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Moving Mountains:
F-16 Production in Korea

Article by Eric Hehs

This article appeared in the October 1996 issue of Code One Magazine.

Print friendly version of this article (text only)

F-16 Production in Korea photoThe Han River flows through the heart of Seoul flanked by long stretches of public parks with bicycle trails, benches, covered tables, basketball courts, and swimming pools. Along the shoreline, wind surfers gather to set off across the surface. Above the river, autos named Daewoo, Kia, and Hyundai stream across the expanse of modern concrete bridges connecting the two banks. An efficient subway system blankets the city and links the tall office buildings of downtown to the train station, to the Kimpo International Airport, and to the outlying areas of this South Korean city of 14 million people.

These images of a modern, thriving South Korea were presented for the first time to foreigners during the 1988 Seoul Olympics. For Americans, they shattered misperceptions formed by the dirt roads and rickshaws in reruns of MASH. True, the Korean War decimated the landscape and left most cities in South Korea in ruin. In a short span, though, the Republic of Korea has grown from a wounded nation recovering from the ravages of combat and political unrest into an economic powerhouse.

Home-grown manufacturing has played a significant role in this development. Even today, Seoul is full of small shops selling a wide array of heavy machinery, electric motors, pipe, plastic resins, and other raw materials of industry. On a much grander scale, all of those Samsungs, Daewoos, Kias, and Hyundais visitors see zipping around Seoul streets and the surrounding countryside originate in Korea. This industrial self-sufficiency on a national scale is all the more impressive considering that this country covers an area slightly larger than Indiana. Americans, too, can see the effects of this development in the form of Hyundai and Kia automobile showrooms sprouting up all over the United States. Americans also can see it in the form of that familiar "Made in Korea" stamp on shoes, clothes, watches, cameras, televisions, video recorders, and computer chips.

These consumer goods are steps in a stairway of development. The top floor is occupied by aerospace-a crowning achievement for any country worthy of an industrial policy. Korean leaders, recognizing this fact, have set high goals for their country. By the end of the next decade, they expect to be in the top ten nations in aerospace-related trade. This expectation translates into $10 billion in sales in an estimated $700 billion market. Such expectations may not seem so unrealistic considering Korea is already well positioned in the industry with $2.6 billion in sales in 1995, ranking just outside the top twenty nations in aerospace trade.

Korea plans to showcase this emerging aerospace industry in its first international air show in October. Visitors may learn a thing or two. For example, Hyundai has an aerospace division that builds various assemblies for helicopters. Daewoo's aerospace division is the prime contractor for the KTX-1 trainer and produces major aircraft assemblies for Dornier, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Sikorsky. Korean Air has performed depot-level maintenance on F-4s, F-15s, and F-16s for USAF and for the Republic of Korea Air Force. Samsung Aerospace has a variety of subcontracts with Bell, Boeing, de Havilland, Lockheed Martin, and Northrop Grumman.

However, center stage at this air show will feature the Korean-built F-16 Fighting Falcon. The ROKAF fighter on display will represent the first of over one hundred F-16s produced almost entirely by Korean workers in what has become a model program for the country's aerospace industry.

Samsung, the prime contractor for the production program, is constructing an impressive aerospace manufacturing facility near Sachon City, which is located near Chinju in the southern part of the Korean peninsula. F-16s have been rolling out of a final assembly building at the facility for over a year. The factory itself was completed in July 1993.

B.K. Kim is the executive managing director and plant manager of the Samsung operation at Sachon. From a window in an office above the factory floor, he can watch another building rising from the ground. In a few months, the skeleton of steel in front of him will be outputting various airframe parts for the F-16s being assembled on the factory below him.

He points out that a mountain once stood in the flat area where the new facility is going up. The earth was hauled away and deposited in an adjacent waterway that leads to the South Sea. The newly created land mass will make room for more buildings. In a Plexiglas case next to Kim is a scale model of the entire production facility planned for Sachon City. On the model, the current assembly building and the parts factory going up next to it are only two matchbox-sized buildings represented in a collection of structures artistically placed on a massive corporate campus. The focal point of the layout is an aviation museum with an impressive outdoor display area. The entrance hall of the museum building contains an F-16, of course.

To Western eyes, the model looks ambitious, to say the least. Kim, however, treats it more as a plan than as some dream. "That representation will be a reality, the way this area will look," he says with the sincerity of an engineer describing a flange. Recalling that mountains are not obstacles in Korea adds a certain credence to his statement. Determination, resourcefulness, and drive assume more concrete meanings in a country where the very concept of moving mountains is closer to truth than metaphor. These qualities, which aptly describe the people, may be geographically determined in some measure. After all, land in Korea is at premium. Carving mountains to make room for roads and buildings is no big deal.

And so it was no big deal for the Koreans to construct a production line for an advanced fighter aircraft. "Well, don't make it sound too easy," cautions Gil Gravitt, Lockheed Martin's top production representative in Korea. "Still, this facility in Sachon is an impressive accomplishment. The Koreans have gone from little more than empty land to a factory producing the most modern version of the F-16. And they did it in only a few short years."

