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Seoul accelerates stealth fighter program

Boeing’s F-15SE, Lockheed Martin’s F-35 likely candidates for FX-III project

South Korea is accelerating moves to purchase a high-end fleet of stealth fighter jets to counter North Korea’s asymmetrical threats and keep pace with neighboring countries seeking to secure their own radar-evading combat aircraft.

Under the FX-III acquisition project worth around 10 trillion won ($8.86 billion), the Seoul government is seeking to purchase some 60 next-generation fighters with an aim to have them delivered for operational deployment to begin in 2016.

The government is expected to draw up an acquisition strategy in the first half of this year, start receiving proposals from bidders early next year and determine which jet it will buy as early as August that year, according to Seoul officials.

As the Defense Ministry failed to secure 15.7 billion won, which it wanted to include in this year’s budget to get the acquisition work started, in the face of opposition from the National Assembly and budget authorities, it was expected that the military would not be able to start deploying new warplanes in 2016.

However, the Seoul government has recently begun moving faster to secure stealth fighters as calls have persisted for the military to acquire the strategic precision-guided weaponry that can handle asymmetrical threats from the North.

Along with Japan’s ongoing efforts to develop its own Advanced Technology Demonstrator-X Shinshin stealth fighter, China’s successful test flight on its first stealth jet, the J-20, in January also appears to have prompted Seoul to accelerate its acquisition efforts.

Seoul also believes that the FX-III project should be fast-tracked due to projections that the Air Force may suffer a shortage of fighter jets after the mid-2010s when its aging fighters are due to be decommissioned.

It estimates the Air Force may lack some 100 fighters in the late-2010s. The Air Force believes it needs at least 430 fighter jets of different levels to prepare for possible wartime operations ― some 100 high-end, 200 middle-range and 100 low-end fighters.

The FX-III competition also appears to be in connection with the KF-X project, designed to develop homegrown battle planes that would replace aging F-4 and F-5 fighters.

Observers here say that the Seoul government is likely to see how much a bidder can contribute to the KF-X project in terms of technology transfer during the acquisition process.

Military officials and experts largely agree that stealth fighters should be introduced early as North Korea’s provocations continue to destabilize the security environment on the Korean Peninsula.

Boeing’s F-15 Silent Eagle and Lockheed Martin’s F-35 are being considered as the two most likely candidate fighters for the FX-III project.
F-15 Silent Eagle (Boeing)
F-15 Silent Eagle (Boeing)

F-15 Silent Eagle

In March 2009, Boeing first unveiled the two-seat, two-engine F-15 Silent Eagle with a maximum speed of mach 2.5, which has been being developed based on what it calls “combat-proven” F-15 Eagle.

In its promotion of the Silent Eagle, Boeing has focused on the fighter jet’s overall survivability, cost-effectiveness and “tactically useful” radar cross section reduction, pointing out that it would still retain the F-15’s long-range, large payload capabilities.

Critics here have doubted stealth capabilities of F-15SE, calling it a “semi-stealth jet” ― compared with Lockheed Martin’s F-35 ― as it is being developed on the basis of the non-stealth concept of the fourth-generation fighter jet.

Boeing refused to reveal the level of the RCS reduction on the F-15SE as it is classified information while stressing that it is ready to provide a reasonable level of the RCS reduction that could meet South Korea’s requirements. RCS is a measure of how detectable an object is with radar. A larger RCS indicates that an object is more easily detected.

It, however, remains confident that overall, the F-15SE can offer a good solution for South Korea’s Air Force, citing a series of factors including its interoperability with the existing F-15K fighter jets run by South Korea’s Air Force.

“With a balanced approach to survivability, the F-15SE takes a low risk, cost effective approach to securing the national interest of our customers with advanced AESA (active electronically scanned array) radar, an advanced electronic warfare system, tactfully useful radar cross section reduction,” Brad Jones, director of Boeing’s F-15 Development Programs, told The Korea Herald.

