Seoul resets fighter programme

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.

Boeing expressed disappointment over the panel's decision.

"Boeing is deeply disappointed by the Republic of Korea's Defence Acquisition Program Executive Committee decision. Boeing has rigorously followed the Defence Acquisition Program Administration's instructions throughout the entire process," it said in an email statement. "We await details from DAPA on its basis for the delay while evaluating our next options."

After the F-15SE was selected as the only candidate in August, experts and retired air force generals have argued that the fighter, first produced in the 1960s, is not fully capable of coping with increasingly complicated aerial threats in the coming decades.

Critics, in particular, say the South will end up falling behind regional powers including China and Japan in terms of aerial capabilities given that they have stepped up efforts to procure stealth 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.

Experts also say that Seoul should have procured asymmetric weapons systems such as stealth warplanes to better handle continuing nuclear threats posed by the unpredictable leadership in Pyongyang.

Some industry watchers expressed concerns over Boeing "dominating" Korea's defence deals.

Boeing won the first two FX projects in 2002 and 2007 and sold 60 F-15s ― worth 8.3 trillion won in total. From 2006 through 2012, the firm also sold four E-737 Peace Eyes ― an early warning and control aircraft ― for around 2 trillion won.

On top of that, the firm has recently won Seoul's 1.8 trillion won project to procure 36 attack helicopters by 2018.

Fending off skepticism, Boeing has promoted the F-15SE as a "combat-proven" jet featuring an advanced Active Electronically Scanned Array radar system, a state-of-the-art electronic warfare system and a payload capacity nearly twice that of the F-35.

The Defence Acquisition Program Administration has conducted an extensive evaluation of all three candidates based on criteria including their mission performance, lifespan, interoperability and budgetary issues.

During the early stage of the competition, the F-35A got the most media spotlight as it was the only all-stealth, fifth-generation aircraft. But its popularity waned due to the discovery of defects, surging costs and development delays.

EADS' Eurofighter was considered to be a likely candidate due to its attractive offer of technology transfer and other promises to help boost the local industry.