September 24, 2013
The South Korean air force has managed to derail the selection of the Boeing F-15SE Silent Eagle for its F-X Phase 3 fighter requirement, instead pushing for the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning but again raising doubts about the openness of the country’s combat aircraft competitions.
The decision appears to deprive Boeing of its best chance of sustaining the F-15 production line past 2018, when the last unit is due to be completed for Saudi Arabia. The South Korean order has offered to underpin development of features that would increase the combat effectiveness of the type, making it more attractive to additional customers.
South Korea’s Defense Acquisition Program Executive Committee on Tuesday decided to restart the F-X Phase 3 competition, despite a decision in August that the F-15 was the only contender that met the F-X Phase 3 budget of 8.3 trillion won ($7.7 billion) for 60 aircraft. The losing types were the F-35 and Eurofighter Typhoon, the latter eliminated because of a bidding irregularity. A decision in the reopened competition is to be made within a year.
The air force, which industry and government officials say has always wanted the F-35 for the requirement, especially after Japan chose the type in 2011, mounted a barely veiled campaign against the F-15 after its selection. Retired air force generals, for example, criticized the decision, making public statements that serving officers could not express. Unnamed air force officers were quoted in the press saying that, with the selection of the F-15, the program was “veering onto a wrong course, contrary to original aims,” presumably the F-35.
If South Korea does eventually choose the F-35, it will be the third non-partner country, after Japan, to order the aircraft despite its cost and the risk of renewed development difficulties.
South Korea’s problem is that this is the second time in 11 years in which one of its fighter requirements appears to have been predetermined, suggesting that bidders may be wasting their marketing money in competitions that are not competitions at all. After Boeing won the F-X Phase 1 competition for 40 fighters with the F-15K in 2002, losing contender Dassault said it would not take part in future South Korean fighter competitions. The French company had evidently concluded that its bid, however attractive, could never have won.
For the F-X Phase 2 requirement for 20 fighters, no competing manufacturers took South Korea’s Defense Acquisition Program Agency seriously when it called for alternatives to the F-15. Boeing was the only bidder. In 2008 it contracted to supply 21 F-15Ks, including a replacement for one that had crashed.
The defense ministry explains the setting aside of the F-15 selection for F-X Phase 3 partly in terms of threats from North Korean nuclear arms and “asymmetric weapons.” But South Korean government officials have said that the threat on the Korean peninsula has not been a major issue in the requirement. Moreover, the North Korean threat is hardly new.
The ministry also cites rapid advances in aeronautical technology. The major new technical development among South Korea’s neighbors in recent years has been the appearance of China’s J-20 stealth fighter prototype. But that was more than two years ago, during which time the ministry did not move to call a halt to F-X Phase 3.