Korea has taken the first step toward purchasing additional stealth fighter jets from the United States, multiple government sources told the JoongAng Ilbo on Wednesday.
The move followed an agreement between leaders of the two countries that Korea will make massive advanced arms purchases from the United States to beef up its defense against growing North Korean threats. The agreement was reached between President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Donald Trump during their summit in Seoul on Nov. 7.
According to the Defense Acquisition Program Administration, its Defense Agency for Technology and Quality made an announcement on Dec. 13 to commission research for the second round of the next generation fighter jet project.
Although the state-run procurement agency labeled it the second round of the next-generation fighter jet project, it is actually a program to buy 20 additional F-35As, multiple government sources said.
Even if the government holds a bid to buy new jets, no builder other than Lockheed Martin, the producer of F-35As, qualifies to participate in the competition, they said.
“The Air Force wants fighter jets capable of striking major installations located deep inside North Korea’s inland areas,” said a government official. “The Defense Acquisition Program Administration will make the stealth capability the top priority, and F-35s are the only planes that can satisfy requirements.”
Seoul and Washington agreed on Korea’s purchase of 40 F-35A fighter jets in 2014 with a price tag of $7 billion. Codenamed F-X III, the program was the costliest procurement program in the history of the Korean military.
Korea had initially planned to retire 250 aged aircraft by 2020 and replace them with 60 next-generation fighter jets by 2021. But because of budget restrictions, the Air Force decided to make an initial purchase of 40 F-35As for the time being.
At the time, Seoul and Washington agreed that the additional 20 new aircraft will be purchased later after reassessment of the required operational capabilities, changes in the security climate and technological advancements. The military plans to introduce them starting in 2023.
Korea expects to begin deploying the first F-35As in 2018 and all 40 planes are slated for delivery by 2021.
The selection process of the F-35As was already controversial. After it was first initiated in 2007, Korea held a tender, and the F-15 Silent Eagle by Boeing, the Eurofighter Typhoon of the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company, and the F-35As competed.
After thorny price negotiations, Boeing’s F-15SE advanced to the final stage of the selection, but in 2013, the government postponed its decision on the winner of the project. At the time, the military said its decision to drop the only remaining contender in the running was due to the aircraft’s unsatisfactory stealth features.
Later that year, the military announced changed specifications to include strong stealth capabilities, a de facto endorsement of the F-35As from American defense contractor Lockheed Martin.