SEOUL, South Korea — In an attempt to snatch up a maritime patrol aircraft deal in South Korea, Swedish defense contractor Saab has opened the possibility of transferring its advanced radar technology for the KF-X, Seoul’s indigenous fighter jet development program, a Saab representative revealed.
The offer was made as Saab is trying to convince the Defense Acquisition Program Administration, or DAPA, to decide open up for a competitive bid the $1.8 billion anti-submarine aircraft acquisition program, which is expected to go to U.S. Boeing offering the P-8A Poseidon.
Saab is pitching the Swordfish maritime patrol aircraft, built on the Bombardier Global 6000 business jet platform, which the Swedish firm claim shares 70 percent commonality with the GlobalEye airborne early warning and control aircraft.
“We’re open to discuss lots of areas with the DAPA and Korean government,” Richard Hjelmberg, head of Saab’s marketing & sales of airborne ISR, told Defense News during a round-table session at a Seoul hotel on March 20. “If we come to the table for full negotiations and discussions, we’re open to discuss other areas than ones related to the maritime patrol aircraft program.”
The local rules of offset program requires the value of any arms contract bidder to meet at least 50 percent of the total costs of the deal concerned.
Gary Shand, director of sales and marketing of airborne ISR, was more specific about Saab’s list of offset proposals, including the transfer of an advanced active electronically scanned array, or AESA, radar technology.
“We have been talking about the parts production happening in Korea obviously. We have been talking about local industry’s taking part in the integration of certain parts of our mission systems,” he said. “In addition to that, I think Saab has a wide variety of products in portfolio including AESA radar technology for the KF-X program. It could be a discussion point for us to look at the possibility and some cooperation on areas not directly related to the MPA program.”
The idea of Saab’s AESA tech transfer is expected to draw key attention from the Seoul government since KF-X developers are striving to acquire proven AESA technology.
The state-funded Agency for Defense Development, or ADD, and Hanwha Systems, a local radar developer, joined hands in 2016 to build an indigenous AESA radar to be mounted onto the KF-X. The jet’s development schedule slipped a couple of years beyond its initial goal because of the lack of AESA technology, after the U.S. government’s disapproval of AESA tech transfer following South Korea’s purchae of 40 F-35As.
In May last year, Israel’s Elta Systems was selected by the ADD to support the AESA radar development. Under the contract valued at about $36 million, the Israeli firm is in charge of testing an AESA radar system in every phase of development and integrating it with the KF-X prototype.
“The ADD originally wanted to get AESA technology either from Saab or Thales, but the plan was ruptured due to the issues of requirements and budget,” a local defense source involved in the radar competition said on condition of anonymity. “Elta, after all, participated in the project, but some remain skeptical of Elta’s AESA technology level, as the Israeli company has not actually developed an AESA radar.”
An official at Hanwah Systems, formerly known as Samsung Thales, was trying to brush off worries about the ongoing indigenous AESA development but admitted the benefits of taking other nation’s AESA technology if possible.
“Elta is in charge of certifying every phase of the AESA design and development process, and cooperation with the Israeli company has been quite successful,” the official said speaking on condition of anonymity. “But if we get more advanced technology of AESA, the timeline for development will be advanced for sure.”
Saab had been a partner for the exploratory development of KF-X AESA radar in partnership with the ADD and LIG Nex1, a local precision-guided weapons maker. The Swedish firm still has a contract with the Korean partners for cooperation over AESA software development, according to an ADD spokesman.
“Saab was the first overseas company that participated in the KF-X radar project, so the firm obviously keeps good chemistry with the Korean team,” said Kim Dae-young, a research fellow at Korea Research Institute for National Strategy, a Seoul-based think tank. “Years after, however, a local developer was changed and the AESA development program was re-started with a new foreign partner. It is still unclear as to the future of the AESA development bid.”
Led by Korea Korea Aerospace Industries, KF-X full-scale development started in 2016 with the goal of producing six prototypes by 2021. Indonesia’s state-run defense firm PT Dirgantara Indonesia is the only partner for the $8 billion project, responsible for 20 percent of development costs.
About 120 KF-X aircraft are to be produced by 2032 to replace the South Korean Air Force’s aging fleet of F-4s and F-5s.
Jeff Jeong was the South Korea correspondent for Defense News.