Lockheed Martin and its F-35 could benefit from South Korea dropping the F-15 from consideration in its fighter competition. ()
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SEOUL — After it was dropped from consideration in South Korea’s fighter competition, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter appears to be back in the running after a Defense Ministry source cited the need to counter North Korea with a fifth-generation fighter.
South Korea last week made the shocking decision to not buy Boeing’s F-15 Silent Eagle, which was considered the sole candidate for the $7.2 billion F-X III contest. A new competition will be opened in South Korea’s quest to buy 60 fighter aircraft to replace its aging fleet of F-4 and F-5 jets.
Presided over by Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin, the Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) held its executive committee Sept. 24 to decide whether to select the F-15SE. Boeing has claimed the warplane would feature radar-evading stealth capability, a core requirement for the fighter competition, because the aircraft will be painted with radar-absorbent coatings and equipped with conformal weapons bays.
But most of the 19 committee members — made up of military, lawmakers and civilian experts — judged that the new F-15 variant’s stealth capability has yet to be proved despite its price competitiveness compared with Lockheed Martin’s F-35 and the Eurofighter consortium’s Typhoon, according to DAPA officials.
“The DAPA’s Executive Committee voted down the selection of the F-15SE after comprehensive, in-depth reviews of performances, costs and other elements of of the aircraft,” DAPA spokesman Baek Yoon-hyung told reporters. “We’ll reopen a bid as early as possible after reconsidering both operational and budget requirements.”
Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok was more specific about the requirements for the rebid.
“We need a capability to counter North Korea’s asymmetric threats of nuclear weapons and missiles,” Kim said. “In the meantime, we need to catch up with the latest trend of aerospace technology worldwide centered around the fifth-generation fighter jets.”
Kim’s comment indicates the F-35 stealth fighter will soar back to the front-runner of the new race.
The F-35 had been regarded as a favorite in the competition, but it was priced out after the US government failed to submit a proposal under the F-X III program budget. The same happened with the Typhoon. Lockheed and the Eurofighter consortium were technically in the race but not eligible to be chosen as the preferred bidder.
The F-X III collapse came weeks after a group of 15 former South Korean Air Force chiefs of staff signed a petition opposing the selection of the Silent Eagle.
In the petition sent to President Park Geun-hye, the former generals insisted the country adopt stealth jets to respond to the future threats from neighboring countries, including Japan and China, as well as to counter North Korea’s threat.
“Only with stealth capabilities, our Air Force will be able to penetrate the dense air defense network of the North Korean military and eliminate the threats of nuclear and long-range missiles,” the petition states. “China and Russia are developing their own stealth fighters, while Japan decided to acquire 42 F-35s. We can’t help preparing for responding to any possible conflict with neighboring countries.”
According to a source close to the negotiations, the South Korean Air Force decision to reject the F-15 was based in part on a desire not to fall behind neighboring Japan, which announced a decision to purchase the F-35 in 2012. The advancement of the Chinese military, including the appearance of a Chinese UAV over a group of Japanese islands in early September, was also a factor.
The source added that South Korea and Lockheed are hoping to sign a letter of agreement in the next six to nine months, to meet South Korea’s deadline of receiving its first fighter by the end of 2017.
To sweeten the pot on an F-35 sale, Lockheed has offered a satellite for military communications, operating both Ku- and X-band wavelengths, which will also be required to launch by the end of 2017 to align with the JSF and a potential purchase of Northrop Grumman’s RQ-4 Global Hawk, according to the source. The American company has also promised a significant number of manpower hours to help develop South Korea’s indigenous fighter replacement for the F-16.
Lockheed Martin hailed the decision by the South Korean government.
“Lockheed Martin has learned about the Republic of Korea’s evaluation decision for the F-X program,” said Lockheed spokesman Eric Schnaible. “We will continue to support the US government in its offer of the F-35A to Korea.”
A Eurofighter representative said his company would consider competing for the new tender, linking its bid to South Korea’s KF-X plan to develop its own fighter aircraft. Earlier, the European consortium pledged it would provide more lenient technology transfer to South Korea to help build the KF-X.
No Chance for Boeing?
Boeing, on the other hand, expressed deep regret.
“Boeing is deeply disappointed by the DAPA decision. Boeing has rigorously followed DAPA’s instructions throughout the whole process,” Boeing spokesman Conrad Chun said. “We await details from DAPA on its basis for the delay while evaluating our next options.”
A Boeing official said, nevertheless, his company would not take legal action against DAPA. “We remain undecided at the moment on whether or not to participate in the rebid,” the official said on condition of anonymity.
The decision to turn down the F-15SE after it received DAPA’s approval is likely a fatal blow both to Boeing’s South Korean hopes, and to its desire to extend the F-15 line into the next decade through its Silent Eagle variant.
“What this rules out is the prospect of yet another decade of rejuvenation [for the platform],” said Richard Aboulafia, an analyst with the Virginia-based Teal Group. “That was the possibility, and an intriguing one, if Boeing had succeeded with its own stealth design based on a legacy platform. But it is not to be.”
Aboulafia sees the potential for a few small buys of F-15s in the future, most likely additional purchases from Saudi Arabia or a handful from Singapore, but nothing that would significantly change the fact that the F-15 line will likely fall silent when Boeing’s contract with Saudi Arabia ends in 2018.
Boeing is “lucky they have the Saudi order, which gives them a few years to seek any last call orders, but they’re not going to get major new users and they’re not going to develop major new derivatives unless somehow this decision is reversed,” Aboulafia said.
Kim Dae-young, a research member of the Korea Defense & Security Forum, said, “In terms of procedures, Boeing has no fault. So it’s natural that Boeing feels cheated.”
“As the Korean government singled out a fifth-generation fighter as the preferred option, Boeing has the slim chance to win the rebid,” he added. “The only option for Boeing is whether or not to participate in the rebid in order to split the number of aircraft.”
Kim anticipated that the Korean government would either split the number of a single-type aircraft or procure two different types of jets.
One potential solution that could salvage the Korean situation for Boeing — offering up another order of F-15Ks to the South Korean government as a stopgap before the country purchases the F-35. Australia has done something similar, with an announced plan to buy 12 EA-18G Growler electronic attack jets as a hedge against further JSF delays.
However, the source with knowledge of the situation said the South Korean Air Force has already considered, and rejected, the idea of splitting the buy.
“They just don’t want it,” the source said.
A day after the F-15SE shocker, the Ministry of National Defense launched a task force to restart the F-X III process. The task force held a meeting to reassess required operational capabilities and budgets needed to renew the fighter procurement program.
In particular, the task force discussed ways of splitting the number of fighter jets to be procured.
“We discussed all options on the table,” said Lee Yong-dae, director of the Defense Ministry’s procurement office. Lee leads the task force comprising representatives from DAPA, the Air Force and aerospace researchers.
“Nothing has yet to be fixed. But if you split the number of jets, it’s easier to secure budget,” he said.
Lee Hee-woo, head of a logistics support research institute at Chungnam National University, called for acquiring 40 to 20 stealth and nonstealth jets.
“I don’t think we can buy 60 expensive stealth aircraft given the government’s financial conditions,” Lee noted. “To deter North Korea’s asymmetrical threat, we need 20 to 40 stealth jets. And we may buy more nonstealth jets with different functions.”
Aaron Mehta in Washington contributed to this report.