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Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Police to investigate Indonesian engineer for suspected jetfighter tech theft

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The sixth prototype of the KF-21 fighter jet takes to the skies above Sacheon, South Gyeongsang, during a test flight on June 28 last year. [DEFENSE ACQUISITION PROGRAM ADMINISTRATION]
The sixth prototype of the KF-21 fighter jet takes to the skies above Sacheon, South Gyeongsang, during a test flight on June 28 last year. [DEFENSE ACQUISITION PROGRAM ADMINISTRATION]

An Indonesian engineer suspected of attempting to steal technologies related to the domestically developed KF-21 fighter jet has been referred to police by the state arms procurement agency for investigation, defense officials said Thursday.

The Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) requested further investigation by the police on Wednesday after concluding a preliminary joint probe with the National Intelligence Service and Defense Counterintelligence Command.

The engineer in question was posted to work at Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI), the manufacturer of the KF-21, a 4.5-generation Korean fighter jet under development with partial funding from Indonesia.

The engineer has been banned from leaving Korea after being caught last month attempting to take a USB storage device with classified data on the fighter jet, according to DAPA.

Police investigators are expected to examine whether the data on the USB device included military secrets or other technologies in violation of the Defense Technology Security Act.

During the KF-21’s development process, Korean engineers localized four critical technologies for the indigenous stealth fighter: the active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar system, infrared search and tracking system, electro-optical targeting pods and radio frequency jammers.

The deepening probe into the allegations against the Indonesian engineer comes as the funding for the KF-21 project continues to be plagued by payment delays from Jakarta.

Although Indonesia initially promised to pay 20 percent of the KF-21 project’s 8.8 trillion won ($6.5 billion) price tag, the country is currently in arrears by more than 1 trillion won, having only paid around 278.3 billion won thus far.

The KF-21 project is Korea’s most expensive defense project to date.

Seoul plans to begin production of KF-21 fighter jets later this year with the aim of deploying 120 KF-21 jets by 2032.

In return for its contribution, Indonesia is due to locally produce 48 KF-21 jets after receiving one prototype and technical data.

The foreign ministers of Korea and Indonesia discussed the latter’s delayed payments on the margins of the foreign minister’s meeting of the Group of 20 nations in Rio de Janeiro on Wednesday (local time), according to Seoul’s Foreign Ministry.

According to the ministry, Foreign Minister Cho Tae-yul and Indonesian counterpart Retno Marsudi “agreed to continue strategic cooperation between the two countries, including the joint fighter jet development.”

Foreign Ministry officials on Thursday declined to comment on whether Cho discussed the Indonesian engineer’s arrest with Marsudi, noting that information on the case remains restricted due to the ongoing government and police investigations.

The KF-21 was envisioned as a 4.5-generation aircraft on par with the latest F-16 but less stealthy than the fifth-generation F-35 Lightning II developed by Lockheed Martin.

The jet is intended to replace the Korean Air Force’s aging fleet of McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II and Northrop F-5 supersonic fighters.

Six KF-21 prototypes to date have successfully completed test flights, with the first prototype taking to the skies in July 2022. The sixth and final prototype underwent testing last June.

BY MICHAEL LEE [lee.junhyuk@joongang.co.kr]