UPDATE 1-S.Korea to buy 40 Lockheed F-35s, 20 jets open to rivals
(Adds quotes, details)
By Ju-min Park and Joyce Lee
SEOUL Nov 22 (Reuters) - South Korea will buy 40 Lockheed Martin Corp F-35 stealth fighter jets, the country's military chiefs decided on Friday, with the first delivery expected in 2018, ending a drawn-out process to beef up the country's defences.
A Joint Chiefs of Staff meeting agreed that South Korea would be best served by buying warplanes with the most advanced stealth technology and electronic warfare capability. Their decision will be put to a committee chaired by the defense minister for final approval.
"What fits into modified requirement operational capabilities is limited to that model," said defense ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok when asked if the military would choose F-35 given the revised requirements.
The decision sets in motion the South's single biggest defence procurement.
South Korea was initially expected to give the green light to Boeing Co's F-15, as the aircraft was only the bidder among three fighter jets in the race to fall within Seoul's budget. Under South Korean law, only bids on or under budget are considered.
But in September, South Korea decided to re-examine the terms of the 8.3 trillion won ($7.81 billion) tender to buy 60 fighter jets after rejecting Boeing's bid.
At the time, South Korea mentioned its need for an advanced, radar-evading jet, later mirrored by the Air Force asking for enhanced technological requirements for the jets and bolstering the F-35's chances.
The remaining 20 fighter jets will be open to various models, the defense ministry spokesman Kim said.
Given the renewed process, the military and the finance ministry will redesign the budget size, officials said.
"We expect to firm up the total budget size after discussions with the related ministry," said Oh Tae-shik, a senior official at the country's arms procurement agency.
(Reporting by Joyce Lee and Ju-min Park; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)
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