MELBOURNE, Australia — The South Korean government has approved its military to acquire more fifth-generation stealth fighters, while also starting the process to acquire the SM-6 ship-launched interceptor, according to the country’s arms procurement agency.
The Defense Acquisition Program Administration, or DAPA, said the Defense Project Promotion Committee approved a $2.85 billion plan to buy more Lockheed Martin-made F-35A fighter jets. South Korea is to receive the aircraft by 2028.
DAPA did not state how many more F-35As the military will acquire under the latest plan, although South Korea received the U.S. State Department’s approval for 60 F-35As in 2013 and has already ordered 40.
The committee also gave approval for the first of a two-phase, $582.8 million plan to acquire the Raytheon Technologies-made SM-6 air defense missile to equip a second batch of KDX-III destroyers equipped with the Aegis weapons system. The missiles will be used for air defense and to counter ballistic missiles for the 8,200-ton ships, which currently operate the SM-2.
South Korea has three KDX-III destroyers from its first batch, which are also known as Sejong the Great-class ships, in service with its Navy. The ROKS Jeongjo the Great, which will be the lead ship of the second batch, was launched in July 2022 and is expected to enter service in 2024.
South Korea’s Defense Ministry also confirmed it still wants to develop an aircraft carrier. The local SBS news outlet reported that the ministry responded to inquiries from a parliamentarian that it will soon start feasibility studies into the prospects of building a 50,000-ton design.
The ministry had told Jung Sung-ho, who sits on the parliament’s National Defense Committee, that it would also be possible to develop a carrierborne variant of the KF-21 fighter, locally made by Korean Aerospace Industries, within a decade if the government allocates sufficient funding.
South Korea previously floated the idea of developing a 30,000-ton class carrier for operating the F-35B, the short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing variant of the Joint Strike Fighter. But a larger ship from which the KF-21 could operate means the military can conduct flight operations using catapults for aircraft launches and arrested landings.
This would be a more complex and expensive system than F-35B carrier operations, and it is expected the ministry will make a decision by the end of this year about whether to proceed with the program and which option it will pursue.
South Korea is technically still at war with its nuclear-armed neighbor, North Korea, having only signed an armistice agreement. The North has continued to develop its ballistic and cruise missile programs, and frequently test-fires these into the waters around the Korean Peninsula.
Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for Defense News.