The competition to build South Korea’s proposed KF-X indigenous fighter will probably come down to price, putting Korean Airlines (KAL) at an advantage, according to a government official.

If it persists with its bid, KAL may well be able to undercut Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI) by exploiting technology from Boeing, says the official, who is closely involved with the industry.

But a small online news service reports that Boeing has given up supporting KAL’s bid for KF-X. Airbus has also been working with KAL and Boeing, to provide technology that the U.S. company cannot legally export, industry officials have previously told Aviation Week.

The defense ministry requested proposals for the program on Dec. 23, with KAI and KAL the only possible bidders. Parliament has not approved full-scale development.

Proposals must meet performance requirements, after which an assessment will be based on the technological capabilities of the bidders and the price, the government official says. Of the maximum 100 assessment points, 80 will be based on the technological capabilities of the bidders.

That would ordinarily favor KAI, the South Korean manufacturer with the largest engineering force. But KAL, whose manufacturing division mostly builds to foreign blueprints, can probably argue that outside support bridges the technological gap between it and KAI, says the official, who is familiar with the competition and government assessment processes. If KAL and KAI are judged technically equal, then the issue will come down to the 20 points based on price, where KAL could have a strong advantage.

KAL appears to be proposing a design based on the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, which industry officials say Boeing is pushing with backing from Airbus. Any such proposal should be developmentally cheaper than KAI’s KF-X proposal, an entirely new design prepared by the ministry’s Agency for Defense Development (ADD). The savings are not just in KAL’s having a proven Boeing design to work from, but also in the database of aerodynamic, signature and other information that Boeing and Airbus have available.

The ministry’s request for proposals requires a new design. But a KAL offer based on the Super Hornet could conceivably be changed enough to be proposed as being new yet resting on risk-reducing engineering heritage.

The ministry is not demanding a stealthy design, the government official says. That is probably because the ADD has decided not to incorporate low radar signature into the initial version of its design, even though its external shape would offer a foundation for future stealth.

It is not known whether the ministry is requiring a foundation stealth shape. If so, it could be provided in a proposal based on the Super Hornet, since Boeing has for more than 20 years studied such developments. Airbus should be able to offer stealth technology that Boeing may not.

The South Korean online news service News1 reports that Boeing has given up its KF-X effort, judging that KAL cannot win. The immense damage done to KAL’s reputation in a recent public relations disaster explains the decision, a source tells News1.

While unverified, this is quite plausible, because of macadamia nuts. Hyuna Cho, the daughter of KAL Chairman Yangho Cho, ordered her Korean Air flight back to the departure gate at New York last month because she was dissatisfied with a cabin attendant serving macadamia nuts to her in a plastic bag instead of on a plate. Internationally, the incident was regarded as hilarious or ridiculous, but in South Korea it has become the center of political attention, a corporate disgrace that has highlighted the excesses of the families who run the country’s dominant conglomerates.

In short, KAL’s name is mud. Its selection for KF-X would be highly unpopular.

This may result in the stealth version of the Super Hornet being the first fighter shot down by macadamia nuts.


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