The South Korean military on Friday will determine the required operational capabilities for its restarted next-generation fighter procurement project, a move expected to make Lockheed Martin’s F-35 jet the most likely candidate.
During a meeting of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Council, top military officers will also decide on the number of warplanes to be purchased and the period of their operational deployment, military officials said.
The Air Force is said to have requested that a fighter with sufficient radar-evading and electronic warfare capabilities be chosen to cope with present and future aerial threats.
“I understand that the Air Force has made a request as to technical requirements that other candidates, except for the F-35A (the air force variant), can hardly meet,” a military official said, declining to be named.
Among the three candidates also including Boeing’s Advanced F-15 and European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company’s Eurofighter Typhoon, the F-35 is the only all-aspect stealthy aircraft with electronic warfare capability, which Lockheed Martin claims is 10 times stronger than that of dedicated jamming aircraft.
With the F-35 deemed to be the most likely candidate, the Seoul government is expected to opt for a purchase process through a noncompetition contract, which could shorten the negotiating process.
The F-35 fighter jet, if picked as the winner of the prolonged project, will be purchased through a government-to-government “foreign military sale,” in which the Washington government would broker a contract between Seoul and the defense firm.
Some observers argue that a noncompetition contract could put Seoul at a disadvantage in terms of technological transfer critical for Seoul’s push to develop a home-built warplane.
As to the number of fighters to be purchased, Seoul is speculated to purchase around 40 F-35 fighters to meet the current budget of 8.3 trillion won ($7.8 billion).
Under current budgetary regulations, the military could request a budget increase of up to 20 percent. But the Army and Navy would apparently oppose the rise, which would force them to scale down their own procurement projects.
Seoul decided in September to start the acquisition project from scratch amid criticism that it paid more attention to candidates’ price tags than their capabilities and broader strategic interests.
The decision ruled out Boeing’s Advanced F-15, which was short-listed as the only final candidate to fit the budget despite skepticism over its radar-evading capability and four-decade-old platform.
It has been widely expected that South Korea will seek to purchase radar-evading warplanes as neighboring states such as China and Japan are seeking to procure stealth combat aircraft.
China is trying to develop fifth-generation aircraft such as the J-20 and J-31 while Japan has signed a contract with Lockheed Martin to purchase 42 F-35 jets. Russia is working on building its own T-50 stealth fighter with the goal of deploying it in 2016.
The F-35 was developed under the F-35 “Joint Strike Fighter” project launched in 2001. The project is a multinational program joined by the U.S. and eight foreign partners: Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, Canada, Australia, Denmark and Norway.
The single-seat, single-engine F-35 jet 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 takeoff and vertical landing variant and the F-35C is the Navy’s carrier-based version.
Meanwhile, the prospect of Seoul’s project to develop an indigenous fighter faces hurdles in terms of capabilities, budget, technological support from foreign firms and international collaboration, according to Yonhap News.
Citing a report from the state-funded Korea Institute of Standard & Technology Evaluation and Planning, the news agency said the feasibility of the so-called KFX project was inadequate.
KISTEP told The Korea Herald that the report was not yet finalized.
According to the Yonhap report, KISTEP estimated that should Seoul decide to create a whole new design, the KFX would cost 9.3 trillion won while the design based on the existing FA-50 light attack plane would cost 7.1 trillion won. Both exceed the military’s estimate of 6.5 trillion won.
By Song Sang-ho