(ATTN: UPDATES with announcement of fighter's name, comments; CHANGES photo)
By Choi Soo-hyang
SEOUL, April 9 (Yonhap) -- South Korea on Friday unveiled a prototype of the country's first indigenous fighter jet, a highly symbolic moment in the country's decadeslong quest for a combat plane of its own.
The gray-colored jet, named KF-21 Boramae, was showcased at a rollout ceremony held at the Korea Aerospace Industries headquarters in the southern city of Sacheon more than five years after South Korea began the 8.8 trillion-won (US$7.9 billion) program to replace the Air Force's aging fleet of F-4 and F-5 jets in late 2015.
President Moon Jae-in said the new aircraft will become the backbone of the South Korean Air Force, calling the rollout an "opening of a new era" in independent national defense and a "landmark" moment in the history of the aerospace industry.
"The prototype rollout is a major step in the development process as it means we are entering the phase of testing the fighter's capabilities after actually building what we only had in drawing," the arms procurement agency said in a release.
With a maximum payload of 7,700 kilograms, the new warplane will have 10 pods for air-to-air missiles and other weapons, capable of flying at 2,200 kph with a flying range of 2,900 km.
The first flight test is scheduled for 2022, with the entire development set to be completed by 2026.
When the development is complete, South Korea will become the 13th country to have developed its own combat plane.
The military plans to put 40 units into operation by 2028 and another 80 units by 2032.
Dubbed a 4.5-generation fighter, the KF-21 plane is not a stealth aircraft, but officials said they will continue research for a possible conversion with additional features in the future.
Friday's event was attended by Moon and other government and military officials, as well as representatives from Indonesia, a partner for the development project, led by its Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto.
Doubts have grown over Jakarta's commitment to the joint program after the Southeast Asian country stopped making payments for the 20 percent of the total development cost it had promised to shoulder.
But during his meetings with Moon and South Korean Defense Minister Suh Wook, the Indonesian minister agreed the fighter jet project symbolizes trust between the two countries, according to officials.
In a congratulatory video message to the event, Indonesian President Joko Widodo said he hopes the launch of the prototype "will continue to bring benefits to the two countries' cooperative relations in the defense sector."
Moon said, "We will be together until the development is complete and the two countries jointly tap markets of a third country with a mass production system."