Jones pointed out that one of the most important attributes of the F-15SE is “mission flexibility” which ensures the cost effectiveness of the fighter jet.

“Being able to perform air superiority, air-to-ground, deep penetration, maritime and remote island defense missions with a single platform provides a nation with the most cost effective solution to protect their national security,” he said.

“If you include the fact the F-15SE is more than 85 percent common with the existing F-15K Slam Eagle fleet, Korea will be able to greatly reduce their operational and support cost over the projected 30 year service life. No one else in the world can offer such a cost effective solution with this type of proven, superior operational capability.”

To a question of whether it can meet Korea’s anticipated delivery timeline, Jones said, “Boeing is committed to providing an operational capable F-15 Silent Eagle to the Republic of Korea when they need it for their force structure needs.”

Boeing explains that for a mission that requires a stealth capability, the F-15SE could carry a 2,700-pound internal payload for 800 nautical miles in an air-to-ground configuration or 720 nautical miles in an air-to-air configuration.

Its conformal weapons bay could accommodate various mixtures of weapons systems ― two Sidewinder missiles and two Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missiles; or four AMRAAMs; or an air-to-air and air-to-ground mix of two AMRAAMs and two 1,000-pound Joint Direct Attack Munition bombs; or eight 250-pound Small Diameter Bombs.

If a mission did not require stealth, the F-15 Silent Eagle could be reconfigured for missions that required more payloads over a longer mission range. Removing the weapons bays would enable F-15SE to have a 29,500-pound payload for missions in the 1,000-nautical mile range in an air-to-ground configuration and 900 nautical miles in an air-to-air configuration.

F-35 Lightning II (Lockheed Martin)
F-35 Lightning II (Lockheed Martin)

F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Lightning II

A set of issues over rising costs and delays in the development of the F-35 fighter jet has apparently sapped confidence in the massive multinational program for the new radar-evading fighter that involve nine countries including the U.S.

Struggling to overcome such challenges, Lockheed Martin, which is spearheading the F-35 project, has been highlighting the fighter’s stealth capability that is believed to be better than those of other competitors.

Randy Howard, Lockheed Martin’s director of Korea F-35 Campaign, stressed that the F-35 is the “only true, all-aspect stealthy fifth-generation” fighter available on the international market while categorizing the F-15SE as a forth-generation jet.

“The F-35 redefines multi-role fighter aircraft performance and provides a quantum leap in capability over the fourth generation aircraft including the F-15SE which is based upon a design that dates to 1968,” he told The Korea Herald.

“True stealth must be designed from the ground up. It cannot be retrofitted. The F-35 achieves its Very Low Observable performance through its fundamental design, its external shape, and its state of the art manufacturing processes which control tolerances to less than half the diameter of a human hair.”

The F-35 has been co-developed with eight foreign partners ― Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, Canada, Australia, Denmark and Norway ― since 2001. The U.S., along with the eight countries, has invested some $50 billion for the F-35 project.

The single-seat, single-engine F-35 jet with a maximum speed of mach 1.8 has three different variants.

The conventional takeoff and landing F-35A is for air force operations, while the F-35B is the Marine Corps’ short take-off and vertical landing variant and the F-35C is the Navy’s carrier based version.

While the development of the two variants has been properly proceeding, the Marine Corps’ variant is experiencing significant testing problems stemming from software development issues, according to reports.

Given their budget constraints, the growing price of the F-35 is also burdensome for many countries. It is widely believed that the price of the F-35 per unit may double the original price of about $50 million ― set in 2001.

Criticism has surfaced here that the increase of the per-unit price runs counter to the development purpose of the F-35 ― producing a less costly stealth fighter for overseas customers as the F-22 Raptor, the top U.S. air superiority fighter, is barred by law from export until 2015 to protect its stealth technology.

Other than the price issues, another concern here is whether South Korea can acquire it at a time it needs the fighter since it is not part of the multinational JSF project.

Howard said that the F-35A will be available to South Korea with deliveries beginning in 2016, noting that F-35A’s System Development and Demonstration program, which includes developmental flight tests, is scheduled to complete in early 2016.

