SEOUL - South Korea on Tuesday decided to restart its high-profile fighter acquisition project amid criticism that it has paid more attention to candidates' price tags than their capabilities and broader strategic interests.
A top defence decision-making panel rejected Boeing's F-15 Silent Eagle as the winner of the 8.3 trillion won (S$9.65 billion) project after it was proposed as the sole candidate despite skepticism over its radar-evading capability and four-decade-old platform.
The other two competitors ― Lockheed Martin's F-35A and European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company's Eurofighter Typhoon ― failed to make it to the shortlist as they did not fit Seoul's budget.
With the decision for the country's largest-ever defence project, Seoul is to start the procurement process from scratch, which experts say could cause a delay in its plan to deploy 60 next-generation warplanes from 2017-2021.
"In consideration of the threats from North Korea's nuclear arms and other asymmetric weapons, current security environments and the face-paced development of aeronautical technologies, the panel decided to restart the project," Defence Ministry spokesperson Kim Min-seok told a press conference.
"Through methods such as reducing the number of warplanes to be purchased or adjusting the budget, Seoul will quickly proceed again with the project so as to prevent a possible shortage of the combat warplanes."
The acquisition project is urgent for the Air Force, which has already started to see a shortage of combat planes. It is expected to lack some 100 fighters in 2019 when all of the F4s and F5s are to be decommissioned.
The spokesperson also added that among other possible options, Seoul could consider purchasing warplanes of one company in steps rather than all at once to fit the budget; or warplanes from two different companies to form the envisioned high-end fleet.