Many South Korean politicians were astonished when recently told that the air force had 35 of its combat jets crash in the last 13 years. Some publicist apparently thought this would grab some media attention and it did. But 35 aircraft lost out of a force of nearly 600 during 13 years is about average for all air forces. It comes to about 2 aircraft lost per 100,000 flying hours. The air force pointed out that most of these crashes were due to pilot error and that only a few were because of the age of the aircraft. Meanwhile, South Korea is moving ahead to replace its older aircraft with newer, safer models before the accident rate escalates to some really dangerous numbers. South Korea has been hustling to upgrade its air force. Most (58 percent) of their combat aircraft are elderly F-4s and F-5s. Currently they have 180 F-16s, 60 F-15Ks, 68 F-4s, and 170 late model F-5Es.
In reality, combat aircraft are becoming more reliable, even as they become more complex. For example, in the early 1950s, the F-89 fighter had 383 accidents per 100,000 flying hours. A decade later the rate was in the 20s for a new generation of aircraft. At the time the F-4 had a rate of under 5 per 100,000 hours. For the entire U.S. Air Force the loss (or “mishap”) rate fell from 2.8 per 100,000 hours in 1975 to 1.4 in 1995.
Combat aircraft have gotten more reliable and easier to maintain, despite growing complexity, for the same reason automobiles have. Better engineering and more sensors built into equipment makes it easier for the user and maintenance personnel to detect and fix potential problems before they turn into accidents. Aircraft used the computerized maintenance systems, currently common on new aircraft, long before automobiles got them. Unless you have a much older car that still runs, or a real good memory, you don't notice the enormous increase in automobile reliability. But older pilots remember because such changes are a matter of life and death if you make your living driving an aircraft. And commanders know that safer aircraft means more aircraft available for use in combat and more aircraft that can survive combat damage and keep fighting.
In 2012, South Korea ordered 20 locally made FA-50 fighter-bombers for $30 million each. These aircraft will be equipped with South Korean, American, and Israeli electronics. The single engine, single seat aircraft is intended to eventually replace South Korea's aging fleet of F-5 fighters. But first, the initial 20 FA-50s will have to show what they can do in active service. The first FA-50 was delivered this year and the last of them will arrive in 2014.
The FA-50 is the combat version of the South Korean designed and manufactured T-50 jet trainer. This aircraft was developed over the last decade, at a cost of over two billion dollars. The first test flight of the T-50 took place in 2002. The 13 ton aircraft is actually a light fighter and can fly at supersonic speeds. With some added equipment (radars and fire control) the T-50 becomes the FA-50, a combat aircraft. This version carries a 20mm auto-cannon and up to 4.5 tons of smart bombs and missiles. The T-50 can stay in the air about four hours per sortie and has a service life of 8,000 hours in the air.
Meanwhile, the F-5 is another Cold War relic that still manages to find work, especially in South Korea. Over 2,200 F-5s were built between the late 1950s and 1987. The F-5 is a 12 ton fighter roughly similar to the 1950s era MiG-21 and is a contemporary of that Russian fighter. The F-5 was built mainly for export to nations that could not afford the top-line Western fighters but did not want the MiG-21s. The F-5 is normally armed with two 20mm cannon and three tons of missiles and bombs.
Then there is the elderly F-4. South Korea has been retiring its 222 F-4s for over a decade now. Many countries continue to use F-4s because the aircraft are sturdy and still effective as bombers. Of the 5,195 F-4s manufactured, some eight percent are still in service, plus a hundred converted to be unmanned targets for the U.S. Air Force. The F-4 is a 1950s design that, for its day, was quite advanced. The two seat, 28 ton F-4 is still a credible fighter bomber, able to carry eight tons of bombs and missiles. Normal combat radius is about 700 kilometers. The average sortie lasts about two hours. The F-4 was also one of the first jet fighters to be quite safe to fly. The F-4 has been in service for over half a century and will probably hit 60 before the last of them are gone. South Korea wants to retire its F-4s before that day comes.