By Kang Seung-woo
The Air Force is considering leasing F-16s from its U.S. counterpart to fill its fighter gap, sparked by a delay of the "next-generation" fighter program and the indigenous combat aircraft project.
"As F-4s and F-5s are aging without any reinforcement aircraft, we are reviewing leasing F-16 fighters currently operated by the U.S. Air Force," an Air Force officer said Wednesday.
He added that the Air Force lacks medium-class fighters like the F-16, so a plan to lease 20 to 60 aircraft is under consideration.
Korea initially planned to bring in 60 highly-capable aircraft via the F-X III competition from December 2016, but the project was pushed back to August 2017 due to budget constraints. In addition, another delay extended the delivery timeline to 2018.
The indigenous fighter program, codenamed the KF-X, has been delayed for a decade due to financial reasons and questions over its feasibility. The KF-X is aimed at manufacturing "F-16+ class" fighter jets that are envisioned to enter service from 2023.
Although leasing planes in the fighter world is a rare event unlike civil airliners, it is not the first time for Korea to do so. Ahead of the completion of the T-50 high-end supersonic trainer, the Air Force leased T-38s from the U.S. Air Force for more than a decade.
According to the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses (KIDA), the Air Force's optimal level of aircraft is 430, but the Air Force foresees that it will lack around 100 aircraft by 2019 due to the retirement of some 160 F-4s and F-5s.
However, some officials remained skeptical about having a lease contract for fighter jets, a key military asset in times of war.
"It is very rare that a country leases fighter jets from another, while trainers, which are used for pilot training during peace time, can be leased," a senior military official said, noting the potential risk of rising costs in a conflict situation.