South Korea's military has begun to consider operating F-35B stealth aircraft from its newest amphibious landing ship slated to be deployed in 2020, as part of efforts to strengthen its naval power, sources said Sunday.
The authorities have recently discussed whether the second 14,000-ton Dokdo-class vessel can carry the F-35B fighter, a short takeoff and vertical landing variant of the US-made fifth-generation warplane.
"I understand that the military top brass have recently discussed whether they can introduce a small number of F-35B fighters and operate them aboard the new ship that has already been deployed and one to be additionally built," a military source told Yonhap News Agency, declining to be named.
This photo, taken on April 28, 2017, shows a keel-laying ceremony for the 14,500-ton vessel held later in the day at the shipyard of Hanjin Heavy Industries & Construction Co. in Busan. (Yonhap)
"As far as I know, the idea is being weighed in light of maximizing the strategic value of the vessel's capabilities," he added.
The existing Dokdo ship is seen capable of operating only transport helicopters because its deck is not made of materials that can withstand high temperatures or friction caused by fighter jet operations.
"Considerations will continue about whether we can run F-35Bs by redesigning the decks of the Dokdo and the new ship that is being constructed," another source said.
In 2014, Seoul decided to purchase 40 F-35A fighters for deployment from 2018 through 2021 at a cost of 7.3 trillion won
(US$6.75 billion). The F-35A is the fighter's air force variant, while the F-35B and F-35C are for marines and aircraft carrier-based operations, respectively.
There is speculation that Seoul may consider introducing several F-35Bs as it may have to purchase additional warplanes due to a shortage of warplanes that could occur in the coming years with the decommissioning of F-4s and F-5s.
Regarding the idea of purchasing F-35Bs, some argue that it would incur considerable costs for the South Korean military to train pilots and maintain them, given that they are different from the existing fleet and new fighters to be introduced in the coming years.
Meanwhile, Japanese media reported that Tokyo's Maritime Self-Defense Force is considering purchasing F-35Bs for its large escort ships. They said that the military is weighing the options of altering its plan to purchase 42 F-35As to buy some F-35Bs, or additionally purchasing F-35Bs.
Such consideration has triggered concerns that Tokyo's military buildup would undermine its defense-oriented principle that has undergirded its post-war security policy. (Yonhap)