The origins of this production program trace back to Korea's selecting the F-16 for its air force in 1981. Under a program called Peace Bridge I, ROKAF received thirty-six Block 32 F-16s beginning in 1986. The aircraft augmented ROKAF's F-4D Phantoms and F-5E Tigers. Interestingly, the Peace Bridge I program was completed for less than the original estimated cost and allowed Korea to purchase four more F-16s with remaining funds in a Peace Bridge II program. (Any country considering new fighter aircraft may want to review that fact.)

This performance set a strong precedent. When costs began escalating beyond original estimates for a subsequent F/A-18 fighter program in 1990, the Koreans stepped back, reconsidered, and then opted for more F-16s in 1991. That program, called the Korean Fighter Program, consists of 120 of the latest version of the F-16-the Block 52. Most of these aircraft are being built to varying degrees by Korean industry. Samsung delivered the first F-16 to ROKAF in May 1995. The 120th aircraft will be delivered by 1999.

Samsung and nine other Korean companies are participating in the production program of these aircraft. As the prime contractor, Samsung is responsible for final assembly. The company also builds the forward fuselage, vertical tail, and engine. Daewoo Heavy-Industry builds the center fuselage and cockpit sections. Korean Air builds the aft fuselage and wings. LG Precision, Daeyoung Electronic, and Sam-sung Electronics produce avionic equipment. Hyundai Aerospace, Kia Heavy Industry, and Han-wha Heavy Industry make several mechanical subsystems, including the landing gear, pylons, and actuators.

Most of these companies had experience building aircraft components well before the F-16 production program came along. Korean Air, for example, builds helicopters under a license from Sikorsky. With this experience and assistance from manufacturing teams from Lockheed Martin, Korean engineers, technicians, and factory workers transitioned to F-16 production.

The transition plan was divided into three phases. The first phase involved twelve aircraft built completely in the United States. The second phase consisted of five stages that went from Korean reassembly of two aircraft previously assembled in the United States to complete assembly of all subcomponents as well as mating the major components of sixteen aircraft in Korea. In this last stage of the second phase, detailed parts were manufactured in the United States. The Koreans fabricate detailed parts as well as perform all assembly tasks for seventy-two aircraft in the third phase of the program. More than eighty percent of the airframe is Korean-built in this final phase.

"We are entering that third phase this fall," announces Kim. "The first Phase III aircraft will start final assembly in September and the wings for this aircraft will be completed the following month. As of August, the program has delivered twenty F-16s from the Sachon plant. ROKAF pilots who flight-test these aircraft recently completed their 100th test flight. No major defect has been found in any of these flights.

Anyone familiar with the history of the F-16 knows that Korea is not the first country outside the United States to produce F-16s. Assembly lines in Belgium and the Netherlands began building Fighting Falcons in 1979. Turkey assembled its first of over 150 F-16s in 1987 in its TUSAS facility in Ankara. That facility is still operating today. In fact, thirteen countries have produced parts and assemblies of the F-16. Korea, however, will be the first country to have a commercial license to produce F-16s. What makes this arrangement different from others is that Samsung, as the prime contractor, delivers aircraft directly to ROKAF. Lockheed Martin operates as a subcontractor to Samsung.

But firsts are nothing new for Koreans, who arguably can trace their military precedents to the sixteenth century and Admiral Yi Sun-sin's turtle ships. Heavily armed and highly maneuverable, these small boats were the world's first armor-plated warships. Yi's small force sank over 250 enemy ships in eight battles, forcing Japanese invaders to leave Korea. Almost 400 years later, the ROKAF continues in Yi's tradition, being the first foreign air force to fly the C model of the F-16. And in November 1994, ROKAF became the first foreign air force to fly the Block 52 version of the F-16. Admiral Yi would be proud.

This latest version of the F-16 being produced in Korea has upgraded avionics, new cockpit technologies, and the increased performance Pratt & Whitney F100-PW-229 engine. ROKAF's F-16s can carry LANTIRN pods, AIM-120 air-to-air missiles, and HARM air-to-ground missiles. Here's one more precedent: ROKAF will be the first air force in the world to operate the LANTIRN system in conjunction with a Block 52 F-16. Their aircraft will be the first Block 52s to carry an advanced identification friend or foe interrogator as well.

These aircraft are being assembled by a young workforce in a bright modern factory. "What our workers lack in experience they make up for in energy and enthusiasm," explains C.W. Park, the program director in Sachon. "Since we started from the ground up, we also had the luxury to improve on Lockheed Martin's procedures for building the F-16." As an example, Park points to a computer network that tracks engineering changes while containing other manufacturing data as well. Terminals for this paperless system are located throughout the offices and at every workstation on the factory floor. Elsewhere in the factory, various fuselage components of Bell B212 and B412 helicopters are being assembled alongside tail assemblies for de Havilland Dash-8 aircraft.

Groups of school children often tour the production facility, which is a source of national pride for Koreans. "The Korean Fighter Program is not only a source of pride but also a turning point for Korea," adds Kim. "From here, we are looking to strengthen our capability to design aircraft." The Korean Trainer Experiment 2 project, or KTX-2, of which Samsung is the prime contractor, is an example of this emphasis. The KTX-2 is a proposed supersonic jet trainer that can also carry out combat roles with minimal change in equipment. Through this military program and other cooperative commercial ventures with a variety of companies, Samsung and the Korean aerospace industry as a whole will further its position as a respected aircraft producer in world markets.

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