SEOUL — Research on the long-awaited upgrade of Chinook helicopters flown by the South Korean military shows it would be cheaper to buy new aircraft, according to a local lawmaker.

Rep. Min Hong-chul of the ruling Democratic Party revealed the result of the latest preliminary research on the Chinook upgrade during a parliamentary audit of the Defense Acquisition Program Administration on Oct. 20.

The lawmaker, who sits on the National Assembly’s Defense Committee, said the research concluded in September that the cost of upgrading 17 of the 43 CH-47D Chinook helicopters would be about 1.35 trillion won ($1.2 billion), which is higher than the estimated cost of 1.22 trillion won for buying new ones.

The upgrade cost is partly driven by the fact that Chinook manufacturer Boeing no longer produces parts for older variants, like those owned by South Korea, so specially ordered parts could prove expensive, Min said, citing the research conducted by the Defense Agency for Technology and Quality, which is affiliated with DAPA.

Furthermore, some Korean military task equipment such as the Korean Variable Message Format data link cannot be installed on the upgraded helos due to incompatibility, the research suggested.

“A series of reverses and delays on decision-making have foiled key arms acquisition projects, including the Chinook upgrade,” Min said, expressing concern about an operational gap in military transport trainings and missions.

South Korea operates about 50 Chinooks, with some of them in service for up to 50 years. With some parts of the older Chinook no longer being produced, the South Korean fleet’s operational rate has suffered, according to the lawmaker. For instance, the Air Force’s Chinook utilization rate from the first half of the year was around 40 percent.

DAPA is expected to hold a meeting soon to decide whether to buy new heavy-lift helicopters rather than upgrade the existing fleet. But industry sources expect buying new helos would take more time and end up costing more, depending on the variant.

“To get Block I CH-47F Chinook cargo helicopters, which have been on the shopping list of the South Korean Army, the letter of offer and acceptance should be issued by July next year at the latest, but it would be very difficult to finalize the decision-making procedures within the timeline,” said Ahn Seung-beom, a military analyst and writer with Defense Times Korea. “[If it doesn’t] buy Block I, South Korea has an option to get Block II, which is to be produced for the U.S. Army first, and then it could take more time and costs to get the up-to-date, heavy-lift helicopters.”

A source at Boeing told Defense News that both cost and an export license stand in the way of South Korea’s CH-47F Block II purchase.

“The development of the CH-47F Block II is still underway, so the price cannot be expected at this moment,” the source explained on condition of anonymity. “The U.S. Army has yet to place an order for the new cargo helicopters, so it’s unclear how many aircraft would be produced.”

It’s also unclear if a foreign sale will receive approval, the source added. “The U.S. government strictly controls arms technology, so getting an export license for key weapons systems is a hurdle.”

Brian Kim was a South Korea correspondent for Defense News.

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