Dispute over jet project
Will it be possible without flight tests?
Controversy is brewing over the country’s FX-III fighter procurement project as some experts raise speculation of possible favors and shoddy selection.
The latest dispute comes as Lockheed Martin, one of the three competing companies for the 8.3-trillion-won project, bars Korean pilots from test-flying its F-35 fighter jets, alleging that the next-generation combat fighter is still under development. Instead, the U.S. defense firm said it will make it possible for Korean pilots to test the single-seat stealth fighter only in a simulator.
The Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA), the state arms procurement agency, says there will be no problem because simulators are designed with the same software, data and equipment used in the actual aircraft. Yet DAPA plans to deduct scores for functions tested using simulators from the final rating. The two other bidders ― Boeing’s F-15 Silent Eagle and EADS’s Eurofighter Typhoon ― also have some aspects to be tested using simulators but allow actual flight tests.
There are plausible reasons for Lockheed to disallow actual flight tests. First of all, the F-35 jet is a single cockpit aircraft currently under development and it’s difficult to ensure the safety of untrained pilots. DAPA Commissioner Noh Dae-lae says simulator testing is inevitable, considering that it is necessary to include the F-35, the ``fighter of the future,’’ in the bidding to heat up competition in consideration of national interest. In addition, DAPA cites the risk of technology leaks and who should assume responsibility in the event of an accident.
However, it doesn’t make sense to buy expensive products without flight tests. It’s like selecting a spouse only after looking at a picture.
Critics say it would be unfair to test only the F-35 using the simulator. Currently, the only completed fighter is the Eurofighter and Boeing’s F-15SE is expected to use its existing F-15 platform for the test flight.
Arguments that Japan and Israel decided to purchase the F-35 only after simulation testes also proved to be false. DAPA initially said Japan used simulators to evaluate the F-35 but the neighboring country actually made the decision after document screening.
The biggest question is whether it will be possible to conduct performance tests properly with simulators. In particular, there could also be various problems in operation when there are no actual flight tests.
We understand that the Air Force is urgently in need of fifth-generation fighters, given North Korea’s rising military threat and the South’s aging F-4 and F-5 jets. It is for this reason that we see it best to keep the current schedule of the mammoth project that envisions selecting a successful bidder in October.
Nevertheless, DAPA needs to take time to select the right model, given suspicion that there may be other reasons behind the Lee Myung-bak administration’s hasty progress of the fighter project.