SEOUL — When South Korean President Moon Jae-in visited the White House this month, U.S. President Donald Trump used the meeting to tout that the Asian nation plans to buy of a large amount of American weapons systems in the years ahead.

“President Moon [Jae-in] and South Korea have agreed to purchase a tremendous amount of our military equipment, from jet fighters to missiles, to lots of other things,” Trump said at the April 11 meeting, where North Korea’s stalled denuclearization topped the agenda. “And we make the finest equipment in the world by far, and we appreciate the purchase. It’s a very large purchase.”

South Korea’s presidential office and military procurement authorities have since been tight-lipped about what might be in that “very large purchase.” But local defense experts and industry sources tell Defense News that acquisition decisions will focus on airborne systems with a price tag reaching 10 trillion won (U.S. $8.8 billion) over the next five to six years.

“A key motive for U.S. weapons purchase is the planned transfer of wartime operational control from the U.S. military to the South Korean armed forces,” said Shin Jong-woo, a senior analyst at the Seoul-based Korea Defense and Security Forum think tank. “What we need now to lead wartime operations in the years ahead is to get more and better airborne weapons systems, which would be preferential purchasing items.”

The South Korean government is accelerating efforts to take back authority to control its armed forces during wartime by 2022. An American four-star general currently is responsible for the maneuvers of both U.S. and South Korean troops on the Korean Peninsula in the event of war, and South Korean forces are heavily dependent on American airborne equipment for wartime deterrence.

Priority planes

Of the items considered for purchase, stealth fighter jets are at the top of the list, according to procurement and industry sources.

The Defense Acquisition Program Administration, or DAPA, has completed preliminary research on the purchase of 20 more F-35As from the U.S. government, according to South Korean Air Force and industry sources. In 2014, Seoul ordered 40 F-35As, built by Lockheed Martin, through the Pentagon’s Foreign Military Sales program.

“The procurement agency has launched a feasibility study on the additional purchase of F-35As, and the request for proposal, or RFI, is to be issued early next year,” a military source involved in the preliminary research told Defense News on condition of anonymity. “The Air Force wants the first delivery of the second batch to start in 2021, but the schedule could be slipped a little bit.”

Funding for this effort will be about $3 billion, according to the source.

Airborne systems for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance are also on the purchase list as part of midterm force improvement plans from 2019 to 2023, according to South Korean procurement sources.

The Defense Agency for Technology and Quality, an affiliate of DAPA, launched studies last year for a Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar System, or JSTARS. The 2019-2023 budget for midterm force improvement, which was released in January, detailed plans to acquire at least four JSTARS aircraft.

The budget for that acquisition is estimated at $1.7 billion, a DAPA source told Defense News. “The agency issued a request for information, and a couple of foreign potential bidders responded to the request,” the source said.

Among the bidders are Boeing, Raytheon and Israel Aerospace Industries’ Elta Systems. Boeing offered a P-8 Poseidon-based aircraft fitted with Raytheon’s Advanced Airborne Sensor radar capable of wide-range ground surveillance operations.

Raytheon proposed its Sentinel design, based on the Bombardier Global Express business jet. The aircraft is equipped with a dual-mode, synthetic aperture radar and moving target indication radar, and is currently flown by the British Royal Air Force.

Elta is known to be marketing its multimission airborne reconnaissance and surveillance system, dubbed “Mars2,” based on the Gulfstream G550 business jet.

“JSTARS is a key asset required for the transfer of wartime operational control, as the South Korean military for itself seeks to expand it operational capabilities,” said Kim Dae-young, an analyst at the Korea Research Institute for National Strategy. “A key criterion is expected to be how much the system has been proven in the battlefield, and export control issues could be an agenda item.”

Along with the JSTARS, the South Korean Air Force plans to buy two more airborne early warning and control systems. The service now operates four Boeing-built 737 AEW&C aircraft equipped with Northrop Grumman’s multirole electronically scanned array radar.

Sweden’s Saab has thrown its hat into the ring to challenge Boeing by proposing its GlobalEye AEW&C based on a modified Bombardier Global 6000 aircraft. Elta is also known to be a competitor.

In addition, the Air Force is considering buying six to eight electronic warfare aircraft similar to the Boeing-built EA-18G Growler.

Helicopter requirements

As for naval materiel, the forthcoming competition over 12 anti-submarine warfare helicopters is beginning — again.

Initially, it seemed Italy’s Leonardo was going to score an easy win for South Korea’s second batch of anti-submarine helicopters. The procurement program would seek 12 more AW159 Wildcat helicopters, with no other competitors for the $840 million program.

But DAPA decided to accept a U.S. proposal for an alternate option and begin the competitive bidding process from scratch.

The original plan was for a direct commercial deal with a foreign helicopter maker, with three bidders — Leonardo, Lockheed Martin and NH Industries — showing interest. The two latter contenders failed to submit their proposals by the Nov. 14 deadline, leaving Leonardo seemingly as the only remaining bidder.

According to sources from DAPA, however, soon after the deadline the U.S. government sent a letter of price and availability of Lockheed Martin’s MH-60R Seahawk, causing South Korean procurement officials to rethink the acquisition approach. As dictated by acquisition regulations, two successive failed bids mean the agency can make a private contract with a sole bidder; however, such a move is not mandatory.

Lockheed officials are tying their hopes to a potential MH-60R contract with India, which they believe would mean savings for South Korea should it order the aircraft. The U.S. State Department this month approved the sale of 24 Seahawks to India for an estimated $2.6 billion; however, the deal has a way to go before anything is official.

“With India’s order of 24 aircraft, the MH-60R FMS orders are expected to go up to 44, including the potential order of 12 units from South Korea,” said a source at Lockheed Martin. “Then South Korea would certainly get MH-60Rs cheaper, benefiting from the economies of scale.”

For its part, Leonardo thinks its price is competitive enough to secure a contract. “Leonardo will do its part to ensure that it meets the budget requirement,” a Leonardo spokesman said. “We welcome and assure a fair and transparent competition to take place under any circumstances.”

Meanwhile, the South Korean Army plans to field 24 more Boeing-built AH-64E Apache Guardian attack helicopters. Under a 2013 FMS deal valued $1.6 billion, 36 AH-64E helos were delivered to the service.

The ship-based SM-3 ballistic missile interceptor is near the top of the South Korean Navy’s wish list; already the Joint Chiefs of Staff set a requirement for the interceptor to augment the country’s plan for its low-tier, terminal-phase missile defense, which involves the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 and the U.S. Army’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense systems, as well as locally developed surface-to-air missiles.

The Ministry of National Defense said earlier this year that it would increase defense spending by an average of 7.5 percent each year over the next five years. The ministry said it would spend some $240 billion during that period, with about $82.7 billion of that set aside for improving weapons systems.

Overall, there are concerns in South Korea that the country’s ability to buy military equipment is at the mercy of U.S. political pressure, said Shin, the analyst with Korea Defense and Security Forum.

“It could happen, but I believe the defense acquisition program has a fair and transparent process not to be influenced by politics, and instead this is a very good opportunity to get advanced weapons systems in time,” he added.

Jeff Jeong was the South Korea correspondent for Defense News.

More In Asia Pacific
Biden drops out of 2024 race
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin praised Biden for his "profound and personal commitment to the Department of Defense and the American military" on Sunday.