The Defense Ministry has more or less decided to buy the Lockheed Martin F-35A as Korea's next-generation fighter jet. Top military brass meet Friday to decide the specifications, number of aircraft and period of deployment.
The decision follows an epic struggle to pick the next-generation fighter, the so-called F-X project, which already saw one round of bidding cancelled after the initial winner, Boeing's F-15SE, proved not to be up to the task due to its unsatisfactory stealth capability.
The Air Force wants a stealth fighter with advanced electronic warfare capabilities, and the F-35A appears to be the only model that meets its needs.
EADS' Eurofighter Typhoon, the other candidate in the previous round, has also been ruled out.
◆ Budget Trouble
But the problem is money. The F-15SE was the strongest candidate in the original bid because it was the only one within the ministry's budget of W8.3 trillion (US$1=W1,063) for 60 aircraft.
Lockheed Martin had apparently offered to sell 60 F-35A jets for around W10 trillion. Although not an exact comparison because the conditions of sale are different, the Netherlands is reportedly buying 37 F-35As for some W6.5 trillion.
If the F-35A is the only candidate left, it would be bought under a direct contract rather than a competitive tender, which could work to Korea's disadvantage. Also, the F-35A is still under development and the final price tag could increase.
This has prompted speculation that the ministry could cut down the number from 60 to 40, with the remainder to be bought later under a separate budget. In that case, the actual deployment could be delayed by more than a year from the intended timeframe of 2017-21.
◆ Home-Grown Jet
Korea is also hoping to develop its own fighter plane. On Friday, military leaders will also set out flight and combat requirements for any home-grown jet, with development slated to start in November 2014. The aim of the present purchase is partly to arrange a technology transfer that will help with the new project.
But there are concerns that the U.S. government will refuse to share F-35A technology.
The government wants to earmark W10 billion for the indigenous fighter jet project and the budget request is being reviewed by the National Assembly.
But the Korea Institute of Science and Technology Evaluation and Planning, which recently conducted a feasibility study for the government, has concluded the project would be unviable. It said the indigenous fighter jet would likely have inferior fighting capabilities and development would cost a lot more than expected.
The military has commissioned six separate feasibility studies since 2003, and four of them have concluded that the project would be a waste of money.