The Korean army decided to purchase 40 Lockheed Martin F-35A stealth fighters as Korea’s next-generation fighter aircraft. The purchase came just two months after the Boeing F-15 SE Silent Eagle was reviewed as the preferred bidder for the FX-III project, but failed to pass muster. The reason for the rejection is because the Korean Air Force has asked the government to buy combat aircraft with stealth capabilities.
Considering the budget and security situation, the Korean Army will purchase 40 fighter jets this time, and later buy 20 additional units, possibly other fighter jets if the Required Operational Capability (ROC) can be altered.
Choi Yun-hee, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), held a meeting of top commanders on November 22 to approve the plan to buy 40 F-35 Block 3s, which are capable of conducting air-to-air and air-to-ground missions with an internal carriage and external stations for missiles and bombs.
The total budget hasn’t been confirmed, as the F-35, which is still under development by the US military, can be sold only through the US Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program, requiring a foreign government to pay the amount specified by the US government for the F-35s at the time of payment.
Seoul had initially assigned 8.3 trillion won (US$7.2 billion) for 60 fighter jets, of which Boeing’s F-15 Silent Eagle was the only bid within the budget. The budget excluded the F-35, although the Lockheed fighter jet had initially been considered a favorite.
In a briefing on November 22, Air Force Brigadier General Shin Ik-kyun said, “The JCS decided to buy 40 jets first to minimize the security vacuum, and purchase the remaining 20 after reassessing the ROC in accordance with the changing security situations and state of aerospace technology.”
The comment would mean the other two bidders, Boeing and the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company (EDAS), will have another opportunity to secure a contract. In particular, Boeing earlier proposed a mixed purchase of F-15s and F-35s to minimize the security vacuum, while EADS promised the transfer of technology as a bonus for it obtaining Korea’s aircraft procurement project.
The decision to choose the F-35 was made as part of the need to acquire fifth-generation jets, considering the security environment of the Korean Peninsula encircled by China and Japan, which are at odds with each other over territorial disputes and are seeking to expand their military power. Russia is also preparing to equip its Air Force with stealth jets.
In the meantime, industry experts say the one-way bid gives Seoul less room to negotiate other conditions such as technology transfer or industrial cooperation in connection with the program, due to a tight US arms export policy.
In past bids, Lockheed, Boeing, and EADS had proposed aggressive programs ranging from technology transfers to promises of purchasing Korean-made parts.
“Even if changes have been made to the program and number of jets, we will push for the project by acquiring promises on technology transfers in the fighter development project,” a senior ministry official said without elaborating on the specifics of the negotiations.
Korea aims to complete the development of a fighter jet around 2020 with the goal of deploying it by 2023.