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Korea accelerates stealth fighter acquisition efforts

March 2, 2011 - 19:50 By Song Sangho
Boeing’s F-15SE, Lockheed Martin’s F-35 most likely candidates for FX-III project

South Korea is accelerating moves to purchase a high-end fleet of stealth fighter jets to counter North Korea’s asymmetrical threats and keep pace with neighboring countries seeking to secure their own radar-evading combat aircraft.

Under the FX-III acquisition project worth around 10 trillion won ($8.86 billion), the Seoul government is seeking to purchase some 60 next-generation fighters with an aim to have them delivered for operational deployment to begin in 2016.

The government is expected to draw up an acquisition strategy in the first half of this year, start receiving proposals from bidders early next year and determine which jet it will buy as early as August that year, according to Seoul officials.

As the Defense Ministry failed to secure 15.7 billion won, which it wanted to include in this year’s budget to get the acquisition work started, in the face of opposition from the National Assembly and budget authorities, it was expected that the military would not be able to start deploying new warplanes in 2016. 

However, the Seoul government has recently begun moving faster to secure stealth fighters as calls have persisted for the military to acquire the strategic precision-guided weaponry that can handle asymmetrical threats from the North.

Along with Japan’s ongoing efforts to develop its own Advanced Technology Demonstrator-X Shinshin stealth fighter, China’s successful test flight on its first stealth jet, the J-20, in January also appears to have prompted Seoul to accelerate its acquisition efforts.

Seoul also believes that the FX-III project should be fast-tracked due to projections that the Air Force may suffer a shortage of fighter jets after the mid-2010s when its aging fighters are due to be decommissioned.

It estimates the Air Force may lack some 100 fighters in the late-2010s. The Air Force believes it needs at least 430 fighter jets of different levels to prepare for possible wartime operations -- some 100 high-end, 200 middle-end and 100 low-end fighters.

The FX-III competition also appears to be in connection with the KF-X project, designed to develop homegrown battle planes that would replace aging F-4 and F-5 fighters.

Observers here say that the Seoul government is likely to see how much a bidder can contribute to the KF-X project in terms of technology transfer during the acquisition process.

Military officials and experts largely agree that stealth fighters should be introduced early as North Korea’s provocations continue to destabilize the security environment on the Korean Peninsula.

“As the North possesses nuclear arms for strategic purposes, stealth fighter jets will serve as our strategic weapons. Even if we would not use it immediately, the stealth fighter could serve as a strong deterrent against potential enemies,” an Air Force official said, refusing to be named.

“Nothing has yet to be determined on what we plan to require for the new fighter jets we will purchase. We will consider various factors including how to manage the current groups of fighter jets we have and how to replace the aging aircraft.”

Experts also note that the early introduction of high-end fighter aircraft is crucial considering the possibility that the U.S. air support could dwindle after Seoul retrieves wartime operational control from Washington in December 2015.

They also argue that the strategic weaponry is needed when the likelihood of additional provocations by the North remains high as it is seeking to portray itself as a “strong, prosperous state” next year with the second hereditary power succession underway.

Boeing’s F-15 Silent Eagle and Lockheed Martin’s F-35 are being considered as the two most likely candidate fighters for the FX-III project.

F-15 Silent Eagle

In March 2009, Boeing first unveiled the two-seat, two-engine F-15 Silent Eagle with a maximum speed of mach 2.5, which has been being developed based on what it calls “combat-proven” F-15 Eagle.

In its promotion of the Silent Eagle, Boeing has focused on the fighter jet’s overall survivability, cost-effectiveness and “tactically useful” radar cross section reduction, pointing out that it would still retain the F-15’s long-range, large payload capabilities.

Critics here have doubted stealth capabilities of F-15SE, calling it a “semi-stealth jet” -- compared with Lockheed Martin’s F-35 -- as it is being developed on the basis of the non-stealth concept of the fourth-generation fighter jet.

Boeing refused to reveal the level of the RCS reduction on the F-15SE as it is classified information while stressing that it is ready to provide a reasonable level of the RCS reduction that could meet South Korea’s requirements. RCS is a measure of how detectable an object is with radar. A larger RCS indicates that an object is more easily detected.

It, however, remains confident that overall, the F-15SE can offer a good solution for South Korea’s Air Force, citing a series of factors including its interoperability with the existing F-15K fighter jets run by South Korea’s Air Force.

“With a balanced approach to survivability, the F-15SE takes a low risk, cost effective approach to securing the national interest of our customers with advanced AESA (active electronically scanned array) radar, an advanced electronic warfare system, tactfully useful radar cross section reduction,” Brad Jones, director of Boeing’s F-15 Development Programs, told The Korea Herald.

Jones pointed out that one of the most important attributes of the F-15SE is “mission flexibility” which ensures the cost effectiveness of the fighter jet.

“Being able to perform air superiority, air-to-ground, deep penetration, maritime and remote island defense missions with a single platform provides a nation with the most cost effective solution to protect their national security,” he said.

“If you include the fact the F-15SE is more than 85 percent common with the existing F-15K Slam Eagle fleet, Korea will be able to greatly reduce their operational and support cost over the projected 30 year service life. No one else in the world can offer such a cost effective solution with this type of proven, superior operational capability.”

To a question of whether it can meet Korea’s anticipated delivery timeline, Jones said, “Boeing is committed to providing an operational capable F-15 Silent Eagle to the Republic of Korea when they need it for their force structure needs.”

“Boeing continues to perform operational analysis of the regional threats and we feel the F-15 Silent Eagle offers a unique solution to effectively respond to those future threats.”

