South Korean FA-50 light attack aircraft have outplayed India’s Tejas fighter jets as Seoul inked a deal to export 18 Lead-in-Trainer-Light Combat Aircraft (FLIT-LCA) to Malaysia.
The announcement was made by Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI), South Korea’s sole aircraft manufacturer, on February 24. According to KAI, the contract is valued at 1.2 trillion won ($920 million), and delivery will start in 2026.
HAL had submitted a proposal to the Malaysian Ministry of Defence for the supply of 18 Fighter Lead-in Trainer (FLIT) LCAs against a global tender which was floated by the Royal Malaysian Air force (RMFA) in 2021. India’s LCA Tejas and Korea’s FA-50 were selected among eight nations that responded to the RMFA. Other participants included the Sino-Pakistani JF-17, the Russian Yak-130, and the Italian M-346 from Leonardo.
Why did Malaysia choose FA-50 over LCA Tejas?
Air firepower: LCA Tejas and FA-50
Both LCA Tejas and KAI’s FA-50 are classified under the light attack combat aircraft. Light attack fighter jets are fast becoming the choice of aircraft for air forces across the world, especially from Asia, Africa and Latin America. The reason is the modest size and its lightweight and compact structural advantages which cut across the low radar signature.
The FA-50 is the final outcome of the joint development with Lockheed Martin. The advanced trainer was created from the design concepts and technology of the F-16, which KAI manufactures locally under license as the KF-16. In fact, Korea’s KAI does position its FA-50 in line with F-16 but at a lower cost. The F-16 belongs to the fourth generation of fighter aircraft and the first operational F-16A was delivered in January 1979 to the 388th Tactical Fighter Wing at Hill Air Force Base, Utah. The F-16’s structural and wiring provisions and systems architecture offer immense flexibility to perform precision strikes, night attack and beyond-visual-range interception missions.
In a similar class, the LCA Tejas is known for its advanced digital avionics system integrated with advanced composite structures. The complex composite materials make it the smallest and lightest modern supersonic combat aircraft in its class. Tejas is fully capable of carrying a load of eight to nine tonnes. It can fly with as many weapons and missiles as Sukhoi, which weighs more. With air firepower, its speed is best in class. The LCA Tejas can fly as fast as the speed of sound – Mach 1.6 to 1.8 – at an altitude of 52,000 feet.
What defines Tejas is the strength of its air firepower capable of holding air-to-air, air-to-surface, guided precision, and stand-off weapons. The combat capability is further supported by its long-distance beyond its visual range weapons in the air-to-air arena. In its class, Tejas is heavily loaded with weapons such as air-to-air missiles including Astra BVRAAM, Vympel R-77 and R-73. The air-to-surface missiles are Kh-59ME TV-guided stand-off missiles and Kh-59MK laser-guided stand-off missiles. On top of that Tejas has achieved a breakthrough in adding a fifth-generation Python-5 air-to-air missile to its air-to-air weapons capability.
However, the most critical is the element of open architecture computer systems that can incorporate both Russian and Western armaments. This fits well into the inventories of several countries. In comparison, LCA has a price tag of ~$28 million with a plethora of packages against the much higher cost of the Korean FA-50.
Despite matching the superiority and exceeding with greater firepower, why did Malaysia choose the Korean-made FA-50?
The geopolitics of defence
For Tejas, HAL offered a package deal for the maintenance and spares for Malaysia’s Russian-origin Sukhoi 30 fighter jets, a high-valued proposition aimed to provide critical solutions to Malaysian air force and to keep its Sukhoi combat-worthy. It is more pertinent in the current scenarios amid the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war. Malaysia operates 19 Su-20 MKM fighters which are very similar to the Su-MKI version that India operates.
In fact, HAL does have a robust assembly line for such critical parts, including engine manufacturing and overhauling under the license for R-25, R-29B, RD-33 and AL-31FP engines which power MiG-21 series, MiG-27m, MiG 29 and Su-30 MKI aircraft.
More so, India also offered its future upgrades for Tejas Mk2. Besides, India has another advanced medium combat aircraft—AMCA—under progress.
“Nobody will offer them upgrades so fast as we would offer. They will have an alternative available in Tejas Mark 2 and they can even think of AMCA,” the HAL chief had said earlier.
The key factor in international arms procurement lies in the strength of bilateral relations and it plays a crucial part in the fighter deal contract.
For South Korea, it began with President Moon Jae-in’s New Southern Policy (NSP) which he launched in 2017. The NSP has transformed its relations and brought several achievements. An export-led economy, South Korea aggressively promotes its policies with several ASEAN countries, including Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam.
Such policy thrusts have been successful in building a favourable regional environment – including deepening East Asian integration – for serving domestic and developmental needs. “The Malaysian fighter jet contract is the reflection of such relations,” said a former Indian ambassador to South Korea.
What is needed?
The silver lining is the growing defence export from India. The acceptance of Indian defence equipment is growing and what remains to be seen is the acceptance of the bigger military platforms and systems.
“India’s foreign policies and outreach must push it forward,” said a senior HAL official.
Both Argentina and Egypt have shown interest in the LCA. “We have proposed to sell 15 Tejas LCA to Argentina and another 20 to Egypt. While talks are on with the Argentine authorities, we have submitted our proposal to Egypt, which is also interested in setting up an ecosystem,” C B Ananthakrishnan, chairman and managing director of the HAL during the interaction.
HAL has also ramped up its production capacity. “We can deliver 30 aircraft out of our two assembly lines while the plan for another unit in Nashik is underway,” said a senior HAL official on the capacity building. We can easily deliver 10 to 15 aircraft on export order.
HAL has been already awarded a Rs 48,000 crore contract to supply 83 Tejas LCA Mark-1A to the IAF. “As per the contract, the first aircraft was to be delivered by February 2024 and we are on the course,” Ananthakrishnan said.
“Seize the opportunity,” as former defence secretary Ajay Kumar summed up during the interaction with the author. He was instrumental in drafting and implementing policies for defence export.