South Korea will be given a US government briefing on the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) programme early next month, as the country begins evaluating its future fighter requirements.
Industry sources say Lockheed Martin is pushing South Korea to join the JSF programme early, and believes its F-35 platform could be an alternative to Seoul's possible purchase of additional F-15Ks from US rival Boeing.
Boeing, however, remains confident of receiving a follow-on F-15K order before 2008, when it delivers the last of the 40 aircraft now on order, because the JSF will not be available to export customers until around 2012.
South Korea may hold a new competition dubbed F-XX to meet the follow-on requirement, with the F-15K considered favourite.
South Korea's original F-X next-generation fighter requirement was for 120 aircraft, but budget constraints limited the initial acquisition to 40. The first six aircraft are already in production, with first flight scheduled for next March and initial delivery set for late 2005.
Seoul will, meanwhile, take delivery of its last of 180 Lockheed Martin F-16s in June. Sources say a badly needed upgrade to its aircraft computer systems, including its newly delivered Block 52 fighters, is being evaluated.
A Link 16 datalink is viewed as the ideal solution to this problem, since it would make the F-16s and F-15K interoperable, but its high cost could force South Korea to reduce the purchase of additional fighters. As a result, it has asked the US government to provide information on other possible datalink products and is now awaiting a response.
The F-15Ks will be delivered with Link 16 equipment and a weapons package that includes Boeing's AGM-84H stand-off land-attack missile-expanded response.
Lockheed Martin first briefed South Korea on the JSF late last year (Flight International, 11-17 November 2003), but the US government briefing will provide more details and discuss what levels of participation are available.
South Korea could become the second Asian country to join the JSF programme after Singapore, which last month formally joined as a security co-operation participant. Seoul is expected to be offered the aircraft under the US government's Foreign Military Sales mechanism.
BRENDAN SOBIE / SINGAPORE