WASHINGTON: You can imagine the whoops at Lockheed Martin’s Bethesda and Fort Worth offices today when the South Korean government dumped Boeing’s F-15 “Silent Eagle” in favor of a stealthy aircraft likely to be the F-35.
“Our air force thinks that we need combat capabilities in response to the latest trend of aerospace technology development centered around the fifth generation fighter jets and to provocations from North Korea,” defense ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok told reporters today in Seoul.
Boeing, on the other hand, said this through spokesman Conrad Chun:
“Boeing is deeply disappointed by the DAPEC decision. Boeing has rigorously followed DAPA’s instructions throughout the whole process. We await details from DAPA on its basis for the delay while evaluating our next options.”
It’s fair to say that Boeing’s use of the term “delay” is relentlessly hopeful. The hard core of the matter is that the South Korean military, looking north to China and east to Japan, values stealth enough to pay for it. Is the Silent Eagle stealthy? Here’s how Boeing describes it: “Using a modular design approach, the F-15SE offers unique aerodynamic, avionic and Radar Cross Section (RCS)-reduction features that provide the user with maximum flexibility to dominate the ever-changing advanced threat environment.” Bottom line: while the Boeing entry may not be as obvious to sensors as a conventional F-15, it cannot be described as stealthy.
“This outcome is no surprise (I predicted it in the Financial Times on September 17). Boeing didn’t make any mistakes, but it lacked an offering that could match the F-35 in survivability, situational awareness and other key performance parameters,” Loren Thompson, member of the Breaking Defense Board of Contributors and top defense consultant, writes in an email. “South Korea’s decision indicates that Seoul valued combat performance more highly than price in its evaluation.”
And the likely choice of Lockheed Martin’s F-35A — that may well be supplemented by F-35Bs — will place another chain in the long link of F-35 countries in the Pacific: Japan, Singapore and Australia. Add to those the American F-35s at bases throughout the Pacific. Air Force F-35s probably will head to four bases: Misawa, Japan; Kadena, Japan; Osan Air Base, Korea; and Kunsan Air Base, Korea. And F-35Cs will fly from carriers and F-35Bs from other Navy ships and Marine bases in the region.
To get some idea as to why capabilities trumped price — something Reuters and other news agencies said yesterday was not likely to happen because of South Korea’s fiscal situation — consider that 15 former South Korean Air Force chiefs of staff publicly argued that their country must buy a stealth aircraft.
Below are some excerpts from two interviews with them. Note the comments that DAPA must take stealth into account and not focus solely on price.
The first is an interview of former Chief of Staff Lee Han-ho by South Korea’s YTN network.
Q: Why did you and the other Chiefs of Staff of the Air Force decide to step forward on the FX program?
General Lee, Han-ho: We were reluctant to speak out. However, we observed how performance of the aircraft was disregarded and price became the only relevant issue for the FX program. I felt that this was a serious problem….
Q: Strategically, you believe that F-15SE is not the right choice, but rather stealth is required.
LHH: In consideration of the situations we have with North Korea and the surrounding regions, stealth is the only option. However, a competitive selection program was needed to promote lower price of the aircraft. We don’t have a problem with a competitive procurement program. We simply believe that all the relevant elements should be taken into consideration for the source selection, and are pointing out that price deciding the selection is a problem.
Q: F-15SE is looking very likely for the selection, but you appear to support the F-35. What are the F-35’s advantages?
LHH: We do not have any particular favored platform, and we do not intend to promote or denigrate a particular platform. We have no desire to become involved in that.
Q: Are F-35’s stealth capabilities better?
LHH: Eurofighter and F-15 are not designed with stealth from the beginning. F-35 is the only platform which was designed for stealth from the inception.
Q: F-35’s price is known to be high, and MND is saying that any delays would be problematic, so at this point they need to select 4th gen fighters. What do you think should happen?
LHH: I understand that the price difference between the F-35 and the total program cost is about KRW 1-2 trillion. I think that this is well within the range for budget adjustment, bearing in mind the total defense budget of KRW 34 trillion, of which KRW 10 or 11 trillion is allocated for improvement of defense capabilities. Plus, the budget will be expended over a ten-year period. This means a yearly addition of KRW 0.1 trillion, which is well within the range for adjustment.
Q (surprised): Is the cost difference that small?
LHH: Nothing’s been clearly disclosed, so I don’t know exactly. But I believe that it is roughly around that range.
Q: We heard that F-35 was twice as expensive.
LHH: That is not quite the case….
Q: Was there a problem with how the total program cost was estimated?
LHH: Yes. The total program cost was estimated back in 2009-10, and it does not take into consideration the fact that the price has decreased since then.
And here is a telephone interview of former AF Chief of Staff Park Chun-taek with Channel A:
Q: Could you summarize your views on the F-15SE?
General Park, Chun-taek: F-15SE is an F-15K that has been partially modified to fit some external weapons in internal bays, and to apparently offer limited stealth capabilities.
Q: So it is similar to what the Air Force is already operating.
PCT: Yes, it is claimed that F-15SE has limited stealth capabilities, but the aircraft currently does not exist.
Q: The former Air Force Chiefs have all said that F-15SE is not the right choice. Why?
PCT: The core capability which was the goal of the FX next gen fighter was stealth. Stealth fighters are not caught on radar, and can strike enemy targets without being detected.
Q: And the F-15SE doesn’t have it (stealth capability)?
PCT: They say that it has limited stealth, but the aircraft doesn’t actually exist, so we can’t rely on such claims.
Q: What do you think we should do? Should we restart the whole program?
PCT: We need stealth. If we don’t have this capability, and with other countries getting stealth, we will not be able to protect our airspace. If we don’t have stealth our pilots will not be able to safely return to base from missions.
Q: One candidate platform is very expensive, while another platform we were not able to test by actually flying it. What should we do?
PCT: The insistence on KRW 8.3 trillion restricts our ability to make a choice. DAPA’s such insistence is not acceptable. We can’t simply keep doing these programs, because the budget is a lot of money. We need to make the right choice here. We need to have the stealth capability, either by reducing the quantity of aircraft, or adding more budget. We have to have stealth capability. I am deeply concerned about Korea’s security. Stealth is very important and necessary for this.