South Korea aims to choose a supplier for 60 advanced fighters next year, balancing industrial ambitions against a need to deter North Korea and concerns about emerging Chinese and Russian air-to-air threats.
Each has merits. Local industry is helping to develop the Silent Eagle, a stealthier version of the F-15K, and makes major parts for all F-15s, while the air force shows strong signs of wanting the F-35’s stealth for the crucial strike mission. In a market dominated by U.S. manufacturers, the Typhoon must rely heavily on its flight performance and on Eurofighter’s great scope for technology transfer.
The Typhoon was little more than a stalking horse in F-X Phase 1, in which Boeing won an order for 40 F-15Ks in 2002. Only Boeing bid for F-X Phase 2, resulting in a contract for 21 more F-15Ks in 2008. The F-X requirement emerged in the late 1980s and has met repeated budgetary delays. Phase 3 will not move to a decision next year unless parliament allocates money for the aircraft.
The Phase 3 aircraft would partly replace F-4 Phantoms and F-5 Tigers, and would be replaced in the strike role by 2030 by a domestically developed combat drone. Even with the new aircraft, the fighter force will drop to 400 from 500 by 2020.
South Korea faces more than 300 North Korean heavy artillery pieces in range of Seoul, and, far from the border, an uncertain number of nuclear ballistic missiles of unknown quality. The ability to rapidly knock out guns and missiles that threaten cities while pounding command bunkers is critically important. The air threat from North Korea is not an immediate concern.
South Korean fighters would not fly more than 1,000 km (621 mi.) to destroy North Korean nuclear missiles. The most northerly F-15K base is 430 km from Pyongyang. Also, China and Russia may introduce their own stealth fighters—the Chengdu J-20 and Sukhoi PAK-FA, respectively—this decade.
An ability to penetrate hostile airspace covertly, the strongest selling point of the F-35, is an “immensely important capability,” said air force Col. Taek-Hwan Song, at a seminar in Seoul in May. Song, leader of the department that plans air force requirements, expressed a relaxed view on the affordability of the F-35 and its schedule for service entry, despite cost overruns and delays. “A general misunderstanding about the fifth-generation stealth fighter is that it is expensive; it’s never too expensive,” he said. As for the aim of putting the F-X Phase 3 aircraft into service in 2018, just as the U.S. Air Force makes the F-35 operational, he notes that South Korea’s definition of operational is less demanding than that of USAF.
The Silent Eagle has the advantage of offering more work to Korea Aerospace Industries, which builds the wings and forward fuselages of F-15s for all customers and is helping to develop and make the conformal weapon bays fitted on the sides of the proposed stealthier version, for munitions, equipment and fuel. The stealthier F-15 would also have much commonality with 60 F-15Ks, cutting operational costs, though the version would be unique to South Korea unless Saudi Arabia, a potential customer, also buys it.
The Typhoon has an advantage over U.S. competitors on the issue of technology transfer that South Korea demands for its proposed KF-X fighter in the 2020s, since Eurofighter partners EADS and BAE Systems are not subject to Washington’s strict controls. Moreover, U.S. support for Asian fighter programs has consistently avoided creating competitors for U.S. aircraft.
Eurofighter says its aircraft can counter stealthy attackers. A flight of Typhoons flying in a wall formation can detect them at operationally useful ranges by sharing and triangulating azimuth data from passive sensors. Typhoons may even have detected Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptors that way last year.
Such counter-stealth capability would be valued against the J-20 and PAK-FA, but one F-X Phase 3 program official says an excellent strike capability would be valued more highly. Unless the South Korean air force, structured for combined operations with the U.S. Air Force against North Korea, transformed into a force for unilateral action, chances for a non-U.S. aircraft buy seem low.
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