Boeing Co. (BA) is open to South Korea buying a mix of its F-15 Silent Eagle fighter jets and F-35 models made by Lockheed Martin Corp. (LMT) when the country opens a second round of bidding, a senior company official said.
South Korea on Sept. 24 called off a tender for 60 fighter jets after rejecting Boeing’s bid for the 8.3 trillion-won ($7.8 billion) contract on concerns the F-15SE wasn’t advanced enough to counter North Korea’s nuclear threat. The F-35s and the Eurofighter Typhoon of European Aeronautic, Defence & Space Co. had been rejected earlier on cost grounds.
“If it turns out a split of 40 F-15s and 20 F-35s is the right answer, then, of course we will want to participate in that,” James Armington, vice president for East Asia-Pacific business development at Boeing’s defense unit, said in an interview yesterday near Seoul. “Whatever the requirement is determined to be, whatever the need is determined to be, we definitely want to participate.”
South Korea is seeking to modernize its air defenses in response to the North’s growing nuclear muscle. The Kim Jong Un regime tested its third nuclear device in February and threatened first strikes against the U.S. and South Korea the following month. The growing tensions contributed to the U.S. and South Korea revising their defense pact to include the possibility of preemptive strikes against the North.
Based on the F-15 that entered U.S. Air Force service in 1974, Boeing’s Silent Eagle features radar-evading stealth technology. Armington said the plane would be just “as effective as” the F-35 if South Korea had to strike North Korean nuclear targets.
“If you’re going after nuclear weapons targets, it’s probably buried in the ground and you probably need a large weapon,” Armington, a former F-15 pilot, said. “In many cases, the F-15 with its speed and payload and ability to launch standoff weapons is probably more survivable and can have greater effect on some of these hardened targets.”
Standoff missiles refer to weapons that can be launched from a distance long enough to evade air defenses.
Mix of Models
South Korea may consider acquiring a mix of models in the future, Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min Seok said after the Boeing bid was rejected. The government is seeking to replace aging F-4s and F-5s and add to the arsenal of its Boeing F-15Ks and KF-16s from General Dynamics Corp. (GD) that form the backbone of the air force. South Korea operates about 460 fighter planes, according to its 2012 defense white paper.
Armington said buying F-15SEs now and F-35s a few years later would “make sense because by that time, the F-35 costs will be better known, the development program will be completed, full-combat capability will be more clear.”
“If Korea does conclude they need a few specialty airplanes for that first day, for that first pre-emptive attack, you don’t need 60,” Armington said.
South Korea faces North Korea over one of the world’s most heavily armed borders, a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War that ended in a truce. In 2010, North Korea bombarded a South Korean island near the front line, killing four people. That incident has led military officials to vow air strikes should another frontline provocation take place.
South Korea plans to spend nearly 1 trillion won next year building a command system that would allow its military to carry out first strikes against targets in North Korea if required. The South is also spending 120 billion won to enhance missile, according to the Defense Ministry. President Park Geun Hye said Oct. 1 her government would hasten the development of those systems.
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