By Joyce Lee and Ju-min Park
SEOUL, Sept 26 South Korea's decision to reject
a bid by Boeing to supply 60 warplanes and to re-issue a
tender was made in the interests of stealth technology but may
not be justified given North Korea's weak air capabilities,
Lockheed Martin's F-35A, previously considered too
expensive, has shot to the front of the race for a multi-billion
dollar deal after the Defence Ministry singled out a
fifth-generation fighter as the preferred option.
Boeing's F-15 Silent Eagle, the only bid within budget, had
been poised to win the 8.3 trillion won ($7.7 billion) tender.
But former military top brass and ruling party legislators had
criticised the aircraft for lacking stealth capabilities.
However, the air power of old rival North Korea was, by
itself, not enough to warrant scrapping the tender in favour of
stealth, experts said.
"It should not be hard to get air superiority against North
Korea using conventional fighters because the air force is
basically grounded, their pilots don't have any experience, and
their air defence is from the 1950s," said Markus Schiller,
senior analyst at Munich-based Schmucker Technologie.
"The capability that they get with the F-15 would be
The North Korean air force operates a fleet of more than
1,300 aircraft, most of them Soviet-era models, the U.S.
Department of Defense wrote in a report to Congress in 2012.
The North's most capable combat aircraft are its MiG-29s,
one of which appeared as the backdrop in a photograph of North
Korea's young leader, Kim Jong-un, posing with soldiers last
MiG-21 and MiG-23 jets make up most of the rest of North
Korea's combat fleet of about 400 aircraft, according to
In contrast, South Korea had about 1,420 aircraft as of
January 2012, with about 220 F-15Ks and F-16s as its main
But with North Korea's possible nuclear weapons a constant
concern after three nuclear tests, the latest in February,
supporters of the decision to re-issue the tender say the very
presence of stealth jets can deter the North.
"Possession of stealth fighters can only apply pressure to
North Korea," said Lee Han-ho, a former air force chief of staff
between 2003 and 2005.
QUICK TURNAROUND NEEDED
Some defence experts also say that advanced fighters are
needed not only to check North Korea. Japan is acquiring F-35s
and China is developing J-20 stealth fighters.
Also, South Korea is due to take operational control of its
forces from the United States in 2015, meaning it must consider
ways to lessen its dependence on U.S. air power in the long
A main concern of the leadership of South Korea's air force
has been delays that could cause a substantial gap in its air
power before jets from the re-issued tender arrive.
South Korea's arms procurement agency, the Defense
Acquisition Program Administration, had estimated that any delay
in the tender process could leave the air force 100 fighters
short of the 430 deemed necessary by 2019.
The Defence Ministry said on Tuesday it expected to complete
the new purchase in about a year, keeping to the scrapped
tender's timetable of a 2017 first delivery date.
But South Korea faces some hurdles before it can relaunch a
tender and choose a winner within a year, including getting
parliament's approval for next year's 732.8 billion won budget,
which is earmarked for the programme.
First delivery in 2017 could be a tall order if the budget
is not secured and the winner is not chosen by next year.
Lockheed Martin, the current favourite, said the company can
deliver a jet about two years after receiving an order, which
would dispel most concerns about a shortage of jets.
But South Korean experience suggests it can take about three
years for a winning bidder to build and deliver the first batch
of "next-generation" fighter jets.
In its first high-class jet tender, which the Boeing F-15K
won in 2002, it took three years for the first delivery, in
2005. The second such tender, awarded again to the Boeing F-15K
in 2008, only took two years until delivery because the
production lines already existed, experts say.
South Korea said on Tuesday it would consider all options,
including buying a mix of different models when reframing the
tender, in order to minimize the gap in combat capabilities.
U.S. and European industry executives took heart as a mixed
fleet could afford Boeing or the Eurofighter consortium - the
third bidder in the scrapped tender - a chance to sell a smaller
number of jets to Seoul, in addition to likely F-35 sales.
"The fact is that the South Koreans are facing a defense gap
unless they can replace their aging F-4s very soon," said one
industry official. "Buying a mixed fleet would allow them to
close that gap more quickly, and probably at a lower cost."
Such a move would also give Seoul some added resources if
the F-35 program, which is running about three years behind
schedule, hits further delays, the official said.
Separately, Yang Uk, a senior research fellow at the Korea
Defence and Security Forum, said: "Going through the entire
process in a year is not impossible, but the top brass will have
to cut through a lot of red tape," said .
"There is a concern that legally needed steps might not get
the full attention they deserve."