South Korea faces a choice between embracing the F-35 fighter plane in its next round of bidding or being left with “legacy equipment,” a senior Lockheed Martin Corp. official said.
On Sept. 24, South Korea called off an 8.3 trillion-won ($7.8 billion) tender for 60 fighter jets, rejecting Boeing Co.’s bid on concerns the F-15 Silent Eagle wasn’t advanced enough to counter North Korea’s nuclear threat. Lockheed’s F-35 and the Eurofighter Typhoon of European Aeronautic, Defence & Space Co. had been rejected earlier on cost grounds.
“In a crisis, no one will ask how much that fighter cost,” George Standridge, a Lockheed vice president for aeronautics strategy and business development, said yesterday in an interview near Seoul. “The question is, can that fighter go do the job that this government needs it to go do.”
Lockheed’s F-35 is considered part of the so-called fifth generation of fighters. The single-engine F-35 jet, the world’s most expensive weapons program, is being bought by countries from the U.S. to Australia to Israel, and is being considered by Singapore, which also operates F-15s.
“We’re in an inflection point,” Standridge said. “It’s not just happening in South Korea. It’s happening all over the world. The question is, will you embrace this new capability and new technology, will you stay with legacy equipment.”
South Korea is seeking to replace its aging F-4s and F-5s and add to the arsenal of its F-15Ks and KF-16s that form the backbone of its air defense against North Korea.
“The F-35 will ensure longer-term advantages,” Bruce Lemkin, a former U.S. Air Force undersecretary, said today in an e-mail. “This is not trivial, considering developments in the region and not being seen as lagging behind others.”
Lemkin said that although neither Boeing nor Lockheed is a client of his consulting firm, Lemkin International LLC, he “principally” wants to see South Korea flying the same aircraft as the U.S. to advance their military alliance and ensure seamless joint operations.
The U.S. already uses the F-15s and will bring F-35s into service once their testing is completed.
In March, the U.S. flew radar-evading B-2 bombers and F-22 fighters in the region in a show of force during joint drills with South Korea after the North tested its third nuclear device and threatened missile strikes against the two allies.
“There were hundreds of fighters here when that happened, but the Air Force and the U.S. government elected to deploy these advanced systems, because they bring in an added capability not existent anywhere else,” Standridge said. “That’s what we’re talking about.”
South Korea plans to reopen the next round of bidding as quickly as possibly and may readjust the budget limit, the country’s arms procurement office said last month. South Korea may also consider a mixed purchase of different models, Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min Seok said Sept. 24.
Standridge declined to say how much South Korea would have to raise its budget to accommodate for F-35s.
Boeing is open to sharing the order with Lockheed.
“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 on Oct. 29.
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 led military officials to vow air strikes should another front-line provocation occur.
South Korea plans to spend almost 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. President Park Geun Hye said Oct. 1 her government would hasten the development of that system.