Boeing officials refused to comment on the projected price of the F-15SE, saying that it can vary widely according to what options Korea wants to have its jet equipped with.

“As we have yet to receive ROC (requirement of capability), it is hard to comment on the price,” an official said.

Boeing explains that for a mission that requires a stealth capability, the F-15SE could carry a 2,700-pound internal payload for 800 nautical miles in an air-to-ground configuration or 720 nautical miles in an air-to-air configuration.

Its conformal weapons bay could accommodate various mixtures of weapons systems -- two Sidewinder missiles and two Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missiles; or four AMRAAMs; or an air-to-air and air-to-ground mix of two AMRAAMs and two 1,000-pound Joint Direct Attack Munition bombs; or eight 250-pound Small Diameter Bombs.

If a mission did not require stealth, the F-15 Silent Eagle could be reconfigured for missions that required more payloads over a longer mission range. Removing the weapons bays would enable F-15SE to have a 29,500-pound payload for missions in the 1,000-nautical mile range in an air-to-ground configuration and 900 nautical miles in an air-to-air configuration.

F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Lightning II

A set of issues over rising costs and delays in the development of the F-35 fighter jet has apparently sapped confidence in the massive multinational program for the new radar-evading fighter that involve nine countries including the U.S.

Struggling to overcome such challenges, Lockheed Martin, which is spearheading the F-35 project, has been highlighting the fighter’s stealth capability that is believed to be better than those of other competitors.

Randy Howard, Lockheed Martin’s director of Korea F-35 Campaign, stressed that the F-35 is the “only true, all-aspect stealthy fifth-generation” fighter available on the international market while categorizing the F-15SE as a forth-generation jet.

“The F-35 redefines multi-role fighter aircraft performance and provides a quantum leap in capability over the fourth generation aircraft including the F-15SE which is based upon a design that dates to 1968,” he told The Korea Herald.

“True stealth must be designed from the ground up. It cannot be retrofitted. The F-35 achieves its Very Low Observable performance through its fundamental design, its external shape, and its state of the art manufacturing processes which control tolerances to less than half the diameter of a human hair.”

The F-35 has been co-developed with eight foreign partners -- Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, Canada, Australia, Denmark and Norway -- since 2001. The U.S., along with the eight countries, has invested some $50 billion for the F-35 project.

The single-seat, single-engine F-35 jet with a maximum speed of mach 1.8 has three different variants.

The conventional takeoff and landing F-35A is for air force operations, while the F-35B is the Marine Corps’ short take-off and vertical landing variant and the F-35C is the Navy’s carrier based version.

While the development of the two variants has been properly proceeding, the Marine Corps’ variant is experiencing significant testing problems stemming from software development issues, according to reports.

The U.S. Defense Department anticipated late last year that the Air Force and Navy versions of the fighter would face a development delay of an additional year, while the development of the Marine Corps version would be delayed by up to three years.

Given their budget constraints, the growing price of the F-35 is also burdensome for many countries. It is widely believed that the price of the F-35 per unit may double the original price of about $50 million -- set in 2001.

Criticism has surfaced here that the increase of the per-unit price runs counter to the development purpose of the F-35 -- producing a less costly stealth fighter for overseas customers as the F-22 Raptor, the top U.S. air superiority fighter, is barred by law from export until 2015 to protect its stealth technology.

Jointly developed by Lockheed Martin and Boeing, the F-22 is estimated to cost around $355 million per unit. Due to the high costs, the U.S. manufactured only 187 units.

Other than the price issues, another concern here is whether South Korea can acquire it at a time it needs the fighter since it is not part of the multinational JSF project.

Howard said that the F-35A will be available to South Korea with deliveries beginning in 2016, noting that F-35A’s System Development and Demonstration program, which includes developmental flight tests, is scheduled to complete in early 2016.

Regarding the increasing development costs, Howard said that as production quantities continue to increase, the production price will subsequently decrease.

“Cost increases on the F-35 program to date have been predominantly associated with the development phase of the program. The U.S. government has borne the entire financial responsibility of these developmental cost increases and has not passed them along to participating countries,” he said.

“As production quantities continue to increase, the recurring production price will continue down that cost curve. Lockheed Martin expects the average unit recurring cost of an F-35A to be approximately $65 million in 2010 year economics.”

Howard also claimed that all issues with the development of the F-35 have proven to be “solvable.”

“The fundamental design and the software that drives the F-35 are sound -- there are no technical limitations,” he said.

“The first two lots of production aircraft will begin delivery to the U.S. government this year. The U.K. and the Netherlands will accept their first aircraft to be used to support flight test activities next year. Italy and Australia are scheduled to accept their first production aircraft deliveries in 2014.”

The fighter jets are to replace nearly 3,000 aging jets across the world including F-16 and A-10 aircraft in the U.S. Air Force, F/A-18s in the U.S. Navy and AV-8Bs in the U.S Marine Corps. The U.S. military services are expected to buy 2,457 of the new fighters.

The F-35 is designed to carry an array of precision-guided weapons to take maximum advantage of its stealth capabilities, Lockheed Martin explained.

Internally, the F-35 can carry up to 5,700 pounds of air-to-air and air-to-ground precision guided weapons. When the need for stealth is reduced and external weapons carriage can be safely employed, the F-35 is designed to carry a total of up to 18,500 pounds of precision-guided weapons.

Other than the two fighter jets, EADS’ Eurofighter Typhoon, a twin-engine, canard-delta wing, multi-role combat aircraft, is also mentioned as the likely candidate jet for the FX-III contest.

By Song Sang-ho (