South Korean Fighter Order: AF Backs F-35

By Bradley Perrett, Bill Sweetman, Amy Butler
Source: Aviation Week & Space Technology

Today, the F-35A is not expected to be operational with the U.S. Air Force until late 2016, and the service projects a flyaway cost of $96 million for 2020 deliveries. At the same time, Boeing's competitive position has improved with the 2012 Saudi order for the F-15SA, which not only restarts the production line, but funds (and makes less risky) three expensive features also used on the F-15SE: the all-digital flight control system, BAE Systems Digital Electronic Warfare System (DEWS) and redesigned cockpit with 11 X 19-in. flat-panel displays.

Although it is not formally a factor in South Korea's evaluation, the Saudi deal includes the local upgrading of the F-15S fighters to the SA standard; South Korea's F-15Ks could be similarly upgraded.

Boeing has evolved its fighter strategy since 2009. In particular, plans for development of the F-15 and F/A-18E/F Super Hornet have been more closely aligned. The F-15SA and SE cockpit displays use similar glass, processors and software, and Boeing is working on adding capabilities available on or in development for the F/A-18—for example, passive targeting (see page 20). The F-15K already has an infrared search-and-track system similar to that under development for the U.S. Navy's Super Hornets.

As part of the F-15SA program, the new fly-by-wire system and DEWS are in flight testing, while the new cockpit is in the advanced prototyping phase, undergoing integration testing in laboratory environments. Development of the conformal weapons bay is proceeding on schedule, Boeing says, following a 2010 flight demonstration. For most subsystems, requirements reviews are complete and design reviews are underway. Tests for features reducing the radar cross section are continuing.

Deliveries of Saudi Arabia's new aircraft are not due to begin until 2015, although Boeing has rolled out the first and is upgrading 70 F-15Ss to the F-15SA configuration. The company should be able to fill the Saudi order by building one a month, but the South Korean requirement—60 aircraft over four years—might demand more than doubling that rate. Deliveries of F-15Ks for South Korea and similar F-15SGs for Singapore ended in 2012. South Korea bought 61 F-15Ks under F-X Phases 1 and 2. One crashed.

After the F-15K won earlier F-X competitions with a mechanically scanning radar, Boeing sold the F-15SG to Singapore with the Raytheon active, electronically scanned array (AESA) APG-63(v)3 radar, which is the baseline offering for the F-15SE. Boeing says it told DAPA this year that an alternative is the Raytheon APG-82, selected by the U.S. Air Force to refit its F-15Es and due for entry into service in 2014. While the APG-63(v)3 uses a similar array to the F/A-18E/F's APG-79, the APG-82 uses the APG-79 processor and other components—another respect in which Boeing is pushing to make the F-15 and F/A-18 more common.

The impact on the F-35 program of an F-15SE win would be more psychological—being the first competitive loss for Joint Strike Fighter—than material, for the time being. The F-35 team has won in Japan and appears to be headed for a non-competitive selection in Singapore. Firming up commitments in Australia, Canada and Europe and completing development of the aircraft are of greater strategic importance.

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