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Concern rises over T-50 export after U.S. deferral

The U.S. Defense Acquisition Board’s deferral last week of its decision on whether to acquire new trainer jets from overseas has prompted concern here about the export of Korea’s T-50 supersonic aircraft.

The Korean aviation industry and government officials paid keen attention to what decision the DAB would make at its Oct. 21 session. They believe that the T-50 is one of the strongest contenders for the U.S. trainer procurement project.

With technological assistance from U.S. defense giant Lockheed Martin, Korea Aerospace Industries, the country’s sole aircraft maker, developed the T-50, which has a maximum speed of Mach 1.5 with a maximum range of 800 nautical miles.

“We understand that the U.S. has deferred its decision so as to review their distribution of resources while taking into account its defense budget cuts,” an official at the Defense Acquisition Program Administration said, declining to be named.

“It is expected that the U.S. will convene a DAB session again next year.”

The U.S. defense budget faces cuts of up to $350 billion over the next decade as its government seeks to carry out a deficit reduction plan.

For Korea, the U.S. is the biggest potential market as its military is seeking to secure up to around 500 trainer jets.

Experts estimate that the global demand for trainer jets over the next three decades will amount to around 3,300 units. The KAI hopes to export around 1,000 trainer jets during that period.

In May, it signed a $400 million contract with Indonesia to sell 16 T-50s, becoming the world’s sixth country to export supersonic aircraft. Along with the U.S., Korea is striving to sell the trainer jet to the United Arab Emirates, Israel, Iraq and Poland.

KAI officials expected that the U.S. would carry out the procurement project as scheduled.

“Like all other acquisition programs, any program could face delays and we also pursue any projects with considerations that they could face some postponements. It is not like the project was canceled or anything,” a KAI official told The Korea Herald, declining to be named.

“Yes, the U.S. market is crucial given its size and other factors. Considering the U.S. has the best aircraft technology, should the U.S. choose to purchase the T-50, other countries would think of it as safe.”

In a recent meeting with reporters, Lockheed Martin officials expressed confidence that the T-50 will win in the T-X competition in the U.S. The U.S. Air Force is also studying the M-346 of Italy and the Hawk 128 from Britain as possible candidates.

“We believe T-50 has a very strong chance of winning because of its operational status. We have a long history of working together, and there is no doubt we can form an opportunity here,” Michael R. Griswold, international vice president of T-50 Business Development at LM, said.

In order to strengthen aerial defense capabilities and develop the local aviation industry, Korea had carried out the T-50 development project ―- worth 2.2 trillion won ($1.96 billion) ―- in cooperation with Lockheed over about eight years starting in 1997.

The Seoul government shouldered 70 percent of the development cost, with KAI and Lockheed covering 17 percent and 13 percent of the cost, respectively. With the first jet delivered to the Korean Air Force in 2005, 50 T-50s are now in operation.

By Song Sang-ho (sshluck@heraldcorp.com)
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