FA-50 Golden Eagle: The Low-Cost Fighter that Might See Some Serious Combat

The newly elected president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, has been throwing shade on his country’s recently-acquired—and only—fighter jets, the South Korean FA-50 Golden Eagle.

“We only have what, two FA-50s? Why did you buy that?” he remarked in June this year. “What a waste of money. You cannot use them for anti-insurgency, which is the problem at the moment. You can only use these for ceremonial fly-by.” (The Philippine Air Force will have 12 of the supersonic fighters by 2017.)

He added: “There’s only one purpose for buying it. To match the airpower . . . At least 1-on-1 verses China. But, beyond Scarborough Shoal, son of a gambler, there are 300 Migs there. They can reach Manila in 6 minutes.”

While campaigning in March, Duterte had opined that the FA- 50s were a “waste of money” that they had no chance of taking on Chinese fighters. “I’m not going to war over Scarborough Shoal,” he commented, referring to islands off of the Philippine coast which are contested by China.

The infamously hot-tempered Duterte has recently made the news for calling U.S. President Obama “a son of a whore” in a press conference, leading to the cancellation of a scheduled meeting between the two at the ASEAN conference in Laos. Duterte was obviously more incensed at the prospect of being chided for encouraging vigilante killings of drug dealers than by China’s expansion into the waters off of his island nation’s shores.

These seemingly unrelated incidents actually point to a similar dynamic in play: the new Asian leader is wary of being drawn into an unofficial American-led alliance to counter Chinese expansion in the Pacific Ocean. He would prefer to avoid confronting Beijing, and redirect the significant military expenditures on anti-drug and anti-insurgent campaigns.

China’s recent aggressive expansion in the waters of the South China Sea is based on the so-called Nine-Dash Line. In the case of the Philippines, the dispute concerns both the Spratly Islands (also claimed by Vietnam) and Scarborough Shoal, which lies over 200 kilometers East of the main Philippine island of Luzon and over 1,000 kilometers southeast of China’s Hainan island. You can to judge the fairness of the “Nine-Dash line” for yourself by considering the map here.

China’s population exceeds that of the rest of the East Asian countries combined. Nonetheless, Japan and South Korea have little intention of dancing to China’s tune, and Vietnam, for historical reasons, is highly sensitive to perceived bossiness from its northern neighbor. The Philippines’ previous president, Benigno Aquino, had pursued plans to contest the Chinese claims to nearby waters and modernize the Philippine armed forces with U.S. assistance. Recently, a tribunal finally ruled against the Chinese claims in the South China Sea, though Beijing had earlier indicated it would not abide by its decision.

However, Duterte thinks money invested in countering China is wasted in a futile effort, and his country would be better served by taking a softer stance with an important trading partner, while redirecting spending towards internal security crackdowns.

So were Duterte’s scathing comments on the FA-50 merited?

The Golden Eagle: Nimble, Supersonic and Cheap:

The Golden Eagle was designed to serve as an advanced jet trainer by Korean Aerospace Industries (KAI), drawing on the firm’s experience license-producing F-16 Fighting Falcons. First conceived in 1997, the Golden Eagle drew on design elements of the Falcon, and also received 13% of its funding from Lockheed Martin. It made its first flight in 2002, becoming South Korea’s first indigenously designed supersonic aircraft.

The T-50 Golden Eagle—not to be confused with the Russian stealth fighter—was intended to serve as a two-seat Lead-In Flight Trainer (LIFT), a fast but forgiving jet intended to prepare pilots for flying actual combat aircraft. Unlike the older trainers it is replacing, the T-50 can attain speeds of up to Mach 1.5 (over 1,100 miles per hour) and fly up to 48,000 feet high. This performance isn’t impressive compared to frontline jet fighters, but it’s still capable enough to do the job. The T-50 is powered by a single General Electric F404 turbofan, though there is talk of trying out more powerful F414 or EJ200 engines down the line.

The T-50 trainers were deemed so successful and easy-handling that KAI decided to produce an upgraded version, the TA-50, that could do double duty as light attack plane with the ability to use precision-guided weapons and a more powerful radar.

KAI then pushed the design one step further with the FA-50—an airplane intended to serve as a cut-price supersonic fighter with fourth-generation avionics.