South Korea is upgrading its 59 F-15K “Slam Eagle'' fighter-bombers. This upgrade is expensive, costing $2.73 billion ($45 million per aircraft) and will not be completed until 2034. South Korea has noted the success other nations have had upgrading their local versions of the F-15E model which the U.S. created in the late 1980s as a two-seat fighter bomber. Most F-15Es are over 35 years old while export customers are still receiving new aircraft. The South Korean F-15K's are all 10-15 years old. This justifies the extensive and expensive upgrades. These consist of many upgraded electronic systems, including a late-model AESA radar. There is also an updated cockpit with new flight and fire control software as well improved electronic countermeasures and passive sensors. The F-15K can carry 13 tons of weapons, including highly accurate SLAM-ER cruise missiles and guided penetrating bombs to go after North Korea bunkers. South Korea is also buying more aerial tankers to keep the F-15Ks in the air longer while waiting for targets to be found.
South Korea also has 167 F-16C fighters that are being upgraded to F-16V models. South Korea has 50 F-35 stealth fighters in service with more on the way.
A growing number of South Korean warplanes are designed and built in South Korea. Currently this includes 60 FA-50 jet trainers equipped as light bombers. A new jet fighter, the KF-21 is on the way, also called Borame (“Fighting Hawk ''), the fighter made its first flight on July 19th and expects to enter service by 2026. Developing the KF-21 cost at least $8 billion. The South Korean air force wants to buy 120 of them. The first 40 will be Block 1 while the other 80 will be Block 2.
The block 1 KF-21 is a twin-engine 24.5-ton air superiority fighter. The F414 engines are American models built in South Korea. and are the same ones used by U.S. Navy F-18E and the South Korean TA/FA jet trainer. The block 2 KF-21 is designed as a fighter-bomber, with sensors and electronics similar to those used in the F-35 so that the pilot can handle flying the aircraft as hitting ground targets with guided bombs and missiles. F-15K fighter-bombers will be replaced by the block 2 KF-21s in the 2040s. South Korea also uses 19 prop-driven basic trainers equipped as light bombers. South Korea is rapidly retiring older F-4 and F-5 aircraft.
South Korea has already developed world-class armored vehicles, warships and support aircraft, including helicopters and become a major arms exporter. Neighboring countries, like Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan and Australia are also developing manufacturing capabilities for combat vehicles, ships and aircraft. Japan was the first country in the region to develop the capability to build modern weapons but, until recently, the Japanese post-World War II constitution banned export of weapons. That was recently changed and now Japan can build for export. Japan has to catch-up with South Korea, which always produced these new weapons with the intention of competing in export markets.