c.2013 New York Times News Service
c.2013 New York Times News Service
SEOUL, South Korea — After South Korea decided Tuesday that Boeing’s F-15 Silent Eagle was not good enough for its next generation of fighter jets, the country returned to the quandary it has been grappling with for two years.
On one hand, the F-15SE may not be sophisticated enough, but it is cheap enough to meet the South Korean military’s budget cap of 8.3 trillion won, or $7.7 billion.
On the other hand, the rival Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter has what the F-15SE does not — state-of-the-art radar-evading stealth capabilities — but it is too expensive and may arrive too late for the South Korean air force, whose fleet of fighter jets is quickly aging.
A third choice — EADS’s Eurofighter Typhoon — is enticing, both in price and technology, defense analysts say, but it raises a separate question: Can South Korea afford not to buy its warplanes from the United States, its longtime ally and partner in defending against North Korea?
“All three have very distinct advantages and disadvantages,” said Kim Jong-dae, a military analyst and editor of the magazine Defense 21 Plus, published in Seoul.
South Korea opened its largest-ever tender for weapons last year, inviting the three companies to bid to supply 60 fighter jets starting in 2017. In July, after months of stalled discussions, the military abruptly declared that its budget cap was not negotiable, leaving Boeing as the sole bidder. The other two were disqualified for exceeding the price ceiling.
When Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin and top procurement officials met Tuesday for a final decision, many observers had said the meeting was largely a formality to accept the Boeing bid. But the meeting delivered a surprise: The officials said that the F-15SE was not good enough and that they were reopening the tender offer.
It was a controversial move and a setback for Boeing, which had won the country’s two previous jet contracts. Boeing and others have increasingly relied on foreign orders to help them weather the downturn in U.S. government spending. The company said in a news release that it was “deeply disappointed” by the South Korean decision.
Boeing’s setback left Lockheed Martin’s F-35A, previously considered too expensive, shooting to the front in the competition for South Korea’s contract, as the government singled out a “fifth-generation fighter” as its new preferred option. The F-35A, the only U.S. fifth-generation jet available for export, has already been ordered by Australia, Britain, Israel, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands and Norway. Increased production of the F-35 could allow the U.S. government and Lockheed to lower the cost of building and operating each aircraft.
Even before the Tuesday decision, former South Korean air force chiefs had pressed the government not to pick the F-15SE, arguing that the country needed warplanes with true stealth capabilities that could “covertly infiltrate North Korea and get rid of its nuclear threats.” The Silent Eagle is a revamping of the F-15 Eagle, adding features that reduce but do not eliminate its radar signature.
“Eurofighter has an excellent air superiority, but I don’t think it’s politically feasible to buy our next fleet of warplanes from any source other than the United States,” said Kim Tae-woo, a longtime government military analyst and a professor at Dongguk University in Seoul, referring to the Eurofighter Typhoon. “So the answer has been always clear: It has to be F-35. The decision on Tuesday was difficult but inevitable.”
The military alliance with the Americans has been the centerpiece of South Korea’s defense against North Korea since the United States fought alongside South Korea during the war of 1950-53. It has bought all its major weapons systems from the Americans, emphasizing “interoperability” with the United States, which stations 28,500 troops in the country. South Korea was one of the world’s top five importers of conventional weapons between 2008 and 2012.
“If North Korea were our only concern, any of those three candidates would have met our needs. The North’s air power is outdated,” said Shin In-kyun, a military expert who runs the Korea Defense Network, a civic group specializing in military affairs. “China, Japan and Russia: All our neighbors are trying to switch to stealth capabilities, and we must too.”
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The North Korean air force maintains a combat fleet of 820 planes, most of them Soviet-era models, including MiG-21s, MiG-23s and MiG-29s, according to a military white paper published by the South Korean government. But officials said many North Korean planes were grounded because of a lack of parts and fuel.
South Korea has a combat fleet of 460 fighter jets, including about 220 F-15Ks and F-16s, which serve as its front-line fighters. Separately, the U.S. military keeps about 90 fighter jets in South Korea and has flown its most powerful warplanes — B-2 stealth bombers, F-22 stealth fighters and B-52 heavy bombers — during military exercises over South Korea.
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While the F-15SE was seen as not advanced enough to be the mainstay of the South Korean air force between 2020 and 2060, the F-35 has its own problems, said Kim of Defense 21 Plus.
The Lockheed Martin jet has been plagued by schedule delays and cost overruns. Last year, Japan threatened to cancel its multibillion-dollar deal if prices continued to rise or delays threatened the delivery date. Japan hopes to receive its first F-35s in 2016, at a cost of about $120 million per plane.
The Defense Ministry said Tuesday that it expected to complete the purchase in about a year, keeping to the scrapped tender’s timetable of a 2017 first-delivery date. But analysts said the government was now unlikely to meet that date. The government’s Defense Acquisition Program Administration had estimated that any delay in the tender process could leave the air force 100 fighters short of the 430 deemed necessary by 2019, as it planned to retire many of its aging F-4s and F-5s. An F-5 crashed Thursday during a training mission.
South Korea said it would consider all options when reissuing the tender, including buying a mix of different models, like 40 F-35s and 20 F-15SEs, to minimize the gap in combat capabilities if the F-35 program hit further delays.
“But such an option will only raise the price tag because it hurts the economy of scale in production,” Shin said.