By Kim Eun-jung
SEOUL, Oct. 30 (Yonhap) -- The Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI), South Korea's provider and sole maker of aircraft, is now setting its sights on making inroads into emerging nations with growing defense needs, its senior official said Wednesday.
KAI, which provides trainers and light attackers to the South Korean Air Force, is showcasing a wide range of indigenous aircraft models at the Seoul International Aerospace and Defense Exhibition (ADEX), which opened on Tuesday and runs through Sunday.
KAI's models on display include T-50 supersonic trainer, jointly built with Lockheed Martin, KT-1 basic trainer and FA-50 light attack fighter modified from T-50. The company's indigenous light utility helicopter Surion, which made South Korea the 11th nation to develop a homegrown chopper, was also on display at the outside hall.
KAI, which gets nearly 60 percent of its revenue from domestic-related businesses, has developed and manufactured aircraft, and exported trainers to countries including Indonesia, Turkey and Peru.
KAI officials said foreign military officials and buyers have been showing interest in their trainer jets and FA-50 at the aerospace fair that drew 361 exhibitors from 28 countries. They were also interested in the air show held over the weekend to mark the exhibition.
"Currently, we are interested in countries in Asia, the Middle East and South America," Choi Sang, vice president and head of business development at KAI, said during an interview with Yonhap News Agency on the sidelines of Seoul ADEX.
South Korea is set to export 12 FA-50s, a light attack variant of T-50, to the Philippines, expecting to sign a deal by the end of this year.
Choi said negotiations are currently under way to sell trainers to such countries as Iraq and Poland next year, with Botswana as a potential buyer of trainer jets.
KAI and Lockheed Martin are also gearing up for a lucrative U.S. Air Force competition for at least 300 T-50s worth several billion dollars.
For successful overseas marketing, the KAI executive said it is important how well the South Korean pilots operate the indigenous aircraft to conduct missions in the nation.
"Rather than speaking 100 words, it is better to show what kinds of benefit the jets bring to the South Korean Air Force, which could pave the way for making overseas bids," he said.
South Korea is also planning to develop a much larger indigenous fighter jet program with the help of U.S. defense contractors, although that has been delayed due to budget constraints and questions over its feasibility.
The KFX project aims to build F-16 class fighter jets to replace the Air Force's aging fleet of F-4 and F-5 fighter planes. The state arms development agency has been working on the concept and designs of the aircraft, waiting for the government's approval to start a full-scale project.
Choi said the prospect of the fourth-generation fighters is attractive, considering the projected demand in emerging nations. If Lockheed Martin halts the F-16 production line in the near future to focus on the fifth-generation jets, Choi said that will pit KAI against other competitors in what he called an "empty market."
"Not all countries have to buy the most advanced combat jets. Each country makes its own decision based on the security situation, main enemy and purpose of the mission," Choi said. "As many countries don't need that high-level of fighters, the market becomes less populated."
Choi said he hopes the government makes a prompt decision to launch the development project as soon as possible to get a head start in the race for the market.
"South Korea is in a very good position right now," he said. "But if it takes too long, the situation may not be so favorable."
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