June 03, 2013
Credit: Lockkheed Martin Concept
If there is one misconception about South Korea's F-X Phase 3 fighter competition, due to be decided this month, it is that the requirement is aimed mainly at bolstering defense against North Korea. On the contrary, say senior government officials in Seoul, at least as strong a reason for buying 60 advanced fighters is South Korea's perceived strategic competition with Japan, China and Russia—probably in that order.
“Our neighbors are upgrading their fighter technology, so we must do so, too,” says one government official. A second official, with deep insight into the country's defense requirements, goes further: The 60 Boeing F-15Ks that South Korea has from the F-X Phase 1 and 2 programs last decade already offer enough aerial strike power for dealing with North Korea. While more big fighters would be useful if war on the peninsula broke out, the real point of the Phase 3 competition is that Japan is buying Lockheed Martin F-35As, China is developing the J-20, and Russia is working on the Sukhoi T-50 (PAK FA), says that official. Even in F-X Phases 1 and 2, North Korea was considered only part of the problem, he adds.
That is why South Korea's Defense Acquisition Program Agency is giving equal importance to air-to-air and strike missions in F-X Phase 3, even though defeating North Korea's modest fighter force would hardly be a challenge. Slightly contradicting that, an F-X Phase 3 program official told Aviation Week two years ago that excellent strike capability was valued above excellent air-to-air capability. Still, the difference in weight given to the two capabilities is evidently not great.
It is not known whether North Korean bellicosity this year has changed F-X Phase 3 priorities, but Pyongyang's aggression has probably helped the two U.S. contenders—the F-35A and F-15SE—in competing against the Eurofighter Typhoon. The argument is simply that the U.S. contributes greatly to the defense of South Korea, which should partly repay the favor by giving its largest defense import contracts to U.S. suppliers, especially when, as in this case, it has at least two to chose from.
At least until North Korea made blood-curdling threats recently, reminding everyone of the importance of U.S. backing for South Korea, one view was that, although Seoul should generally place such a big order with the U.S., it could make an exception. “Just this once” it could import a non-U.S. fighter, above all because Eurofighter could offer greater technical help for the proposed indigenous KF-X program. Bids for F-X Phase 3 will be judged partly on prospective contributions to KF-X.
But South Korea is not sure it wants to build the KF-X. What if a supplier wins F-X Phase 3 with a generous technology transfer package, and then never has to transfer the technology? That, in the view of some South Korean aerospace officials, is a key fault in the import competition. All of the bidders are offering fighter technology, with the Eurofighter consortium unconstrained by U.S. government regulations. Going further, Eurofighter shareholder EADS is offering to invest $2 billion in the program if South Korea buys the Typhoon. And that only deepens the F-X contradiction: If EADS won and KF-X died, the obligation to invest would die with it. For that reason, the importance of offers to help develop the KF-X is questionable. The indigenous fighter is encountering strong domestic opposition, criticized as unaffordable or unviable (AW&ST April 29, p. 49).
The EADS offer further includes an aircraft maintenance facility and an aerospace software center, says Yonhap news agency. South Korea could build, or at least assemble, most of its Typhoons, say industry officials. The U.S. bidders are also offering industrial benefits (AW&ST April 15, p. 52). Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI), already building major assemblies of the F-15, could step up its involvement in that program, while for the F-35 the industry would receive advanced manufacturing work on a project with a long prospective production life. Crucially, South Korean F-35As would not rely on a Japanese maintenance base, says an industry official. Lockheed Martin's offer of technology transfer had better match what the company has given Japan, says a government official. “South Korea won't put up with second-best anymore,” he says.