FA-50 is a very popular light combat aircraft in Southeast Asia, currently serving in the Indonesian, Thai and Philippine air forces.
Training jet fighters are especially important in the Air Force of many countries to train the next generation of pilots to use modern fighters. Countries in Southeast Asia are operating a variety of training fighters such as L-39, JL-7, Yak-130, … and especially popular is the KAI T-50/FA-50 series. The FA-50 was designed as a jet trainer, and can also be equipped to be an advanced supersonic light fighter.
KAI T-50 or Golden Eagle developed by Korea Aerospace Industries in partnership with Lockheed Martin. Development began in the late 1990s, and its maiden flight occurred in 2002. The aircraft entered active service with the Republic of Korea Air Force in 2005. The resulting design is a highly modified derivative of the Lockheed Martin F-16 “Fighting Falcon”, of which KAI license-builds as the “KF-16”.
Much like the F-16 Fighting Falcon before it, the FA-50 features a large glass canopy, a single large-area vertical tail fin and a single turbofan powerplant in the General Electric F404 series. The fighter has seating for two pilots in a tandem arrangement. The high-mounted canopy developed by Hankuk Fiber is applied with stretched acrylic, providing the pilots good visibility.
The FA-50 uses a single General Electric F404-102 turbofan engine license-produced by Samsung Techwin, upgraded with a FADEC system jointly developed by General Electric and KAI. The aircraft has a maximum speed of Mach 1.5. Its engine produces a maximum of 78.7 kN of thrust with afterburner.
The FA-50 is equipped with a Honeywell H-764G embedded global positioning navigation system and HG9550 radar altimeter. The aircraft is the first trainer to feature triple-redundant digital fly-by-wire controls. The cockpit panels, switches, and joysticks are produced by South Korea’s FirsTec and Sungjin Techwin, head-up display by DoDaaM Systems, and multi-function display by Samsung Thales.
The FA-50 is armed with a three-barrel cannon version of the M61 Vulcan mounted internally behind the cockpit, which fires linkless 20 mm ammunition. Wingtip rails can accommodate the AIM-9 Sidewinder missile, and a variety of additional weapons can be mounted to underwing hardpoints. Compatible air-to-surface weapons include the AGM-65 Maverick missile, Hydra 70 and LOGIR rocket launchers, CBU-58 and Mk-20 cluster bombs, and Mk-82, 83, and 84 general-purpose bombs.
The FA-50 can be externally fitted with Rafael’s Sky Shield or LIG Nex1’s ALQ-200K ECM pods, Sniper or LITENING targeting pods, and Condor 2 reconnaissance pods to further improve the fighter’s electronic warfare, reconnaissance, and targeting capabilities. FA-50 has provisions for, but does not yet integrate, Python and Derby missiles, also produced by Rafael, and other anti-ship missiles, stand-off weapons, and sensors to be domestically developed by Korea.
The first country in Southeast Asia to put into use the KAI T-50 fighter is Indonesia. In May 2011, Indonesia signed a contract to order 16 T-50 trainer aircraft for US$400 million. The aircraft is to feature weapons pylons and gun modules, enabling light attack capabilities. The Golden Eagles are to replace the Hawk Mk 53 in Indonesian Air Force service. Indonesia’s version has been designated T-50i. In July 2021, KAI has confirmed that it has been awarded a contract to supply another batch of T-50s to the Indonesia. The contract is said to be worth US$240 million and includes 6 T-50s along with support and logistics package for aircraft operations.
In 2017, Thailand was the second country in the region to sign a contract worth more than $250 million to buy new T-50 trainers similar to Indonesia. Currently, 4 units have been handed over by the partner and according to information, Thailand has continued to order 8 more.
The Philippines, after many years without any jet fighters in service, has also chosen a contract to buy a new squadron of 12 F/A-50 fighters from South Korea with a value of $420 million in the mid-2010s. The F/A-50 is the combat version of the KAI T-50 trainer with stronger combat capabilities instead of training-oriented like the T-50. However, the Philippines is still extremely satisfied with this fighter line and has planned to buy more to improve the combat capabilities of the Air Force.
In general, KAI T-50/FA-50 is a relatively good multi-purpose trainer and light attack fighter, suitable for countries with a tradition of using the US – NATO fighter system and is easy to use, reliable and relatively inexpensive.