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.

The FA-50, which made its first flight in 2011, adds greater fuel capacity and key avionics upgrades, including a radar-warning receiver to alert the pilot if he is being targeted by hostile radar, night-vision systems, and a data-link to integrate the airplane with friendly sensor and weapon platforms. Most importantly, it carries an Israeli EL/M-2032 pulse-Doppler radar with an effective range of 100 kilometers for detecting fighter-size aircraft. It can be used to lock on to air, ground and sea targets. The ELM nonetheless has shorter range and is less capable than the AESA radars now equipping U.S. fighters, and Samsung is apparently looking to develop an AESA radar for use in the Golden Eagle.

The FA-50, though highly maneuverable (it has a lower wing loading than the agile F-16, meaning can make tighter turns), is still not in the same league as top fourth-generation fighters. However, a factory fresh FA-50 costs around $30 to 35 million dollars, whereas those top-of-the-line fighters presently cost $70 to 100 million or more. Thus the FA-50 offers good bang for the buck and an accessible price point for less wealthy countries.

The FA-50’s range—likely under 1,100 miles—could be problematic for some operators. While it is adequate to serve as a short-range fighter—appropriate, say, for the compact distances of the Korean peninsula—it is less convenient for the Philippines and its vast oceanic flank. A round trip from Manila to the Spratly Islands entails 1,000 miles of travel, leaving little fuel to loiter or do anything once the Golden Eagle arrives there. Though lacking aerial refueling capability, the FA-50 can extend its range to using extra fuel tanks—but would have to sacrifice hardpoints for carrying weaponry.

In air-to-air combat, the FA-50 still lacks the critical ability to fire beyond-visual range (BVR) missiles. It currently relies on short-range AIM-9M Sidewinders. KAI is reportedly working on integrating use of extra long-range AIM-120 Scorpions as well as superior short-range AIM-9X missiles.

In 2015 the Philippine Air Force announced it would upgrade three or four FA-50s to carry radar-guided AIM-7 Sparrow missiles with ranges of 70 kilometers. The Sparrows would be a major improvement—but the upgrades would average $17 to $22 million per plane, at least half the cost of each FA-50. Given that the Sparrow is not a state-of-the-art missile—it is not fire-and forget, so the pilot must keep his radar locked on the enemy fighter until it impacts—the price seems exorbitant. Possible explanations may include steep fixed costs, and/or the provision of Sparrow missile to go with the upgrade.

In any case, until the FA-50 is certified for carrying medium- or long-range missile, it won’t really be up to the task of serving as an air-superiority fighter.

The FA-50’s air-to-ground capabilities are far more satisfactory out of the box. It can employ deadly GPS-guided JDAM bombs, Maverick anti-tank missiles, and unguided cluster and conventional bombs and rockets. The Golden Eagle’s targeting computer and radar allow it to deliver even ‘dumb’ bombs with a high degree of accuracy. The FA-50 can haul up to 8,500 pounds of external stores on 7 hardpoints. A triple-barreled A-50 20mm cannon rounds out the armament.

Support for more exotic precision weapons is also in the works. For example, the Republic of Korea Air Force is interested in mounting Taurus KEPD-350-2 cruise missiles with a 250-mile range on the FA-50. The Golden Eagle can also carry Lightning II targeting pods and devices optimized for reconnaissance or electronic warfare roles, as well as the Skyshield all-in-one countermeasure system that can ward off enemy missiles.

While the FA-50’s air-to-air capabilities are not really feature-complete at present, potential upgrades to the engines, radar and especially air-to-air missiles suggest that the Golden Eagle may mature significantly in capability over time.

From Korea, Iraq and the Philippines to… the U.S. Air Force?

The FA-50 already seems poised to see significant use in the coming decade based on outstanding orders for the aircraft.

The Republic of Korea Air Force flies over a hundred Golden Eagles: 49 T-50 trainers, 9 T-50B aerobatics demonstrators for its Black Eagles team, 22 TA-50s, and 20 FA-50s which began entering service last year. Orders for another 40 FA-50s are forthcoming.

