Big Win: A model of the Lockheed Martin F-35 joint strike fighter sits on display at the Seoul International Aerospace and Defense Exhibition in Goyang, north of Seoul, in October. South Korea plans to buy 40 F-35s. (JUNG YEON-JE/ / AFP/Getty Images)
SEOUL — South Korea decided to buy 40 F-35 conventional take-off joint strike fighters in a bid to better respond to North Korea’s increasing nuclear and missile threats, the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) announced Friday.
The competition was initially for 60 jets. Government officials say it’s possible the remaining order of 20 jets will not be F-35s.
The JCS held a top decision-making committee presided over by JCS Chairman Adm. Choi Yoon-hee to modify the operational requirements for the F-X III fighter jet acquisition plan.
The jet contest was nullified in September when the country’s arms procurement agency 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.
“The next-generation fighter is a key asset of the ‘kill chain’ system to respond to North Korea’s nuclear and missile threat that has become a reality,” JCS spokesman Eom Hyo-shik said in a briefing.
The kill chain refers to a proactive defense system being developed by the South Korea military. It is to be used in preemptively detecting and striking North Korean main targets by using various tools, such as strike fighters and missiles, should the North show signs of attacks.
“We need fighter aircraft fitted with the state-of-the-art stealth technology and electronic warfare capability in order to secretly penetrate into the North’s airspace and strike key targets,” the spokesman said. “By securing those aircraft, we can deter North Korea’s provocation more effectively.”
The number of jets to be bought fell to 40 from the initial F-X III plan of 60 in order to meet the budget requirements as well as help fill the projected fighter jet vacuum over the next decade.
The aircraft are expected to be delivered to the South Korean Air Force from 2018 to 2021 if a contract is signed next year, officials said.
Based on the renewed requirements, the military and the budget authorities are expected to redesign the budget size, said Oh Tae-shik, head of the Defense Acquisition Program Administration’s program management bureau.
“We expect to firm up the total budget size for 40 F-35s after discussing with related government agencies,” he said.
Brig. Gen. Shin Ik-hyun, of the JCS’ strategic planning bureau said, “The remaining 20 aircraft will be bought after reviewing the required operational capability in tandem with changing security situations and aviation tech development trends.”
Asked to clarify if the remainder will also be F-35s, Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said other aircraft could be invited for the competition.
“The remaining aircraft will be purchased by 2023,” the spokesman said. “If there are changes in the security environment, we could buy either more advanced jets or aircraft with lower radar cross section.” The statement leaves the door open for Boeing and Eurofighter to make fresh bids.
Kim Dae-young, a research member of the Korea Defense & Security Forum, anticipated Boeing and Eurofighter would likely link their new bids to the indigenous KF-X fighter development project.
“I believe the chances for Boeing and Eurofighter to win the deal for 20 aircraft remain slim,” Kim said. “The fighter makers, however, would be able to connect the deal to the South Korean bid to develop its own fighter aircraft by promising more lenient technology transfer than Lockheed.”
The KF-X plan is aimed at developing an F-16 class indigenous jet with technical assistance from foreign partners after 2020 and producing at least 120 planes. The F-X III requires bidders to offer technology transfer plans for the KF-X as part of offset programs.
The JCS decided to start the KF-X development next year with preliminary research and development.
There are worries, however, Lockheed Martin would be restricted in offering technologies since the Joint Strike Fighter program is strictly controlled by the US government.
Lockheed Martin tried to brush off those concerns by Koreans.
Randy Howard, Lockheed’s F-35 campaign head in Korea, said his company remains committed to its offset projects and working with the Korean industry on the KF-X project to design a new fighter aircraft as it did on the T-50 Golden Eagle supersonic trainer jet, which had been developed as part of an offset package for an earlier F-16 purchase.
Eurofighter has been the most active in the KF-X program. It offered a direct investment of $2 billion in the KF-X bid.
Boeing has also shown strong interest in the KF-X partnership.
“The KF-X is a huge business opportunity, maybe a bigger one than the F-X,” a Boeing official said. “We’ll continue to find ways of working together with the Korean government and industry.”