 has seen significant use of combat in the Philippines and Iraq, namely for counterinsurgency operations against Islamist militants, although its ability to meaningfully contribute to operations against a modern state militaries such as those of Russia and Belarus remains in question.
A major shortcoming of the F-50 as a modern fighter is its lack of viable beyond visual range air to air capabilities, which while sufficient on the Korean Peninsula where much of North Korea’s Air Force similarly lacks such capabilities, will be a major shortcoming in Eastern Europe with Russia’s latest air to air missiles being among the most capable in the world. Although plans to integrate the AIM-120C air to air missile onto the fighter were previously considered, with the missile having superior capabilities to those equipping most Russian and Belarusian fighter squadrons, this never materialised leaving the fighters relying solely on AIM-9 infrared guided missiles and A-50 rotary cannon. The possibility that F-50s could be modified to use such missiles in future, however, cannot be ruled out, with the possibility of equipping them with anti ship cruise missiles also having also been raised for future variants.
Reports of a large F-50 sale to Poland comes just days after South Korea conducted the maiden flight of its stealth fighter, the KF-21, which made it only the fourth country in the world to fly such an aircraft and the first to join the exclusive list since 2011 when China first flew its J-20 prototype. The F-50 sale is expected not only to inject considerable new funds into the program, which could pave the way for development of a number of proposed variants such as electronic attack jets, but could also potentially open the door to Polish acquisitions of the KF-21 as a higher end counterpart.