SOUTH KOREA - Concerns are escalating over Seoul's high-profile project to procure next-generation fighter jets as it is seen leaning toward a cheaper, older candidate fighter due primarily to budgetary constraints.
Experts called on the government to go back to the drawing board and reconsider which candidate would serve the best interests of the country facing security challenges from North Korea and potentially from other neighbours including China.
In a three-way competition for the 8.3 trillion won (S$9.3 billion) project to purchase and deploy 60 aircraft in 2017-2021, Lockheed Martin's F-35A and European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company's Eurofighter Typhoon failed to fit the budget.
By law, Seoul cannot sign any defence deal that exceeds its preset budget. Boeing's F-15 Silent Eagle has thus emerged as the sole candidate to meet the budget requirement.
Some observers criticised Seoul for being driven inordinately by financial limits in its selection and paying insufficient attention to capability-related issues, despite the growing competition among regional powers to secure advanced combat aircraft.
China is striving to develop radar-evading aircraft such as the J-20 and J-31 while Japan has signed a contract with Lockheed Martin to purchase 42 F-35 jets. Russia is working on building its own T-50 stealth fighter.
"Seoul needs to think about the original objective for the project, which was to introduce a high-end fleet beyond the fourth-generation aircraft. But it now faces financial budget obstacles," said Yang Uk, a senior research fellow at the Korea Defence and Security Forum.
"The fifth-generation aircraft that regional powers are pursuing features radar-evading functions and greater capabilities for situational awareness, which would set itself apart from older platforms and change the operational contours and future strategy."