Last year at this time, the Republic of Korea’s FX-III fighter acquisition program selection began taking shape. A full year later later, little has moved forward, due to previous South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s postponement and administration changes.
New President Park Geun-hye and her administration find themselves in the same position as President Lee, weighing the options for a 60-plane order between Boeing’s F-15 Silent Eagle, Lockheed Martin’s F-35, and EADS’ Eurofighter Typhoon. Price negotiations are expected to begin today, April 18/13
Let’s look at the three players and where they currently stand after a year in near-stasis:
EADS’ Eurofighter Typhoon
EADS has struck out beyond the Middle East with its fighter jet export sales. Most observers give little credence to EADS winning this competition. The Typhoon earns high marks among some analysts, but it’s a 4th+ generation fighter and South Korea dreams of fifth generation air power. The Typhoon is also not from the United States. If South Korea chose the Typhoon over either of the American designs, it would represent a significant diplomatic shift away from the U.S. At this time, this isn’t likely to happen, and the Typhoon has generally been seen solely as a means of “diversifying the field.”
Demerits aside, EADS continues to sweeten the pot. With stagnant sales of the Typhoon, the company changed their proposal from producing 10 Typhoons in Europe, 24 in Europe using Korean components, and 26 to be produced in-country by the ROK, towards a new plan offering 12 planes produced in Europe and the other 48 built in the ROK by Korea Aerospace Industries (KAI). With the Eurofighter’s underdog status in many international fighter sales races, EADS is becoming more flexible in potential price cuts. Diplomatic ties may prevent South Korea from a deal that would provide more jobs to the Korea aerospace industry and give them more bang for their buck, as well as procuring a plane that’s already readily available.
Boeing’s F-15 Silent Eagle
Boeing won the ROK’s previous fighter acquisition programs, FX-I, and FX-II, but there have always been hiccups in Boeing and South Korea’s relationship. Regardless, the two have maintained a steady partnership, even yesterday agreeing to a $1.6 billon (USD) attack helicopter deal. Selecting the F-15 Silent Eagle allows the ROK to fall back on previously established supply channels and business relationships. and the cost of 60 F-15 Silent Eagles hits near South Korea’s Defense Acquisition and Procurement Agency’s (DAPA) $7.2 billion (USD) purchase goal. The fighter is more than adequate for confronting the the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) current air power assets.
Unfortunately, the F-15 Silent Eagle shares the Eurofighter’s 4th+ generation fighter status. The ROK’s requirements for the FX-III were revised solely to allow for both the Typhoon and F-15 to join the competition. In addition, there hasn’t been a peep from the F-15 SE camp since last summer. While they’ve had an extra year to produce a modernized and functional F-15 with reduced radar cross sections and conformal weapons bays, it’s hard to know how successful Boeing has been. Despite a strong history with the ROK, the F-15 SE remains a concept fighter that falls short of initial South Korean desires.
Lochheed Martin’s F-35
The F-35 achieves South Korea’s original goals for a 5th generation fighter aircraft. It was previously rumored that former President Lee verbally promised an F-35 deal in October of 2011. Of course, one year later, we have a new president and an F-35 program with a lion’s share of problems and potential flaws. On top of these issues, a 60-plane order of F-35s will exceed DAPA’s budget, landing somewhere in the ballpark of around $10.8 billion (USD). The fighters would also be unavailable until between 2016 and 2018, a time frame veering beyond the latter with mounting F-35 issues and the slowed process of selection.
Still, South Korea may jump on the bandwagon with other nations in the region. Japan inked a deal for F-35s last year and Singapore considers the F-35 as an important part of it’s future. The ROK may mirror these nations, especially if they’re planning for a post-DPRK world, and arms races with China or other regional neighbors with 5th generation capabilities.
The Final Decision
The ROK must assess their current needs. If costs are as important as they’ve stated and diplomatic fallout can be disregarded, EADS’ Typhoon is a superb choice to fill the FX-III order. Unfortunately, South Korea does not live in a vacuum and they will undoubtedly veer towards American designs.
If the F-15 SE becomes a viable/tangible bird that fits the ROK’s required profile for cost and performance, it will adequately modernize the ROK’s air capabilities. If future acquisitions beyond FX-III are tabbed, or if the DAPA feels confident in its indigenous fighter design programs, the F-15 SE would likely be a welcome addition to Korean Air Power, but if the ROK’s current indigenous design programs lack potential, ponying up for F-35s would allow their nation a bit of “under the hood” learning that would boost their own programs.
In the end, it comes down to the current administration’s evolving trajectory, the massive intangibles surrounding the F-15 SE and F-35 statuses, the potential immediacy of emerging DPRK threats, the advancements of regional neighbors, as well as a good bit of pressure from the US to land F-35 sales.
It’s a lot to juggle. This author has continually remained sold on the F-15 SE, though lack of any news on said model over the last year offers cause for concern. Despite the high price, late delivery, and potential flaws, South Korea may indeed throw their hand in with the F-35.
Craig was born & raised in the United States, having recently returned there after over five years in Asia. He is currently pursuing further education in the realms of East Asian Studies and Politics. Craig is an avid fan of the political, economic, and military machinations occurring throughout the Asian continent and how those turning gears affect the rest of the world. He's currently covering both North and South Korea for Asia Security Watch, enjoying shedding light on to this far-too-often ignored slice of Asia.
Craig Scanlan has 88 post(s) on New Pacific Institute