Regarding the increasing development costs, Howard said that as production quantities continue to increase, the production price will subsequently decrease.

“Cost increases to date have been predominantly associated with the development phase of the program. The U.S. government has borne the entire financial responsibility of these developmental cost increases and has not passed them along to participating countries,” he said.

“As production quantities continue to increase, the recurring production price will continue down that cost curve. Lockheed Martin expects the average unit recurring cost of an F-35A to be approximately $65 million in 2010 year economics.”

Howard also claimed that all issues with the development of the F-35 have proven to be “solvable.”

“The fundamental design and the software are sound ― there are no technical limitations,” he said.

By Song Sang-ho (


軍 무기체계 첨단·현대화 속도낸다 

우리 공군의 주력전투기인 KF-16 팰콘에 정밀유도무기인 JDAM이 장착되면서 전력화가 완료된 데 이어 서해 부대에는 함대지 순항미사일 ‘천룡’이 연내 실전배치되고, 차세대 스텔스 전투기 도입이 앞당겨지는 등 군 무기체제의 첨단화에 가속도가 붙고 있다.

공군이 9일 KF-16 전투기에 장착 완료한 JDAM(합동직격폭탄)은 서울을 비롯한 수도권 북부권역의 최대 위협으로 동굴 갱도 안에 숨어 있는 북한의 장사정포를 정밀 타격해 무력화시킬 수 있다. JDAM은 F-15K에는 장착돼 운용되고 있는데 이번에 공군이 주력기종인 KF-16 전투기까지도 JDAM을 운용할 수 있게 됨에 따라 현대전의 총아인 공군의 정밀타격 능력이 크게 증대될 것으로 기대된다.

군은 또 우리 나라가 개발한 사거리 500㎞의 국산 함대지 크루즈미사일 ‘천룡’(현무 3-A)을 서해상에 배치된 한국형 구축함(4500t급)에 연내 실전배치할 계획이다. 이 미사일은 원거리에서 북한의 지대함 미사일기지 등을 타격할 수 있는 무기다. 군은 현무-3A, B, C로 불리는 사거리 500~1500㎞의 크루즈 미사일을 개발했으며 이 미사일은 한국형 구축함과 이지스 구축함인 세종대왕함(7600t급) 등에 장착돼 북한 서해안 미사일 기지 등을 타격할 수 있다. 특히 북한이 북방한계선(NLL) 인근 서해안에 집중적으로 배치한 지대함 미사일이 우리 해군 함정에 위협이 되고 있는 만큼 이에 대응하는 전력이 될 것으로 보인다.

정부와 군 당국은 아울러 스텔스 기능을 갖춘 차세대 전투기(FX 3차) 도입 사업을 앞당기기로 했다. 스텔스기는 정밀유도 무기를 탑재한 상태에서 레이더에 잡히지 않고 공중에 머물면서 공격할 수 있는 꿈의 전투기다.
북한의 공격거점 정밀 타격과 비대칭 전력에 대응하기 위한 것이며, 우리 공군의 장기취역 전투기인 F-4와 F-5 등의 퇴역에 대비한 전력보강 의미도 있다. 이 노후 전투기들은 2015년 이후에 퇴역, 우리 공군의 적정전투기는 100대 정도가 부족해진다. 이에 앞서 서해5도에는 다연장로켓포(MLRS), 지대공 미사일 천마 등이 속속 배치되고 있다. MLRS는 227㎜ 로켓탄 12발을 20초 안에 쏠 수 있고 축구장 4개 면적을 초토화할 수 있다. 

천마는 궤도 장갑차량에 지대공 미사일 8발과 탐지 및 추적장치, 사격통제장치를 탑재하고 있는 단거리 대공무기로 적기 탐지 후 10초 내에 격추할 수 있다. 탑재된 대공미사일은 집중파편식 탄두로 설계돼 표적의 반경 8m 이내에서만 폭발해도 표적을 파괴할 수 있다. (헤럴드경제)