The Iraqi Air Force has received 12 of a total 24 FA-50s this year in a $1.1 billion dollar contract ($45 million per airplane). They are reportedly intended to prepare pilots to fly Iraq’s recently acquired F-16s, though they may also see use in ground attack missions against ISIS.

The Philippines has received four of its order of twelve FA-50s this year—despite discreet Chinese protests on the sale directed at Seoul. Manila has yet to acquire the Maverick and Sidewinder guided missiles the airplane requires to make full use of its capabilities. Originally, the Pacific nation intended to order another twelve in the next decade, but future orders are surely in doubt given Duterte’s statements, even if adherence to the current contract is not in question. The Philippine Golden Eagles have recently trained in tandem with American EA-18 Growlers. However, one recently lost its engine as a result of a bird strike.

Indonesia finished receiving 16 TA-50 jets in 2014 at $25 million apiece (once has since crashed). They are intended to serve in the light attack role as well as training.

Finally, Thailand will receive four T-50 trainers in 2018 to replace its old L-39 Albatrosses.

Other potential buyers that would impact the Asian security environment include Vietnam, Pakistan, Taiwan and Azerbaijan (still locked in a conflict with neighboring Armenia). Uzbekistan has already been denied a sale because of U.S. fears that American components in the system could be transferred to Russia. In South America, Colombia and Peru are seen as potential customers.

Even the United States is considering adopting a new T-50A variant with in-flight refueling capacity to replace its aging T-38 Talon jet trainers. With heavy backing from Lockheed-Martin, the Korean plane is currently competing with Raytheon/Aeromacchi’s M-346 and Boeing’s T-X trainer. The procurement, to be announced in 2017, would be for at least 350 new jet trainers.

So, Was Duterte Right?:

The Philippines’ new president is correct about one thing. The FA-50, at least in its present state, is not up to the task of taking on opposing fighters. It lacks the range necessary to operate far over the Pacific, and is not yet certified to launch medium-and long-range air-to-air missiles that are essential to modern aerial warfare.

However, this was not the intention behind acquiring the FA-50. The idea was to wean the Philippine Air Force back into operating jet fighters after having divested the last of its old F-5s in 2005—and in particular, aircraft using sophisticated avionics. It will take time to train pilots and ground crews to fly and maintain such aircraft. The idea, as spelled out by the plane’s advocates, is to use the FA-50 to bridge the gap to more-capable—and more difficult to fly and maintain—multi-role fighters acquired once the Philippine Air Force was ready for them.

And contrary to Duterte’s comments, the Golden Eagle does bring useful ground-attack and even anti-shipping ability through its ability to launch precision-guided munitions. If deployed on counter-insurgency missions, these would be an improvement over the dumb bombs the Philippine Air Force has used in the recent past.

Overall, the FA-50 is merely the first step in a long-term plan to modernize the Philippine Air Force and enable it to contest its home waters and airspace. It is a very expensive acquisition for the developing country—the order cost $427 million while the Philippines’s annual military budget in 2014 was $1.9 billion at the time. (The budget has increased over 50% since.)

Acquiring additional FA-50s and eventually more capable multi-role fighters would cost even more. A modernized Philippine Armed Forces could contribute to a Pacific defensive alliance—but would still be individually out-matched by China’s vastly larger military.

Duterte clearly thinks investing additional money in opposing the Chinese is a losing bet. For now, he wants détente with Beijing and would rather focus on waging his bloody war on drugs—and against Islamic insurgents—at home. This, of course, does not play into Washington’s containment strategy for the region, but the decision is Manila’s to make.

Time will tell whether Duterte will be more successful in keeping his cool while negotiating with China than he has been with Obama—and the extent to which he will refocus or reduce the Philippine military modernization project.

Regardless, the Golden Eagle will likely keeps it place in the Philippine Air Force, though whether it will lead into further investment towards a more capable air arm remains to be seen.

Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.

Image: Advanced trainer T-50 Golden Eagle. Wikimedia Commons/Korea Aerospace Industries