Seoul takes flak over warplane deal
CONCERNS are escalating over Seoul's high-profile project to procure next-generation fighter jets, as it is seen leaning towards a cheaper, older candidate due to budgetary constraints.
Experts called on the government to go back to the drawing board and reconsider which aircraft would best serve the interests of a country facing security challenges from North Korea and potentially from other neighbours, including China.
In a three-way competition for the 8.3-trillion-won (S$9.5-billion) project to purchase and deploy 60 aircraft in 2017-2021, Lockheed Martin's F-35A and European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company's Eurofighter Typhoon failed to fit the budget.
By law, Seoul cannot sign any defence deal that exceeds its preset budget. Boeing's F-15 Silent Eagle has thus emerged as the sole candidate that meets the budget requirement.
Some observers criticised Seoul for being driven inordinately by financial limits in its selection and paying insufficient attention to capability-related issues, despite the growing competition among regional powers to secure advanced combat aircraft.
China is striving to develop stealth aircraft, such as the J-20 and J-31, while Japan has signed a contract with Lockheed Martin to purchase 42 F-35 jets. Russia is working on building its own T-50 stealth fighter.
"Seoul needs to think about the original objective of the project, which was to introduce a high-end fleet beyond the fourth-generation aircraft. But it faces financial-budget obstacles," said Dr Yang Uk, a senior research fellow at the Korea Defence and Security Forum.
"The fifth-generation aircraft that regional powers are pursuing feature radar-evading functions and greater capabilities for situational awareness, which would set themselves apart from older platforms and change the operational contours and future strategy."
While Boeing said it has added stealth functions to the F-15, critics question if the fighter, first built in the 1960s, would be capable of coping with increasingly complicated aerial threats in the coming decades.
Retired brigadier-general Lee Hee Woo said: "The operational capability of the F-15 SE, retrofitted from its existing platform, has yet to be tested, as it is still in its design stage.
"On top of that, South Korea is likely to be the last country to purchase the fighter, which means maintenance costs might be high and securing component parts would not be easy."
The fighter-procurement project is urgent for South Korea, which estimates it may fall short of some 100 fighters in 2019, when all of its F4s and F5s will be decommissioned.
THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK