By Lee Tae-hoon
Military officials acknowledged Monday that the U.S.-made air-to-surface stealth cruise missiles that the country is pushing to acquire for precision attacks against high value targets may be semi-incompatible with the F-15K. They said the aircraft would only be able to carry the missile under its right wing.
"It is true that there is problem with the F-15K carrying the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles (JASSM) under its left wing," an official of the Defense Acquisition Program Administration.
Korea has set aside 388 billion won ($343 million) to procure either 177 JASSMs from the American defense giant Lockheed Martin or 177 Tauruses, manufactured by Germany-based Taurus Systems GmbH.
The JASSM has a shorter range, but is known to incorporate superior stealth technology compared to the TAURUS.
An industry insider said the F-15K is compatible with the Taurus, which experts say Korea is seeking to avoid purchasing due to its higher price tag, but unable to carry the JASSM, the favorite choice for the Air Force, under both wings.
"The latest revelation would greatly undermine U.S. airspace giant Boeing's bid to sell more of its aging F-15 variant to Korea," he said. "Boeing used to argue that Korea does not need stealth fighter as it planned to acquire such air-to-surface stealth missiles as JASSM."
Boeing is competing with its U.S. rival Lockheed Martin and the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company (EADS) for the FX-III project, under which Korea plans to buy 60 high-end fighters with a budget of 8.29 trillion won ($7.3 billion).
The F-15K's airframe is based upon a design that dates back to 1968 and lacks stealth features, which the Air Force demands for the purpose of destroying high value targets such as military leaders or launch pads for nuclear weapon.
However, Col. Baek Yoon-hyeong, spokesman of the Defense Acquisition and Procurement Administration (DAPA), downplayed the concerns, saying up to two JASSMs can be loaded on the F-15K, under the right wing and the center fuselage.
Some critics, however, pointed out that if JASSMs cannot be installed on both of the F-15K wings, it could cause an imbalance in the aircraft, which raises the risk of loss of control and crashing.
They say the problem could further delay Seoul's plan to purchase the standoff missile system for the nation's fleet of 60 F-15K jets.
"Even if the U.S. government approves the JASSM sale to South Korea, it would be difficult to buy it if these problems are not resolved," an official said.