S. Korea Reconsidering Stealth Fighter Plans
By Jung Sung-ki
The South Korean military is having second thoughts about introducing so-called fifth-generation stealth fighters due to technical and budgetary problems.
Last week, the Weapon Systems Concept Development and Application Research Center at Konkuk University in Seoul submitted its interim report on the feasibility of the KF-X indigenous fighter development project to the Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA).
The agency commissioned a six-month final feasibility study on the KF-X program in April.
The report suggests major changes in required operational capabilities (ROCs) for the KF-X aircraft. In particular, the report says the KF-X jet should be an F-16-class fighter to be developed by foreign aircraft manufacturers.
Initiated in 2001, the KF-X program had originally been aimed at developing and producing by 2020 about 120 fifth-generation fighters stealthier than Dassault's Rafale or the Eurofighter Typhoon, though not as much as Lockheed Martin's F-35 Lightening II.
``The KF-X ROCs have been readjusted to a realistic level after consultations among parties concerned, as developing a full stealth fighter has already been assessed as technically and economically nonviable,'' a procurement official said on condition of anonymity.
The official was referring to an earlier feasibility report in 2007 that concluded that the KF-X project would cost at least $10 billion but could be expected to reap only $3 billion in economic benefits.
``The (Konkuk University) center is discussing ways to develop the KF-X with potential foreign partners, and it will report the outcome of its study to the DAPA and the Ministry of National Defense by the year's end for final approval,'' the official said.
According to the interim report, the KF-X will be an F-16 Block 50 level multi-role fighter jet with an engine thrust of 50,000 pounds. The aircraft would have either one or two engines, but a twin-engine system is preferred, it says.
The indigenous aircraft will be equipped with an active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, an electronic warfare suite and infrared search-and-track system, and data link systems fit for a network-centric environment, the report states.
The report says the KF-X program now aims to develop and produce 120 aircraft after 2010 in the first phase to replace older F-4s and F-5s and manufacture 130 more after the first phase models reach initial operational capabilities.
In a related move, a chief researcher at the state-funded Korea Institute for Defense Analyses (KIDA) said the nation could delay the purchase of foreign stealth fighters under the F-X multi-phase fighter procurement program.
The F-X aims to buy 120 high-end fighter jets by 2020 in an effort to modernize the Air Force's fighter fleet. Boeing won the previous two deals in 2002 and 2008 to provide a total of 61 F-15Ks.
Seoul officials had said the third phase program, expected to begin by 2012, would focus on obtaining fifth-generation stealth fighters. The Lockheed Martin-built F-35 was referred to as a front-runner for the deal.
``At the request of the MND, a KIDA team began a comprehensive review of the Air Force's operational requirements and the effectiveness of the Air Force's current operational structure of high-, medium- and low-class aircraft,'' the researcher, who leads the feasibility study said, requesting to remain anonymous.
The researcher noted the procurement of the F-35 would be a key topic.
``South Korea, for sure, should purchase and operate stealth fighters as the radar-evading aircraft are expected to dominate the skies in the coming years. But as far as the timing is concerned, we need to think more and make a wise decision,'' he said.
Adopting early versions of the F-35 could cause operational risks, he said, so that Seoul should delay buying the aircraft by 2020 when its performances will be proved and upgraded.
He suggested introducing more ``4.5-generation'' fighters, such as Boeing's F-15 Silent Eagle, before the procurement of stealth-fighters could be an option to fill the Air Force's possible operational gap.