A retired US Air Force chief of staff recommends South Korea acquire Boeing F-15 Silent Eagle aircraft in the near-term, saying Lockheed Martin's F-35A Joint Strike Fighter will be a “paper tiger” until the early 2020s when it has updated software.
Retired Gen Ron Fogleman, now a Boeing consultant, told reporters during a 4 October event hosted by the company that South Korea would be best served with a mix of F-15s and F-35s.
He warns that an F-35-only order will leave the country without sufficient combat readiness starting in 2016 and 2017, as the South Korean air force retires McDonnell Douglas F-4 and Northrop F-5 aircraft.
“The F-35 doesn’t have the combat capability today that that F-15 has,” says Fogleman, who is also a chairman of the board of Alliant Techsystems, which makes components for the F-35. “There is a real requirement for near-term combat capability.”
The US government’s F-35 program acquisition office did not immediately respond to a request for comment, while Lockheed says: "The Republic of Korea best understands its national security requirements. Lockheed Martin is honoured that the Republic of Korea is considering the F-35A and the fifth-generation capabilities it provides."
Fogleman spent 34 years in the USAF, and had operational control of South Korea’s air force as air component commander of the combined forces command in South Korea.
His comments come as South Korea seeks to acquire 60 fighters as part of its $7.2 billion F-X III plan.
The country initially ruled out the F-35A and the Eurofighter Typhoon due to high costs, but the F-35A re-entered contention when the country rejected Boeing’s F-15 bid in September due to a lack of sufficient stealth technology.
Fogleman says South Korea is smart to order F-35s, but needs a proven aircraft until the early 2020s, when F-35s will have the so-called Block 3F software. That upgrade will give the aircraft its full operational capabilities, meaning it will have improved performance and the ability to carry a wider range of weapons.
“You can buy a stealthy airplane, but if it doesn’t have a lot of combat capability you kind of have a paper tiger,” says Fogleman. “I’m not sure I want to risk my country’s independence... on a paper tiger.”
By comparison, the F-15 is a proven aircraft that excels at carrying heavy payloads at high speeds and across long distances; capabilities critical in a war against North Korea, says Fogleman.
Though the US Marine Corps and USAF will both take delivery of F-35s with earlier versions of the software, the US Navy is holding out for the Block 3F software.
The navy’s aircraft will achieve initial operational capability (IOC) between August 2018 and February 2019, while the USMC and USAF should attain the same status in 2015 and 2016, respectively, according to a June Department of Defense report.