IN FOCUS: Seoul weighs options in F-X III fighter contest

Singapore
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South Korea could make a decision in its F-X III competition for 60 fighters by mid-year, and is placing considerable emphasis on offsets and technology transfer.

Although industry sources had said the competition was to be decided late last year, one says the step was delayed by South Korea's presidential election on 19 December 2012.

"DAPA [the Defence Acquisition Program Administration] is still looking at costs involved with the various aircraft," says the source. "They have yet to start really pushing for ways to push costs down. We're still some way from a conclusion. We've heard that a decision could come by mid-2013."

The three rivals for the requirement are the Boeing F-15 Silent Eagle, the Eurofighter Typhoon and the Lockheed Martin F-35, with the companies having submitted formal bids in June 2012. The winner will replace the South Korean air force's obsolescent fleet of McDonnell Douglas F-4E Phantoms.

eurofighter typhoon, f-35 jsf & f-15 silent eagle

 The South Korean Defence Acquisition Program Administration is assessing the Lockheed Martin F-35, Eurofighter Typhoon and Boeing F-15 Silent Eagle

Seoul still appears adamant about using the F-X III deal to gain technological know-how for its K-FX indigenous fighter programme. One source involved in the contest says DAPA's queries in recent months have been focused on technology transfer. Another source in Seoul says the issue of K-FX frequently comes up in meetings about the deal.

K-FX is apparently a sensitive topic with the companies and governments involved in F-X III. Aside from the extensive intellectual property, Seoul wants to develop the aircraft, which it sees as possible Lockheed F-16 replacement. However, some industry observers have questioned its development costs - and the fact that Indonesia is a 20% partner in the programme.

The degree to which K-FX considerations will weigh against purely operational matters in the F-X III decision is not clear. Nevertheless, all three rivals have publicly promoted their support for South Korean industry.

As for the aircraft themselves, the F-35 and F-15SE - a low observable variant of the F-15E - are seen as the front-runners for the requirement. South Korean evaluation teams visited the USA in 2012 to evaluate the pair.

"During a rigorous evaluation process, [Republic of Korea air force] pilots were able to assess virtually every aspect of the F-35 through technical briefings, laboratory observations, production line tours, detailed examinations of F-35 production aircraft, facility tours and both simulator and actual F-35 flights," says Lockheed.

South Korean pilots did not fly the F-35 itself, but observed it from a two-seat F-16.

Eurofighter evaluations took place in Spain in mid-2012 and involved 15 flights. The aircraft involved used the Typhoon's Phase 1 Enhancement software package, which will be used in the Tranche 3 type that has been pitched for F-X III. The new software greatly enhances the Typhoon's ability to attack multiple ground targets simultaneously.

Boeing has highlighted the payload of the F-15SE, while Lockheed has emphasised the F-35's low observable characteristics.

"South Korea faces a demanding security environment, including asymmetric capabilities to their north and ongoing development and procurement of fifth-generation aircraft throughout Asia-Pacific," says Lockheed.

"Because the very low observable stealth F-35 can penetrate heavily defended airspace, it provides Korea with proactive strategic deterrence - the ability to hold strategic targets of interest at risk 24/7, despite the air defence systems that are in place to protect those assets," the company adds. "From an air-to-air perspective, the F-35 provides Korea with significantly advanced capability over any other fourth-generation fighter, and ensures Korea will be able to deter current and future threat systems."

Boeing says the F-15SE will offer a degree of stealth in the early days of a conflict through the use of conformal weapons bays. These can be removed after enemy air defences have been suppressed, turning the F-15SE to what one industry observer calls a "bomb truck".

Payload is another critical consideration for Seoul. Its fighter pilots refer to the early days of a war with North Korea as "the great JDAM [joint direct attack munition] party".

During this phase of a conflict, the air force would need to rapidly eliminate pre-designated targets lying just to the north of the demilitarized zone that divides North and South Korea.

Stealth is also very important for Seoul, but secrecy issues preclude F-X III competitors from publicly detailing the radar cross section characteristics of their aircraft.