Indonesia Likely to Drop French Rafale Plans: Investing in South Korea’s Promising KF-21 Fifth Generation Fighter

South Korea’s KF-21 fifth generation fighter is expected to be a strong performer on global export markets, and since its first flight in July has seen renewed interest from abroad. Although using relatively weak engines and having a more limited flight performance than leading fifth generation designs such as China’s J-20, the aircraft’s simple maintenance needs and low operational costs mean even fleets with smaller budgets are expected to be able to afford it due to its comparable lifetime costs to medium weight fourth generation fighters such as the F-18E/F, Rafale or Eurofighter. Although the KF-21 was initially pursued as a joint program between South Korea and Indonesia, the latter’s lack of payments or contributions for the last five years raised questions regarding its commitment. With Jakarta seemingly reassured by the fast progress the program has made, Indonesian Deputy Defence Minister Muhammad Herindra in late September reaffirmed commitment the country’s commitment to the program highlighting that the fighter could have strategic value. He expressed hopes for a tripling of Indonesian engineering personnel working on the program by the end of the year. 

In the first week of October it was confirmed that Indonesia would pay 6 million dollars in arrears for the KF-21 program, and would seek to pay 33 million more in 2023. Although this represented less than 10 percent of the 800 billion won accumulated in Jakarta’s arrears to Seoul in the KF-21 program, it was nevertheless a promising step forward. The country was intended to cover 20 percent of development costs as a minor partner, although delays have been ongoing since 2017. While Indonesia in February indicated that it would acquire 42 Rafale jets from France to form its new generation of fighters, investment in the KF-21 could well mean that such plans will not materialise since the Korean fighter is expected to offer a far superior performance at a lower cost. The Rafale is a ‘4+ generation’ fighter which first flew during the Cold War in 1986, 36 years before the KF-21, and while lacking the Korean fighter’s stealth capabilities it also uses weaker engines and does not have access to derivatives of the Taurus cruise missile. Both are expected to use the Meteor as their primary air to air armament, which is the only field of performance aside from avionics where the French fighter will match the Korean one. Strategic partnership between Seoul and Jakarta, and the fact that Indonesia already operates Korean T-50 trainers, since adapted for combat use, are expected to further press Jakarta to favour the KF-21 particularly due to its status as a program partner rather than a client.