KAI, the Air Force and the South Korean National Institute of Science and Technology plan to develop sixth-generation technologies to address threats beyond 2035, many of which will be incorporated into the KF-21 Boramae. While the KF-21 Boramae is a very new 4.5 Gen fighter, which had its rollout this year, it was designed from the ground up with the ability to evolve to achieve the capabilities of 5th Gen dot aircraft such as the F-35 and the F-22.
But the new 6th Gen fighters from the US (NGAD and F / A-XX programs), Europe (Tempest and FCAS) and Japan (FX program) are already on the horizon, which would be taking flight from 2030 and they will dominate the skies beyond 2040.
Although Korea was able to finish, almost alone, the prototype and the assembly line of the KF-21, which is in itself a great achievement, and that it still has years of development to rub shoulders with the F-35, the truth is that future technologies that would bring the Boramae closer to the capabilities of a 6th Gen fighter are already being explored.
Generations… “It’s evolution, baby!”
What capabilities and characteristics define a fighter as of one generation or another? These are distinctions that need to be known to understand the evolutionary path of fighter aircraft.
- 1st Generation:they are among the first fighters equipped with jet engines, such as the Messerschmitt Me 262, Gloter Meteor, F-86 Saber or the MiG-15.
- 2nd Generation:they are the first supersonic fighters, incorporating the first medium-effective short-range air-to-air missiles, such as the MiG-19 and the F-100 Super Sabre.
- 3rd Generation:they are characterized by the use of a high-performance multipurpose radar, and the ability to fire medium-range air-to-air missiles, such as the F-4 Phantom or the MiG-23.
- 4th Generation: they are airplanes that have much better radars, with a true ability to find and attack targets that fly close to the ground and because of the use of computers to control their flight (fly-by wire). Examples of them are the F-15, MiG-29 and Mirage 2000.
- 4+,4++ o 4.5 Generation: it is an intermediate generation of aircraft, which, based on 4th Gen fighters, incorporate software, electronics and a decrease in their radar signature, typical of later generation aircraft. Some examples are the Gripen E / F, Rafale, F-15EX, F-16 Block 70, Chengdu J-10C.
- 5th Generation: its main characteristics are the very low radar signature and the data fusion capacity. The clearest examples and their most representative exponents are the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Lightining II.
While there is no unambiguous definition of the distinctions between the generations of fighters, those mentioned above are the most consensual.
The 6th Gen and how far the KF-21 can go
According to the Korean site Newsis, the technologies that are beginning to be studied in South Korea for the next generation fighters are:
- Artificial intelligence
- Laser weapons
- Improvements in human-machine fusion
- Flight capacity to mach 3 or more
- Full integration within a combat network
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is perhaps the most important and disruptive technology of all. Within the 4.5 and 5 Gen fighters, there are already rudimentary AI and learning algorithms in increasing use.
By 2035, the AI ??should be fully incorporated into the fighters, and it would be able to inform the pilot about everything relevant within the battlefield, substantially improving situational awareness. It will also take over analysis and warfare within the electromagnetic spectrum and allow pilots to control aerial combat vehicles (Loyal Wingman, SkyBorg, Hunter B) to help them complete their mission.
After 2045, AI is already expected to have free will, with information processing capacity similar to that of 1,000 human brains, and would control drones autonomously, without human supervision.
South Korea is working on these technologies, and in the future the KF-21 will incorporate the ability to link and direct drones in its missions, as an important force multiplier.
Later on, it makes sense for Korea to develop a new unmanned aerial combat system that meets several of the requirements of a 6th Gen fighter, which will complement and protect the Boramae, but will also perform its own missions.
The Air Force of the Republic of Korea (ROKAF) is carrying out a study precisely in this sense, to define the operational requirements for its air combat capacity for the next 15 years.
The ROKAF seeks to build a fighting force that reflects the changes in weapons systems and military strategic concepts that are accelerating with the innovative development of science and technology.
A central aspect of this study will be to define the characteristics of the future sixth generation unmanned aerial combat system.
Air Force Deputy Chief of Staff Jeong Sang-hwa said: «The concept of complex manned and unmanned operation is predicted to be essential for the sixth generation fighters that will appear in the future. Unmanned fighters will become, when they operate in a complex way, into a powerful force that not only ensures faster air superiority, but also guarantees victory by gaining an advantage in battlefield situation awareness and increasing the survivability of friendly manned fighters.»
This technology will also have civil applications, where the majority of future urban mobility air vehicles (UAM) are expected to be autonomous.
The laser weapon
«To avoid a power gap before the introduction of sixth-generation fighters, a project to gradually increase power (combat) is necessary, such as installing laser weapons on KF-21 fighters,» said Jeon Jeon-bae, Lieutenant Colonel of Defense Intelligence Headquarters of the Ministry of National Defense.
The advantages of laser weaponry are obvious. Attacking at the speed of light (more than 300,000 km / s) the chances of evasion are null; Earth’s gravity has almost no impact on the laser, which makes the trajectory calculation unnecessary; and does not waste munition.
South Korea is already testing a 20kW laser beam demonstrator that was able to pass through an iron plate 1 km away. The target used in the demonstration was made of the same material as North Korea’s Nodong missile.
And this is important because one of the main uses that is envisaged for laser defense is to shoot down enemy drones, rockets and missiles. The US is working on a laser pod for its fighters, and Israel is close to integrating it into its drones to add another layer of cover to its air defense and anti-missile complex.
Lieutenant Colonel Jeon comments on this: “The laser can rapidly destroy military installations and enemy fighters in real time. If an enemy ballistic missile is fired, the laser can be used to intercept it in the ascending stage.»
Will the KF-21 Boramae ever match a 6th Gen fighter?
The answer is NO, although it could evolve to incorporate various next-generation capabilities.
As we said, the integration of autonomous combat systems such as Loyal Wingman, AI and laser weapons is already being considered.
For this, the KF-21 must experience a progressive increase in its computational capacity, obtaining and processing information. This implies that the Korean fighter will experience a significant increase in its network combat capacity and situational awareness for the pilot.
These are almost all the components that are expected for a next generation fighter, minus one, the speed.
Future 6th gen fighters feature a more polished, even aggressive aerodynamic design. Although its capacity for discretion against enemy sensors is still important, the designs show the accent will be placed on speed and range performance, unlike fighters such as the F-35.
And to complement and enhance those designs, new generation engines are being developed, which will not only be more powerful, but will improve their performance handling throughout the flight envelope, as well as a much greater heat dissipation capacity.
The KF-21 Boramae does not have a similar design, as it was thought to prioritize stealth capabilities, like the F-35. And for now it does not have a 6th generation engine, despite mounting the excellent GE F-414.
So there are inexorable limitations on how much the Korean fighter can evolve. However, if all the aforementioned elements are incorporated, it is going to remain a very competitive weapon system for decades to come.The KF-21 is just beginning to write its history, and it seems that it will be long and particular. Because there are many fighters that evolved from the 4th generation to the 4.5 Gen, and as the F-35, Su-57 and J-20 are modernized, they will come to be considered 5.5 Gen. But the Boramae will be the only fighter that being born from generation 4.5, have the potential to reach the future 5.5 Gen.