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[Editorial] Incompetence is vice, too

DAPA, Air Force bungle fighter jet acquisition deal

During a recent parliamentary audit of the Defense Acquisition Program Administration, a lawmaker asked its chief to name the most prominent corruption case involving military procurement. His answer was: “Well there are so many, so I don’t know.”

This comic episode illustrates how pervasive corruption is in the nation’s procurement programs. So much so that there is a joint investigation team — consisting of the state prosecution, military prosecution, police, tax and customs agencies and financial watchdogs — that has been putting hordes of retired and serving generals and colonels in jail.

What further frustrates us is that corruption is not the only problem with our defense acquisition programs. It is full of incompetence, as highlighted by the controversy over the faulty deal to purchase the next-generation fighter jets.

The controversy surrounds the decision of the U.S. government to block Lockheed Martin from transferring four core technologies when it hands over its F-35 stealth fighters to Korea.

The technologies on radar, infrared search and track, targeting and jamming systems were part of the 25 technologies Korean officials said the U.S. firm would provide.

Korea signed the 7.3 trillion won ($62 billion) contract last year, under which the U.S. firm will supply 40 F-35A stealth fighter jets. DAPA and Air Force officials said at the time that they would have no problem getting all the necessary technology transfers and that they would secure guarantees from Lockheed Martin.

Now officials from the same agencies say that the problem stemmed from the U.S. government’s decision to block the transfer and that the company was not responsible. Some even say that they knew full well technology transfer would be difficult.

This shows that either DAPA and Air Force officials lied to exaggerate the benefits of the contract or they were utterly incompetent. Most of all, they should have secured a legal commitment for the transfer and compensation in case the transfer fell through.

As opposition leader Moon Jae-in said during a parliamentary audit, Lockheed Martin, which competed with Boeing, another U.S. firm, and Europe’s EADS, won the contract by presenting tempting conditions. Korean officials said the value of the 25 technologies would amount to $1.4 billion.

What makes it more unsettling is that the technologies in question are essential for the project to develop indigenous next-generation fighters. DAPA and Air Force officials said they could seek cooperation with third countries for the development of the radar and search-tracking systems and develop the targeting and jamming systems on their own.

But it means that the plan to put Korean-developed fighter jets into service beginning in 2025 could become more complicated, cost more and moreover, could fall behind schedule.

The first thing that should be done is look into how the contract was signed under such vague terms and obscure expectations and hold the relevant officials responsible. Then authorities should look at the possibility of demanding compensation from Lockheed Martin.

At the same time, the government could perhaps contact U.S. government officials to discuss the transfer of the technologies in question. We are saying this because we hear that the Seoul government did nothing more than sending a letter from the defense minister to his U.S. counterpart in August.

South Korea is one of the closest allies of the U.S. and it is a big buyer of American weapons and military equipment. It has good grounds to ask for special treatment in the area of military technology transfer as well. If the U.S. keeps turning a deaf ear to such appeals, we need to turn to other suppliers.