By Jung Sung-ki
South Korea's efforts to equip its airmen with hundreds of high-tech fighter aircraft, including stealth jets, are apparently being stuck in limbo in the face of budget restraints and uncertainty over candidate planes and the country's fighter procurement methods.
Following the previous two phases of F-X projects for 60 F-15K aircraft built by the U.S. Boeing Company, the country is scheduled to open the bidding process next year for another batch of foreign fighter jets, probably stealth aircraft.
The F-X program is aimed at introducing 120 high-end warplanes by 2020 to replace the aging fighter fleet of F-4 and F-5 planes.
On top of that, the country wants to build and produce indigenous fighters under the KF-X initiative.
The KF-X program aimed at developing a Korean made F-16 type fighter has also been under heated debate over its economic and technical feasibility.
For the F-X III competition, the F-35 Lightening II being developed by Lockheed Martin of the U.S. has often been referred to as a frontrunner because of the ``fifth-generation'' fighter's inherent stealth technology that helps it evade enemy radar detection.
But recent reports over a series of cost overruns and delays related to the F-35 development program have apparently disappointed South Korean procurement officials, dimming its prospects in the F-X III contest.
``There is a lot of uncertainty as to the F-X III and KF-X plans, so I can't even provide the prospects of the fighter acquisition programs,'' a researcher on air force improvement programs at the state-funded Korea Institute Defense Analyses (KIDA) told The Korea Times. ``As for the F-X III, truth be told, the fate of the F-35 program is a key factor in increasing uncertainty.''
Earlier this month, the U.S. Air Force announced a two-year delay in the production of the F-35 stealth fighter, also known as the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF).
The aircraft had been scheduled for use by 2013, but the U.S. Air Force said the aircraft would not be ready until the end of 2015.
Lockheed Martin had been confident that its F-35 would get the upper hand in the third phase of the F-X competition and said South Korea would be able to procure aircraft as early as 2014
In February, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates sacked a key official in charge of the F-35 program over the projected delay and cost overruns.
The Pentagon believes the cost of the F-35 will be more than double the original price. According to the Pentagon's chief weapons buyers, the cost of the aircraft would go from $50 million a jet in 2001 to about $113 million.
Lockheed officials told Korean authorities earlier that the cost for the F-35 would be between $50 million and $63 million each.
The KIDA researcher said he believes South Korea's purchase of F-35 aircraft would be scrapped or delayed for several years later than scheduled. He earlier indicated that adopting an early version of the F-35 could cause operational risks.
The F-35 development program has been underway with nine international contractors and government partnerships, including Britain, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey since 2001. The JSF has three different versions ― A-type for air force operations, B-type for short takeoff and vertical landing for naval and marine missions and C-type for operations with aircraft carriers.
The F-35 is a single-seat, single-engine fighter that can perform close air support, tactical bombing and air defense missions.
Boeing is expected to capitalize on the emerging problems with the F-35 when it touts its F-15 Eagle aircraft to the South Korean Air Force.
But the winner of the first and second phase F-X competitions will also face an uphill battle this time to persuade South Korea to buy more of the aircraft, which some critics call a good but older platform.
``Needless to say, the F-15K is one of the best fighter jets in the world,'' an Air Force official said. ``But there is doubt as to whether a fleet of only F-15Ks would be efficient, or if a combination of long-range and stealth aircraft would be better. The Air Force, KIDA, the Defense Acquisition Program Administration and other parties concerned will study this issue more during the year.''
In a move to attract South Korea's fresh attention, Boeing unveiled a new version of the F-15 aircraft, the Silent Eagle, which the aerospace firm says has a ``semi-stealth'' function while retaining the F-15's traditional long-range, large payload capability.
Boeing completed radar-cross-section (RCS) trials for the Silent Eagle prototype last August and September and is looking to its first flight in coming months.
Industry sources, however, say it remains to be seen whether or not the U.S. government will approve the sale of radar stealth technology for the new jet, or how much higher levels of RCS Boeing will offer to meet South Korean requirements.
Joe Song, vice president of Asia-Pacific international business development with Boeing Defense, Space and Security, said during last year's Seoul Air Show that his company would offer a key option to transfer advanced fighter development technologies to South Korea for a homegrown fighter under the KF-X project.
``We're considering connecting the third phase F-X deal to the KF-X program if necessary, given that packaging some related programs, in general, creates a synergy effect,'' he said.
In the KF-X program, South Korea aims to develop and produce between 120 and 250 F-16 type fighters beginning in 2013, with technology support from foreign aerospace companies.
If Silent Eagle's marketing proves to be unsuccessful, Boeing could offer the F-15K variant with improved avionics and radar systems, sources said.
The twin-engine F-15K is capable of air-to-ground, air-to-air and air-to-sea missions day or night, under any weather conditions. It has a 23,000-pound payload and can fly at a maximum speed of Mach 2.3, with a combat radius of 1,800 kilometers. A single aircraft costs around $100 million.
The European consortium Eurofighter wants to look for an opportunity in South Korea but is still suffering the trauma of a defeat in the F-X I competition in the early 2000s.
European industry officials believe the Rafale built by French aircraft firm Dassault initially received more favorable reviews from the Korean military than Boeing's F-15K, but the Korean government selected the U.S. fighter jet allegedly due to a political consideration.
Eurofighter wants South Korea to join its Eurofighter Typhoon program and says it could offer more lenient technology transfer for the KF-X program.
``Eurofighter apparently has a chance to compete for the F-X III given the two main U.S. competitors are not in a good position now. But the European firm has not been so active in promoting its fighter,'' an official at the Defense Acquisition Program Administration said. ``It's up to the European firm and what the company will offer in the competition.''
The Eurofighter Typhoon is Europe's biggest-ever military aviation program with about 700 aircraft under contract with five European nations and Saudi Arabia.
The Typhoon is a twin-engine canard-delta wing multirole fighter. Powered by two Eurojet afterburning turbofans, the stealth aircraft has a maximum speed of Mach 2.0 and can supercruise at up to Mach 1.5 without using afterburners.
The fighter has a maximum range of 3,790 kilometers and can carry a typical payload of two laser-guided bombs, four beyond visual-range air-to-air missiles, four short-range air-to-air missiles and two standoff-range weapons.