An F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter carries out a test flight from a U.S. air base in this undated photo. / Courtesy of Lockheed Martin
By Lee Tae-hoon
One of the most-talked-about news this year was that North Korean leader Kim Jong-il could not come out of his underground bunker for nine days, fearful of the F-22 Raptors in the skies above during a joint military drill between South Korea and the United States late last year.
The surprising news clearly demonstrated the power of deterrence that stealth fighter jets can offer to South Koreans at the time still grieving the loss of their 50 soldiers and fellow citizens in two deadly North Korean attacks in 2010.
When the North bombarded the South’s border island of Yeonpyeong last year on Nov. 23, eight fighter jets, including two F-15Ks, were patrolling the area but they all returned to their base without engaging the enemy.
Outraged by the indecisiveness of its military leaders, the public began to question how effective the country’s existing weapons systems are in providing adequate protection against the communist North.
The tragic incident was also a wake-up call for Seoul to beef up its defense capability against Pyongyang’s further military provocations.
More importantly, the incident highlighted the need for a stern warning to Kim that next time he will have to pay a price for his wicked actions.
Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin was quick to respond to the evolving North Korean threats and pledged to shift the nation’s military posture from passive defense to proactive deterrence.
In March, he announced a plan to speed up purchasing the nation’s first fighter jets with stealth capability amid growing threats, including nuclear missiles, from the Stalinist regime.
F-35 emerges as only option
When Minister Kim made public the acquisition plan, he refrained from using the words, fifth generation and stealth fighter, as it was obvious that only Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Lightning II befitted the description.
He feared that Seoul would lose much of its leverage to negotiate if it alluded to Lockheed Martin as the sole contender for its high-end fighter acquisition program, the country’s largest-ever procurement deal with a budget of 8.29 trillion won ($7.26 billion).
The long-stalled third phase of the F-X fighter acquisition program calls for obtaining 60 fifth generation combat aircraft from 2016 to replace its aging F-4 and F-5 fighters.
Air Force officials did not hesitate to give the thumbs up to the F-35 as many of them recognized the early procurement of the latest multirole aircraft as an opportunity to have air superiority in the region.
“The great strength of stealth fighters is that they are capable of infiltrating deep into North Korea and returning home after undertaking surprise air raids at anytime, anywhere with high precision without being detected or leaving behind any trace evidence,” a senior Air Force official said with enthusiasm.
“Given that stealth fighters are practically invisible, the North would have difficulty in figuring out how often stealth fighters were flying over their territory or whether they would conduct an air raid.”
Officials from the Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) forecast a strong competition between Boeing, which had already won two previous FX-bids here, and Lockheed Martin, which co-developed the world’s first supersonic trainer jet, the T-50, with Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI).
The majority of them, however, shared the view that the only fighter jet that could eventually meet all the FX-III requirements would be the F-35 as Boeing’s F-15 Silent Eagle (F-15SE) is a fourth-generation aircraft with limited stealth capabilities.
Many DAPA officials even ruled out the possibility of buying aircraft from any country other than the United States, stressing the importance of maintaining interoperability and the country’s long-standing military alliance with America.
Noh Dae-lae, head of DAPA, revealed at a dinner gathering with reporters that he refused to meet the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company (EADS) officials, who wanted to brief him about the latest development of their fighter jet, at the Paris Air Show in June.
“I made it clear the European consortium does not stand a chance for the FX-III unless it comes up with a deal that offsets South Korea’s alliance with the United States, which has made a huge investment and sacrifice for the defense of our nation for decades,” he said.
FX-III becomes four-way race
The advanced-fighter jet acquisition program became a four-way race overnight with DAPA’s announcement on July 22 that it had decided to ease the required operational capability (ROC) of the F-X in a meeting presided over by Minister Kim.
“Russian aircraft manufacturer Sukhoi has expressed its intent to compete in the fighter jet procurement project,” Col. Wi Jong-seong, head of the arms agency’s fighter procurement bureau, made a surprise announcement.
He said that Lockheed Martin’s F-35, the only fifth-generation, stealth aircraft available in the market, will compete with Sukhoi’s T-50 PAK-FA, along with Boeing’s F-15SE and the EADS’s Eurofighter Typhoon as a result of lowering earlier requirements.
Another DAPA official underlined that it was inevitable for the ministry to make the decision because all other aircraft, except for the F-35, would not meet the Air Force’s radar cross section (RCS) requirements.
Stealth aircraft have a low RCS comparable to small birds or insects and this feature enables them to prove elusive on radar.
“It was a natural decision as the country’s bargaining power would be greatly undermined without enough competition,” he said. “We will select the most competitive model among all participants in a transparent manner, assessing all the factors available, such as capability and cost.”
Gen. Cho Bo-keun, director general for aircraft programs at DAPA, denied the claim that Sukhoi had officially declared its bid to enter the FX-race, but noted that there is still room for the Russian aircraft manufacturer to play in Korea.
Nevertheless, Sukhoi did not participate in the recent biennial Seoul International Aerospace and Defense Exhibition (ADEX) 2011, nor has it responded to The Korea Time’s inquiries about its intent to enter the race over the past months.
Who will be the winner?
A top government official said that it is too early to say but it appears that the F-35 is destined to be selected as it meets all the requirements and offers far better defense capabilities to South Korea compared to any of its rivals.
He said Boeing has its own merits as maintenance costs would be considerably low given that F-15SE will have more than 80 percent platform compatibility with the country’s existing fleet of the F-15Ks.
But the official underlined that the F-15SE, which is based upon a design that dates back to 1968, only features the frontal-aspect RCS, one of the reasons why the U.S. Air Force won’t buy the aircraft.
As for the Eurofighter, he said it may enter the race, but its inherently high RCS of the aircraft body and the lack of an internal weapons bay to reduce the RCS will likely be critical factors that eliminate it in the final round of the competition.
Stephen O’Bryan, LockheedMartin’s vice president for F-35 business development, says the choice for Korea is simple.
“It is a matter of whether it sticks with the fourth generation aircraft of the past or transitions to fifth generation now and joins key allies and regional neighbors,” he said.
The U.S. services and nine participating nations, including the United Kingdom, Canada, Turkey and Italy, plan to procure and operate more than 3,100 F-35s.
Korea plans to send a request for proposals to potential bidders in January next year and announce the winner the following October. Some senior DAPA officials, however, say their agency remains flexible in delaying the project for another year to prevent the multi-billion dollar program from being mired in politics next year.
In 2012, Korea will hold the general elections to pick lawmakers in April and a presidential election in December.
|F-35A specifications |
Length: 15.67 meters / 51.4 feet
Speed: Mach 1.6
Wingspan: 10.67 meters / 35 feet
Wing area: 42.7 square meters / 460 square feet
Combat radius: (internal fuel) 1,093 kilometers / 590 nautical miles
Range: 2,222 kilometers / 1,200 nautical miles
Internal fuel capacity: 8,278 kilograms / 18,250 pounds
Max g-rating: 9.0
Weapons payload: 8,164.67 kilograms / 18,000 pounds