South Korean lawmakers are pressing defense officials to decide what jet-fighter capabilities offer the best guard against a nuclear armed North Korea, a decision likely to signal if Lockheed Martin Corp. wins the government’s multi-billion dollar tender.
South Korea is yet to settle an 8.3 trillion won ($7.8 billion) order for 60 jets after an almost two-year process. Lockheed’s F-35, initially excluded due to price, was given new life when the remaining bid from Boeing Co. for its F-15 Silent Eagle was rejected in September by the Defense Ministry, which said it needed a more technologically advanced fighter.
“We are asking the Defense Ministry and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to quickly come up with a proposal before the budget for next year can be finalized,” said Han Ki Ho, a ruling party lawmaker and member of parliament’s defense committee. “The Defense Ministry said it wants its budget for next year to be left intact. If that budget is to be left, there has to be as much ground justifying it.” The budget review is due to start at the end of November.
The tender bogged down as the military threat posed by North Korea prompted shifts in priorities after the North launched long-range rockets, tested a third nuclear device and threatened first strikes against South Korea and the U.S. The delay has left the military at risk of having the funds stripped out of the budget and finding itself short of the jets needed to modernize an aging air force.
The growing tensions between the two Koreas contributed to the South revising its defense strategy this year to include the possibility of first strikes. President Park Geun Hye said Oct. 1 her government would hasten development of stepped-up surveillance and improved offensive weapons. The government has budgeted 1 trillion won next year for the plan.
The government has formed a task force of defense officials to prepare the fighter jet decision and the group will report back to lawmakers by the end of the month, Kim Kwang Jin, a lawmaker for the opposition Democratic Party on both the budget and the defense committees, said in an interview.
“The parliament has no right to choose a fighter, but it would be responsible for the budget,” Kim said.
The military is struggling on whether to prioritize the F-35’s radar-evading stealth technology to skirt the North’s air defenses or the F-15’s bigger bomb payload to hit hardened targets.
Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min Seok said after the tender was suspended on Sept. 24 that South Korea needs a so-called fifth-generation fighter -- a term Lockheed uses to describe the F-35 -- to deal with the North’s threat. Purchasing 60 of the F-35s could require a further 2.2 trillion won, Kim the lawmaker said.
The internal debate over the fighter “seems to have come down to this: price versus stealth,” Daniel Darling, a military markets analyst at Forecast International Inc., said by e-mail. “If South Korea’s leadership feels that in order to prevent a North Korean nuclear attack, it must conduct a preemptive strike, then the F-35 is the best option.”
Boeing contends its F-15 would be more effective as the jet could hit underground North Korean nuclear targets harder than the F-35, James Armington, vice president for East Asia-Pacific business development at Boeing’s defense unit, said in an Oct. 29 interview. Kim of the Defense Ministry has said choosing a mix of jets is a possibility.
“It’s hard to argue with Boeing’s claim that the F-15 carries a much greater payload, something that makes it a much greater threat in the ground attack role,” James Hardy, Asia-Pacific editor for IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, said by e-mail. “The main issue for the F-35 is the risk associated with buying a platform that has yet to enter service with any air force.”
The F-35 is undergoing testing, and the U.S., Australia, Japan and Israel are among countries that have placed orders. The F-15 features radar-absorbing materials and designs aimed at evading detection while the single-engine F-35 has been built as an all-angle stealth fighter, giving it broader radar-dodging capabilities.
South Korea risks being left behind with “legacy equipment” without the F-35, George Standridge, a Lockheed vice president for aeronautics strategy and business development, said in an Oct. 31 interview.