The winner of South Korea’s next-generation fighter jet project is to be selected in a meeting to be presided over by Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin on Tuesday. The selection comes amid lingering controversy over the stealth capability of Boeing’s F-15 Silent Eagle, which is deemed a favorite as it is the only candidate within the 8.3 trillion won ($7.2 billion) budget set aside by Seoul for the project.
Late last month, 15 former Air Force chiefs of staff sent a letter to President Park Geun-hye to raise their objection to adopting F-15 SEs. They suggested reconsidering the assessment criteria that prioritize price over capabilities, effectively excluding the other two bidders with higher price tags: Lockheed Martin’s F-35 and the EADS’ Eurofighter Typhoon.
It is not yet known which aircraft scored highest, but the state military procurement agency is expected to recommend the F-15 SE at the meeting of the 24-member commission to screen defense contracts. The commission is only authorized to approve or reject a recommendation from the Defense Acquisition Procurement Administration, with no say over choosing other bidders or increasing the budget for a program.
If selected as the final contractor, Boeing will provide 60 F-15 SEs between 2017 and 2021 to operate alongside 60 F-15Ks, which have been used since 2002.
The letter signed by retired Air Force generals expressed concerns that the F-15 SE, based on a model originally developed in the 1970s, would not be equipped with sufficient stealth capability required of the next-generation fighter. Many Air Force pilots also seem to have a preference for the F-35, which has been developed as a stealth jet.
As noted by critics, the selection rule, under which the DAPA excluded the bids that exceeded its budget ceiling, may be nonsensical from a military viewpoint. DAPA officials were apparently perplexed when the Lockheed Martin and the EADS tendered bids surpassing its funding limit.
There may be a need to make the bidding process more flexible. But it is now impossible to increase the funding for the fighter purchase program as suggested by the retired Air Force chiefs without restarting the process from scratch under the budget management regulations adopted in 2006.
The delay would push back the introduction of new fighters to replace the aging fleet of aircraft until after 2019, two years behind the schedule set by the Air Force.
Seen in realistic terms, the F-15 SE seems an inevitable choice. As some experts indicate, it may be necessary to take more time to examine the effectiveness of stealth jets. With perfect stealth capability impossible, existing stealth jets have yet to be well tested in actual combat. The development of sophisticated radars capable of detecting them, which could be completed in years, will lessen their usefulness.