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Silenced Eagle

Seoul's decision to not select the F-15SE for its F-X III programme is a significant blow for one of the world's most venerable fighters

By: Greg Waldron

Fans of boxing movies will recognise the plot of Seoul’s F-X III requirement for 60 new fighters. It features an ageing former champion updating his training regimen and making one last stab at the world title against a young, brash rival. Before the fight the trash talk builds to a fever pitch. Then, on the big night, the aged champion enters a fight that few think he can win. Yet after several gruelling rounds the aged fighter deals the newcomer a stunning blow, knocking him to the canvas. Will the old fighter shock the world? Slowly the young champion regains his feet and finishes the fight, having apparently been on the verge of being knocked out. The final bell rings, but the judges call a draw.

Boxing movie cliché became defence acquisition fact in September, when Seoul’s Defense Acquisition Program Executive Committee (DAPEC) decided that it would not, after all, accept the recommendation of the Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) to select the Boeing F-15 Silent Eagle for the F-X III requirement. This despite the F-15SE being the only fighter to come in under DAPA’s budget of won (W) 8.3 trillion ($7.7 billion) in July, which in theory ruled the Lockheed Martin F-35 and Eurofighter Typhoon out of the competition.

“DAPEC decided to reject the final project proposal after profound discussion about security circumstances and the operational conditions in Korea, based on the evaluation results for various categories such as mission execution capability and cost,” said Ministry of National Defense (MND) spokesman Kim Min-Seok in a media briefing.

“Going forward, the MND and DAPA will collaborate with related agencies to re-execute the project as fast as possible to minimise the force vacuum. Suggested methods include quantity adjustment or total project budget modification.”

The “force vacuum” Kim refers to is the space to be left by the South Korean air force’s all but obsolete fleet of McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantoms and Northrop F-5s, two types that the F-X III winner will replace. Given the pending retirement of these two legacy types, the original F-X III requirement called for a replacement fighter to be operational by 2017.

During the briefing, South Korean reporters peppered Kim with questions about the process. They were especially dubious about an assertion that a key factor in DAPEC’s decision is North Korea’s nascent nuclear weapons capabilities. One reporter pointed out that Pyongyang’s ambitions to develop nuclear weapons have been well known for years.

Although the nuclear threat posed by Pyongyang is of profound concern in Seoul, this seems a dubious reason for backing away from the F-15SE at the last minute. Indeed, one could argue that selecting what is widely viewed as a more advanced aircraft – in the form of the F-35 – actually encourages Pyongyang to increase its reliance on unconventional weapons.

Moreover, despite having hundreds of airframes, the North Korean air force is all but militarily irrelevant. It has a handful of serviceable Mikoyan-built MiG-29s, but the vast majority of its equipment would be more suitable for a museum dedicated to Cold War Soviet airpower. Its pilots are believed to be woefully short on actual flying hours, let alone flying hours in training conditions that even remotely resemble combat against the advanced air forces of South Korea and the USA. None of the three F-X III contenders, backed by airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft and flown by skilled South Korean pilots, would have much trouble dealing with their northern rivals.

It was another comment made by Kim that revealed the real issue behind DAPEC’s decision. He stated outright that Seoul’s intention is to buy a “fifth-generation” aircraft with stealth capabilities to fill the F-X III requirement. “We assessed that our air force should rise along with the global aerospace technology and transition to the fifth generation,” he said.

Kim was clearly alluding to the advent of stealthy aircraft in the region. In 2011, Tokyo decided to obtain the F-35 in a competition for 42 aircraft, choosing it over the Boeing F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet and the Typhoon. Beijing also appears to be developing two aircraft with low observable characteristics: the Chengdu J-20 and Shenyang J-31. Little is known about these programmes and there are serious questions about China’s ability to mass-produce advanced fighters, but they have created a stir in regional defence circles.

“The new Chinese fighter programmes have done Lockheed a huge favour on the marketing front,” quips one industry executive.

Industry sources say that the South Korean air force’s original required operational capabilities (ROCs) had stealth as a cornerstone requirement for F-X III. DAPA, however, watered down the emphasis on stealth in the competition, creating an opportunity for two non-stealthy aircraft – the F-15 and Typhoon – to make competitive bids.

With the F-15SE, Boeing sought to bridge the gap between stealthy and non-stealthy. The proposed Silent Eagle included several low observable features, such as conformal weapons bays, canted tails and the use of radar-absorbent materials.

The company argued that stealth only plays a role in the early days of a conflict. After the suppression of enemy air defences, the F-15SE could be converted into a hard-hitting “bomb truck", taking advantage of the F-15’s heavy payload capabilities. In addition, Seoul already operates 60 F-15K Slam Eagles, which were obtained under the F-X I and II requirements.

In early August, the F-15SE’s position looked strong. “We’re getting a really good feeling about Korea,” said a Boeing official at the time.

Nonetheless, trouble was brewing. In mid-August, DAPA reached out to Lockheed for more information on F-35 pricing. Lockheed’s offer in F-X III was based on pricing for low-rate initial production Lot 5 (LRIP 5) aircraft. In a re-tendered competition, Lockheed will be able to use updated pricing from LRIP 7 or perhaps LRIP 8, lots in which the unit cost per aircraft will have fallen, perhaps by 10-12% from LRIP 5.

Meanwhile, South Korean media published numerous stories critical of the Silent Eagle's likely selection.

Then, in early September, with the F-15SE still apparently poised to win, came a major PR blow for Boeing. Fifteen former senior air force officials issued a letter opposing the selection of the aircraft. Several of these former officers had played a role in devising the air force’s original ROCs, which placed a significant emphasis on stealth.

The air force’s predilection for stealth, coupled with the public relations backlash against the Silent Eagle, finally pushed Seoul to call F-X III off.

“The South Korean decision indicates a change in focus from getting the lowest price per aircraft to acquiring a higher level of stealth than the Silent Eagle design can provide,” says Douglas Royce, an aircraft analyst at Forecast International.

“The South Korean air force looks willing to accept a lower number of aircraft if by doing so it can add the F-35's stealth capability. I expect South Korea to eventually rewrite the programme requirements to emphasise stealth capability, which means that there won't be any new competition. Boeing and Eurofighter won't compete for a contract that neither has a chance of winning.”

Royce holds out some element of hope for the F-15, given that Seoul has said it could split F-X III among two types. This option would allow Boeing to sell additional F-15Ks for delivery in the next few years, and also allow the South Korean air force to join the F-35 club.

“The F-X III decision was more significant for Boeing, since the potential customer pool for the F-15 is small,” says Royce. “If South Korea is out of the picture, you have to wonder who is left as a sales prospect.”

The F-15 remains one of the world’s most potent fighters, and various upgrades – some of which were developed for the F-X III campaign – will ensure that it is lethal for decades to come. Nonetheless, after failing to capture F-X III, the F-15 will struggle to win new sales as the era of the F-35 dawns. Even the best boxers cannot rule the ring forever.