By Jung Sung-ki
After years of debate over developing or buying stealth fighter jets, South Korea is turning its eyes toward building an unmanned combat aircraft with foreign partners.
As consensus builds that the KF-X project to develop a fifth-generation stealth aircraft is economically and technically nonviable, the head of the Air Force's combat power development bureau has called for a shift in focus.
``Developing an F-16-class indigenous fighter is meaningless given changing trends in warfare. Developing a full stealth fighter is also beyond our economic power,'' Brig. Gen. Lee Hee-woo said at an international air power seminar in Seoul late last month.
``Now we need a new paradigm of developing and operating both manned and unmanned aircraft suited to future warfare'' and with foreign partners, he said. ``Once unmanned fighter aircraft share missions of manned aircraft, we would not feel any need for full stealth fighters.''
Lee said Air Force plans to buy U.S. stealth jets are also being reconsidered.
Under the new paradigm, Lee said, unmanned stealth aircraft carry out long-endurance tactical surveillance and dangerous suppression of enemy air defenses missions, while manned semi-stealth fighters control the unmanned fleet in a low-risk environment and conduct precision strikes against key targets.
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) could take on air-to-ground and air-to-air operations as their avionics and weapons improve, he said at the seminar, hosted by the Korea Defense and Security Forum, a private research institute.
``In general, developing unmanned stealth aircraft is easier than doing manned stealth fighters, which means we can secure economic feasibility,'' said Lee, the one-star general in charge of his service's force improvement plans. ``I believe, in that context, economic efficiency would further increase when we design and develop both manned and unmanned aircraft, and their key systems, including communications systems and data links.''
He said this comprehensive approach would attract foreign firms.
The KF-X program aims to create a fighter by 2020, build 120 of them to replace the country's F-4Es and F-5Es, then sell more globally. The single-seat, twin-engine jet would be stealthier than either Dassault's Rafale or the Eurofighter Typhoon but not as stealthy as Lockheed Martin's F-35 John Strike Fighter (JSF), said officials from the state-run Agency for Defense Development (ADD), which runs the program.
ADD officials said last year they wanted foreign defense firms to foot some 30 percent of development costs and were considering forming consortiums between domestic and foreign companies.
Late last year, the Korea Development Institute, a private economic policy think tank, concluded the KF-X would cost at least $10 billion but could be expected to reap only $3 billion in economic benefits.
Officials with the ADD and the Defense Acquisition Program Administration still back the program, saying it will help develop or acquire state-of-the-art technology through foreign partnerships.
``Economic feasibility is just a part of decision-making on the KF-X program, and a final conclusion of the fate of the KF-X will be made after the government reviews all aspects of the program,'' said Lee Dae-yeol, head of the agency's aircraft systems development team.
``Developing an indigenous fighter is a must-do project for the so-called advanced nations. I believe our nation deserves this kind of fighter program,'' he said. "We've made strenuous efforts to develop aircraft technologies of our own ... I think now is the time to bear fruit. We should not fall behind other advanced nations any more as to fighter developments.''
An analyst from a state-funded defense institute here disagreed.
``Few countries in the world have succeeded in selling their own fighter aircraft to other nations,'' said the analyst who participated in the Korea Development Institute's feasibility study.
``Cases in point are Japan, Taiwan and Israel. They were unhappy with the results of their indigenous fighter program in the end. I just want to say following in such footsteps is stupid.''
The analyst said there is little global demand for manned fighters, nor could South Korea compete against the JSF.
Seoul should concentrate on developing UAVs, avionics and related systems, and on improving the T-50 and KT-1 trainer planes, he noted.
Representatives of Boeing and Saab at the seminar evinced little interest in KF-X, proposing instead that Seoul join their F-15E1 Technology Demonstrator Aircraft or Next Generation Gripen program, respectively.
``Saab offers technology transfer in a partnership of equals, which will allow Korea to manage its own development programs in the future,'' said Tommy Ivarsson, senior president of Saab Aerosystems.
No Stealth Jets At All?
Until last year, at least, Air Force officials planned to request bids in 2011 to supply stealth fighters for deployment between 2014 and 2019.
The F-35 was the leading candidate, since Lockheed's F-22 Raptor may be out of Seoul's reach financially and is currently blocked from export. But many defense experts say the F-35's currently quoted price, between $45 million and $63 million each, is likely to increase as predicted orders fall and tooling prices rise.
Lee expressed skepticism about buying U.S. stealth jets, citing high operational and maintenance costs and ``capabilities trade-offs'' in range, payload, speed, persistence and more areas.
``There are lots of question marks as to the purchase of F-22s or F-35s, given the aircraft's low cost effectiveness, and the fact their performance criteria are beyond that required on the peninsula,'' he said. "Stealth fighters would have a little more advantage than 4.5-generation and other aircraft in air-to-air operations, but in air-to-ground missions, I think those aircraft that can carry large payloads in and outside of the aircraft would be more beneficial, in particular after removing enemy's anti-air defense systems.''
Boeing, which has in recent years won South Korean orders for batches of 40 and 21 F-15s, wants to capitalize on this change of stance. Brad Jones, Boeing's F-15 International Programs Avionics manager, said in the seminar that his company wanted to sell the F-15K NF III, an upgrade variant of the F-15K, to South Korea.
Technology improvements for the NF III will include active electronically scanned array radar, missile warning and digital electronic warfare systems and newer weapons, he said.
``In 2013, the F-15K NF III configuration will offer the most powerful radar and sensors available; this will provide ROKAF with the ability to dominate all current and known future threats in the region through 2035,'' Jones said in his presentation at the seminar.