A top South Korean air force official hopes for more joint training opportunities between the US and his country, like this F-16 exercise at Kunsan Air Base, South Korea, in 2012 (Senior Airman Brittany Y. Auld/US Air Force)
WASHINGTON — The Republic of Korea Air Force expects to make a selection and sign a contract on its new tanker before the end of the year, according to one of the service’s top generals.
The service will also announce its next-generation fighter selection next month, Lt. Gen. Hyungchul Kim, the Republic of Korea air force’s vice chief of staff, told a Washington audience during a Friday event hosted by the Air Force Association.
The F-X program will replace South Korea’s aging F-4 and F-5 fighter fleet. Although Kim treated the program as an open competition, it is widely believed that Seoul has settled on Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.
Once that selection is made, Kim said he expects a contract before the end of the year. The selection will also help kick off the KF-X program, South Korea’s development program of an indigenous fighter design. The two programs are directly linked, with Kim saying how much technical support and tech transfer the winner of the F-X program gives to Korea the “most important factor” in its selection.
The KF-X program will “be launching in the second half of this year,” Kim said.
The Korean air force opened its doors for bidding on its KC-X tanker program in October, with the eventual award for production estimated at just under $1 billion. Korean is looking for something with cargo capacity as well as both boom and drogue refueling capabilities.
Three platforms have been entered into the competition, according to Kim: The Airbus A330, Boeing’s KC-46A platform and an offering from Israeli Aerospace Industries of modified, previously owned Boeing 767s. Once a selection is made this year, Kim said to expect delivery before 2020.
The KC-46A is the next-generation tanker for the US Air Force, which could potentially give it a leg up on the competition. Asked whether selecting an aircraft used by US forces was important, Kim acknowledged the ability to do combined operations with US forces as an “important factor” but deferred to the acquisition authorities in his country.
Other modernization priorities are also moving along. Korea will introduce it’s first C-130J transport next month, Kim said, while it expects to see movement on its purchase of four Global Hawk unmanned systems “very soon.”
Overall, Kim’s speech was focused on the relationship between the US and Republic of Korea, particularly given the volatile nature of a region that contains his country, China and Japan in close proximity — three countries, he pointed out, who make up 21 percent of the world’s gross domestic product.
“The presence of US forces in the region are vital” to maintaining stability in the northern Pacific, Kim said. He highlighted North Korea’s continued nuclear ambitions and the ongoing dispute between China and Japan over a small island chain claimed by both countries as two potential flashpoints for conflict in the region.
The general praised the US for its hosting of Red Flag Alaska exercises, calling it “awesome” to be a part of. Such exercises were amongst the first victims of sequestration. Kim told reporters after the speech that if the US in unable to host such training exercises in the future, Korea would beef up local bilateral training programs such as the Max Thunder exercises done in conjunction with the US Air Force.
However, due to budgeting schedules, the government would need at least a year in in advance to plan for such exercises, Kim said.
That cooperation extends to industry, with Kim noting that South Korea has purchased over 40 different aircraft types from the US since the country’s inception.
He also implied that industrial cooperation could go both ways, devoting part of his speech to pushing the capabilities of the KAI T-50 Golden Eagle, its indigenously designed trainer. KAI and Lockheed Martin are teamed up in offering the T-50 to the US Air Force for its T-X trainer replacement program.■