A South Korean Air Force F-4 Phantom II fighter takes off from Gwangju Air Base in May. The F-X III will replace the F-4s. (U.S. Air Force)
SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea’s multi-billion-dollar project to acquire 60 new combat aircraft is facing delays following controversies over the fighter jet evaluation methods and mistakes in how the bids were submitted.
In the latest fiasco, the 8.3 trillion won ($7.2 billion) contest was postponed June 19, just one day after the three bidders — Lockheed Martin, Boeing and EADS — submitted their proposals for the F-X III contest, whose winner is to be announced in October. That’s because the proposals by Lockheed and EADS failed to meet translation requirements, according to South Korea’s Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA).
Lockheed is offering the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, Boeing the F-15SE Silent Eagle and EADS the Typhoon.
Four of the 24 files Lockheed submitted, related to offset programs and the prices of key equipment, lacked documents translated into Korean, while EADS’ 32 files were mostly in English with only an executive summary in Korean, the agency said in a statement.
The decision fanned the possibility that the fighter procurement plan would not meet its schedule.
“The F-X III selection will be two weeks behind schedule inevitably, due to the translation problem, which means DAPA’s fighter evaluation, set to begin early July, is to be postponed,” said Kim Dae-young, a research member of the Korea Defense & Security Forum, a private defense think tank here. “We already don’t have much time for evaluation and price negotiation.”
Earlier, the contest came under controversy over the evaluation methods planned for the F-35, which has long been considered the front-runner due to its “fifth-generation” capability.
DAPA’s evaluation team decided to test the F-35 through the use of simulators, since the U.S. government doesn’t allow pilots from potential customers to fly the single-engine stealth plane, which is still about 20 percent of the way through its testing program.
Critics argue, however, that simulator evaluations cannot prove the performance of a fighter jet in a proper manner, especially since the aircraft is still being developed.
Rumor and speculation also arose that the administration of President Lee Myung-bak is trying to give preference to the U.S. fighter jet over the Typhoon, the product of Eurofighter, a four-nation European consortium.
“Unlike the simulation of a commercial airplane, it’s almost impossible to demonstrate high-mobility features and technologies of a fighter jet,” said Shin Bo-hyun, head of the Weapons System Concept Development and Application Research Center at Konkuk University here.
Shin, a retired South Korean Air Force major general, said, “A big question is what functions are to be evaluated through simulation, even though the F-35 program development is still in limbo.”
Facing a barrage of public criticism over the “rough-and-ready” fighter competition, Noh Dae-rae, commissioner of the DAPA, backed down, saying the fighter selection schedule could be delayed.
“Making a decision by October is our goal, not an obligation, for effective negotiations,” Noh said. “But if we need more time to verify candidates and negotiate with bidders, we’re not really obliged to that timeline.”
He also hinted that his agency would demand that the U.S. government allow a South Korean pilot to fly an actual F-35.
Lockheed officials still have confidence that their high-fidelity simulators, including the F-35 manned tactical simulator and handling qualities simulator, will offer a great deal of access to the F-35 system.
“In the past, when we have a fighter aircraft with two seats, the second seat was required to be used for training purposes, but today’s technology allows us to build a single-seat airplane because today’s simulators are very precise and accurate,” Randy Howard, director of Lockheed’s F-35 campaign in South Korea, told Defense News.
“We’re confident that South Korean pilots can fly our simulators and fully understand the aerodynamics and operational capabilities of the F-35,” he added.
Boeing has yet to firm up its arrangements for the F-15SE evaluation, with doubts hanging over the twin-engine plane’s ability to perform both traditional and stealthy functions.
“Many of the key capability elements of the Silent Eagle are already well along with the development as part of the F-15 international programs that are ongoing,” said Howard Berry, Boeing’s vice president for sales. “In that point, Korea is actually in a tremendous position, giving the timing of their acquisition to leverage other ongoing development activities funded by other F-15 customers worldwide.”
EADS is confident in the F-X III testing and evaluation procedures, since hundreds of Typhoon fighters have already entered service.
“You can feel a large gap obviously between flying an actual aircraft and testing simulator programs,” an EADS official said. “We’re confident in the deal, as long as the competition is to proceed with fairness.”
The European aerospace giant is proposing that South Korea become the world’s fifth nation to produce the twin-engine, multirole combat aircraft, following Britain, Germany, Italy and Spain.
The company links the F-X deal to Seoul’s fighter development plan codenamed KF-X, aimed at producing more than 200 multirole, stealthy aircraft.
“Key technology challenges related to the KF-X development are common to F-X key technologies and enhancement roadmaps,” Thomas Linkenbach, vice president of air systems portfolio management and sales for Cassidian, the EADS unit leading the Typhoon campaign in South Korea, said in a June 19 forum. “F-X procurement offers the best opportunity for the Republic of Korea to pave the way towards the technological challenge a fighter development imposes.”
He referred to several fighter technologies that could be transferred to South Korea. Among them are developing low-observable configurations, radar signature analysis and testing, radar-absorbing structure technology, advanced fighter control law design, and the integration of active electronically scanned array radars.