South Korea's arms procurement agency said Tuesday it has approved bid proposals by three foreign defense companies for a multi-million dollar fighter jet project and will start flight tests from next week.
The F-15 Silent Eagle by U.S. firm Boeing, the F-35A by another American company Lockheed Martin, and the Eurofighter by Europe-based multinational defense group EADS are in the running to win the deal worth upward of 8.3 trillion won ($7.3 billion).
South Korea plans to purchase 60 fighter jets by 2021 to replace the Air Force's aging fleet.
The Defense Acquisition Program Administration said Air Force evaluators will conduct flight tests and enter into negotiations with company officials from Monday.
After the process, South Korean officials plan to visit production facilities of Boeing, EADS and Lockheed next month for data-gathering and simulator tests, the DAPA said.
To conduct the flight tests later this month, Seoul sent requests to the bidders asking whether South Korean evaluators could use telemetry and a pursuit plane to measure the function of their planes.
According to a senior government official, Boeing and EADS replied that they will allow South Korean Air Force pilots to test run the planes, while Lockheed Martin has not yet confirmed whether it will allow use of the testing methods.
"In a written answer, the U.S. Air Force said it will consult with senior officials about the use of telemetry for test flights (on the F-35A)," the official said on the condition of anonymity citing sensitivity of the issue.
Regarding South Korea's request to use the pursuit plane, the U.S. Air Force said it will "positively review" the request, without elaboration.
The DAPA had earlier said it will not conduct tests on flights that fail to meet South Korean government's demands for flight tests.
The government earlier said it will announce the winner of the bid later this year, but the fate of the mega project is uncertain as it has faced challenges ahead of the presidential election slated for December.
Pointing out that President Lee Myung-bak's single five-year term ends in February, leading presidential contenders in the ruling and opposition camps said the final decision on the fighter jet deal should be left to the next administration. Government officials reiterated their plans to go ahead with the project to replace the old fighter planes.
South Korea has already purchased 60 of Boeing's F-15 fighter jets since 2002 in the first two stages of its fighter modernization program.