WASHINGTON South Korean test pilots are visiting Lockheed Martin Corp's (LMT.N) F-35 plant in Fort Worth, Texas, this week after a similar trip this month to Boeing Co's (BA.N) F-15 plant in St. Louis amid signs that Seoul will delay a decision in its $7 billion-plus fighter competition until early 2013.
Lockheed spokesman Mike Rein said South Korean officials were evaluating the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter proposal submitted by Lockheed in South Korea's 8.3 trillion won competition for 60 new fighter planes. He gave no further details.
Seoul had expressed disappointment that its pilots would not be allowed to fly the F-35 fighter, which has only one seat. Lockheed officials said the plane was still in development, and Japanese pilots had not been allowed to fly it either during their competition last year.
Instead, South Korean pilots were being given access to a sophisticated F-35 simulator and rides in chase planes as Lockheed test pilots showed off the capabilities of the F-35 Lightning II, according to two sources familiar with the plans, who asked not to be named.
Dennis Muilenburg, chief executive of Boeing's defense business, said the South Korean pilots went to the company's St. Louis, Missouri, plant earlier in September to fly a prototype of a stealthy variant of the two-seat F-15 fighter plane, complete with internal weapons bays.
He said Boeing was "very confident" about its proposal, citing the capabilities of the modified F-15 warplane called the "Silent Eagle" and a proposal that would give South Korean companies a strong industrial role on the new fighter.
"They flew our airplanes extensively," Muilenburg told Reuters at the Air Force Association conference. "We think that's one of the advantages of the F-15. It's available; they understand it. They have an installed fleet."
Muilenburg said the South Korean pilots had tested the capabilities of the F-15 Silent Eagle on a number of missions.
European defense company EADS EAD.PA also submitted a bid in the competition, offering its Eurofighter Typhoon.
South Korean pilots are moving ahead with their evaluation of the competing warplanes, but industry executives and aerospace analysts have said they do not expect Seoul to pick a winner until after the country's presidential election in December. A contract award was initially expected in October.
Officials at the South Korean embassy in Washington declined comment on any delay in a contract decision.
South Korea's Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA), which is running the competition, has said it has no fixed time schedule to pick a winner. "We don't know how long it will take because we will have thorough investigation and negotiation without being bound by any time period," the agency said in a statement in early September.
John Pike, an analyst with globalsecurity.org, said it made sense for Seoul to wait until after the election to announce its decision, instead of taking a chance that the contract award could be reversed by a new government.
He said he expected Seoul to pick the more advanced Lockheed fighter, noting that last year Japan chose Lockheed to build a fleet of 42 F-35 planes and that China has developed its own stealth fighter.
"At the end of the day, the Japanese did not want to be a generation behind. They did not want to be the last major military power without a stealthy aircraft, and I think the Koreans are going to go the same way," Pike said.
Boeing is counting on nearly 40 years of ties with Seoul, which already owned 60 of an earlier version F-15, and the F-15's lower cost to tip the competition in its favor.
(Editing by Nick Macfie)