WASHINGTON — The Republic of Korea has spent years deciding what its next-generation fighter jet replacement will look like. Now, as tension mounts on the Korean Peninsula, the U.S. government has revealed what the sale of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the Boeing F-15SE Silent Eagle might look like.
The Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA), which handles foreign military sales for the U.S. Defense Department, notified Congress of the potential sales March 29, but the details were only made public April 3.
The two fighters, along with Eurofighter’s Typhoon model, are the finalists for South Korea’s F-XIII competition. The country is expected to make a final decision this year on which plane will replace its aging F-4 jets.
“The proposed sale will augment Korea’s operational aircraft inventory and enhance its air-to-air and air-to-ground self-defense capability, provide it with a credible defense capability to deter aggression in the region, and ensure interoperability with U.S. forces,” DSCA said in its notifications, posted on the agency’s website.
The notifications are not necessarily a sign the South Korean military has decided to purchase the American jets over the Typhoon. Instead, they lay out what a potential sale might look like, so if the South Korean armed forces decide to pick an American fighter, they can quickly sign a contract.
However, a decision might be coming shortly. South Korea’s Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) entered final negotiations for the F-XIII procurement March 18, according to sources.
The F-XIII competition was originally expected to reach completion toward the end of 2013, giving the recently elected government of President Park Geun-hye time to study the program. There also have been concerns raised in South Korea about technical and budgetary problems surrounding the F-35, considered the front-runner due to its “fifth-generation” capability.
In light of North Korea’s increasingly hostile stance, however, the government has put a premium on weapon acquisition, with new fighter jets capable of fending off an invasion at the top of their list.
The real-world factors provide a stark choice between the two U.S. jets, according to Richard Abou-lafia, an analyst with the Teal Group, Fairfax, Va. The F-35 offers more advanced capabilities, especially in the realm of anti-access area-denial (A2AD) technology. But the need for forces capable of defending against a more traditional army may convince DAPA to choose the more traditional design of the F-15.
“With Korea, in that position, you’re concerned about bang for the buck. It has very little to do with penetrability, it has everything to do with just dropping bombs on attacking forces.
“It’s a big challenge to our assumptions about generational change in aircraft,” he said.
“On the one hand, fifth gen definitely has its appeal for people who are coping with an A2AD environ. But if your big upfront concern is lots of ordnance and capacity, it’s hard to beat an F-15.”
That dichotomy between long-term strategic goals and short-term need is what makes F-XIII the “most interesting game in town,” he said.
But while the F-15SE is not as advanced as the F-35, Aboulafia said it would be better than “anything else currently in the theater.” And if South Korea selects the F-15SE over the F-35, Aboulafia expects another fighter competition to spring up at the end of this decade — one that he predicts the JSF will win.
As for Eurofighter, Aboulafia does not see much chance of them winning the contract. “Given the circumstances, a non-U.S. plane is inconceivable,” he said.
According to DSCA, the JSF sale would be for 60 of the F-35A conventional takeoff-and-landing models, like those currently being tested by the U.S. Air Force.
The planes, along with associated gear, parts, training and logistical support, would cost South Korea $10.8 billion. Included are nine spare engines from Pratt & Whitney. The contract is a Foreign Military Sale (FMS), where the U.S. government acts as a broker between contractor Lockheed Martin and South Korea’s armed forces.
That proposed price is well over the target cost of 8.3 trillion won ($7.3 billion). DAPA has said that price is the most important issue for selecting a final bidder.
The Silent Eagle would be sold via a combination of FMS and direct commercial sale (DCS) from Boeing to the South Korean military. The DSCA announcement listed a price of $2.4 billion for 60 of the modified F-15s; however, that number only covers the FMS portion of the deal, meaning the cost per unit will be larger when the DCS details are released.
The Silent Eagle is an upgraded variation of the F-15, one equipped with a stealthy configuration. Like the F-35, the F-15SE is still in development, and neither plane would be ready to fly on day one.
Boeing has the added advantage of being the industrial base partner for the F-15 already in South Korea.
A Eurofighter spokesman declined comment, but spokesmen for the U.S. companies reacted positively to the DSCA announcements.
“The formal congressional notification process supporting the Republic of Korea’s F-X Next Fighter Program has occurred,” Joe DellaVedova, spokesman for the JSF joint program office, wrote in a statement. “The notification does not pre-suppose that the F-35 has been selected, but is an administrative requirement in order for Korea to consider a U.S. government Foreign Military Sales offer. Evaluations of the three competitive offers (F-35, Boeing’s “Silent Eagle” and Eurofighter) including price discussions, are ongoing.”
“Lockheed Martin is honored to partner with the USG to offer the F-35 to meet Korea’s demanding security needs for the next 30-40 years,” Laura Siebert, a Lockheed spokeswoman, said in a statement. “The 5th Generation F-35 combines all-aspect stealth with the most advanced avionics ever integrated into a fighter aircraft, providing a quantum leap in capability over all 4th generation aircraft.”
“Boeing is pleased to have the opportunity to participate in the F-X competition and build on our longstanding partnership with the Republic of Korea,” Boeing said in a statement. “We are confident our Silent Eagle offering is best suited to address F-X requirements.”
“Pratt & Whitney is proud of our decades-long partnership with the Republic of Korea Air Force,” Matthew Bates, P&W spokesman, wrote in a statement, “and we hope to continue this relationship powering a ROKAF F-35 fleet with our 5th generation F135 engine.”
Jung Sung-Ki in Seoul contributed to this report.