Plan for 35% increase in defence budget alerts manufacturers to resurrection of AEW&C aircraft competition

South Korea is preparing to relaunch a competition for airborne early warning & control (AEW&C) aircraft using funds made available in an enlarged defence budget.

Korean industry officials expect the E-X programme office to reopen in June or July and issue the long-delayed programme's fifth request for proposals early next year. If this schedule remains, a contract would be awarded in 2005, with deliveries from 2008.

Plans for a 35% increase in South Korea's defence budget to 23 trillion won ($19 billion) are breathing new life into E-X, which was last suspended two years ago. It could be one of several procurements to benefit from the increased budget, which would be over 3% of South Korea's gross domestic product and the largest hike since 1980 if approved.

The programme office has initially been tasked with re-evaluating the dormant requirement. The results could lead to changes from the request for proposals issued in 2000, which was expected to result in the purchase of four Airbus A320/Boeing 737 size aircraft.

Boeing and Northrop Grumman are preparing to again offer the 737 AEW&C, which is considered the favourite after its selection by Australia and Turkey and considering Seoul's tendency to buy US equipment. Other potential suppliers are waiting to see if the requirement is revised before deciding to invest in another marketing effort.

Previously, Raytheon offered the A321 and Thales the A320. But Raytheon's aircraft integrated systems unit has since been sold to L-3, which has not decided whether it will keep the A321 proposal intact. Thales is also still evaluating the future of its A320 AEW&C programme. Suppliers of smaller AEW&C platforms are prepared to submit proposals if the programme office downsizes the requirement.

South Korea's ministry of national defence is banking on new president Roh Moo-huyn fulfilling his campaign promise to increase defence spending. Several projects are competing for scarce funds - including surface-to-air missiles, attack helicopters and VIP helicopters.

But Roh's visit to Washington DC to meet US President George Bush last week could lead to changes in Seoul's shopping list.

Source: Flight International