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S. Korea can expect lower prices of F-35 fighter jets: expert

Seeking a new budget and vender for its next-generation fighter jet procurement program, South Korea may be offered lower prices of F-35s than Lockheed Martin originally proposed, a U.S. defense industry expert said Thursday.

South Korea has delayed the selection of a winning bidder as it weighs the pros and cons of the F-35, Boeing's F-15SE and the Eurofighter Typhoon.

Lockheed and Eurofighter were priced out of the contest, moving Boeing closer to clinching the US$7.4-billion deal.

South Korea, focusing on stealth capability, apparently wanted to buy 60 F-35s but Lockheed's prices exceeded its budget. A plan to choose the less-stealthy F-15SE as an alternative was aborted due to a strong backlash from a group of retired Air Force officials.

"Since the collapse of the deal, Lockheed Martin has taken orders for the F-35 from the Netherlands, Britain, Turkey, Australia, Italy, Norway, and Japan," Richard Weitz, a senior researcher at the Hudson Institute, said at a forum hosted by Korea Economic Institute (KEI). "Given the increased production of the F-35, it is possible that Lockheed Martin will reduce the price of its tender bid."

But Weitz, an experienced military analyst, said it's too early to rule out Boeing, which says it remains engaged with South Korea over the possible sale of F-15s.

Boeing emphasizes that the F-15SE has better combat capability and F-35s have not been fully developed yet.

It is now suggesting South Korea consider a mixed purchase of F-15s and F-35s.

In any case, Weitz said, South Korea will have to raise the spending ceiling, lower the number of planes ordered below 60 and delay the desired entry into the fleet of the first plane until after 2017.

He added South Korea's next-generation fighter jets, if introduced, would add to its fast-improving capability of launching preemptive strikes on North Korean targets.

Officials in China and the U.S. are increasingly alarmed by it, he said.

Meanwhile, Weitz noted the remarkable development of South Korea's defense industry, not only for domestic consumption but also for export.

"As in Japan, South Korea's increasingly advanced civilian dual-use industries have facilitated the growth of the country's defense sector," he said.

Its main exported items include the T-50 trainer jet, the

K1/K1A1 main battle tank, and the KDX-I, II and III destroyers.

Among the main buyers are the U.S. and Turkey but demand is growing in Southeast Asia and the Middle East, he pointed out.

However, South Korean firms "still lag behind global leaders in some core technologies, which they have to import," such as aviation electronics, flight controls, stealth materials and rotor design, as shown in the plan to purchase foreign fighter jets, he said.

"Another problem has been that China has objected to some ROK (South Korean) defense sales to the Philippines and may continue to protest ROK defense exports to Vietnam or other countries that have territorial conflicts with Beijing," he said.

Exports account for 7 percent of defense-related trade in South Korea, according to official data.

In 2011, South Korea exported US$2.3 billion worth of military equipment, but the defense industry trade deficit amounted to $8 billion, second only to India, said Weitz. (Yonhap News)