South Korea will set new requirements for its fighter competition that sources said favor the F-35. (US Air Force)
SEOUL — South Korea’s military will set new operational requirements and bid procedures for its F-X III fighter jet acquisition program Nov. 22, and an official with the Joint Chiefs of Staff said the F-35 will likely be selected.
The move comes after the contest was nullified in September when the country’s top arms procurement committee voted down a bid by Boeing to supply 60 F-15 Silent Eagle aircraft, citing the “4.5-generation” jet’s lack of radar-evading stealth capability.
“A top decision-making body of the Joint Chiefs of Staff will make a decision on the number of the aircraft to be bought, as well as new required operational capability for the F-X III,” Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok told reporters.
Multiple sources said the JCS has already set new requirements focused on enhanced stealth capability, which bolsters the chances of Lockheed Martin winning the $7.8 billion tender with its F-35 conventional takeoff version.
“After the Silent Eagle was voted down, the Air Force asked to buy fighter aircraft with enhanced stealth capabilities,” a JCS official said. “There is no doubt that the F-35 has more advanced stealth functions compared to its competitors.”
Against that backdrop, the spokesman said, the JCS is expected to decide not to open a new competition. Instead, the JCS is to approve a plan to buy F-35s via the US foreign military sale (FMS) program, he added.
Due to budget constraints, the JCS plans to procure about 40 F-35s initially, and 20 more jets could be bought if funding is available.
Once the JCS sets new F-X III requirements and procurement methods, the Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) will go ahead with procurement procedures early next year, DAPA spokesman Baek Yoon-hyung said.
“We could start FMS negotiations with the US government early next year should the JCS decide to buy F-35s,” said Baek. “Then, the delivery of the aircraft could start as early as in 2018.”
Still, some question the F-35’s high procurement costs and its technical maturity.
“The rub is that the per-unit price could not be guaranteed until the final delivery under the FMS procurement,” Kim Dae-young, a research member of the Korea Defense & Security Forum, a Seoul-based defense think tank. “In addition, there are worries that South Korea will not have a strong leverage in price and offset negotiations under the FMS program.”