Shortly after the Korea-U.S. presidential summit in April, the Blue House asked the military to consider the possible procurement of F-35Bs, a more expensive version of the stealth fighter jets Korea earlier purchased, an opposition lawmaker told the JoongAng Ilbo on Wednesday.
Rep. Baek Seung-joo of the Liberty Korea Party, who once served as vice defense minister, said the National Security Office of the Blue House discussed the purchase plan with an Air Force official on April 18. The summit between President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Donald Trump took place on April 11 in Washington.
In 2014, the Air Force finalized the first phase of a next-generation fighter jet project and confirmed the purchase of 40 F-35As, the most common version of the fighter jet built by Lockheed Martin. The deliveries are scheduled to be completed in 2021.
The second phase of the project will start in 2021. The military is to spend a total of 4 trillion won ($3.35 billion) for five years to purchase 20 additional stealth fighter jets. Speculation was high in the military that Korea would buy more F-35As.
Although F-35Bs have short take-off and vertical landing features, which would allow deployment on a light aircraft carrier Korea is planning to build starting next year, military sources said the Air Force prefers F35-As. They said F-35Bs have limited weapons capabilities, operational scope and mobility compared to F-35As.
“Because the two models have different operational systems, we also need to train pilots separately,” said an Air Force official.
The price difference is another issue. The price for an F-35B is about $115 million compared to about $89 million for an F-35A. The state-run Korea Institute for Defense Analyses recently concluded in an internal report that Korea should purchase more F-35As, instead of introducing F-35Bs, largely based on the price issue.
As of now, the Blue House has no power to influence a procurement decision by the military. After the military makes a procurement request, the Joint Chiefs of Staff must approve a project. The Defense Acquisition Program Promotion Committee under the Ministry of National Defense, then, will review it, and the Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) will operate that project.
According to the DAPA, the Ministry of National Defense has not started a formal review for the second phase of the fighter jet project.
Speculation is now being raised that Moon and Trump discussed Korea’s possible purchase of the aircraft during their summit. At the time of the April summit, Trump expressed his satisfaction about Korea’s plan to purchase U.S.-built weapons.
“President Moon and Korea have agreed to purchase a tremendous amount of our military equipment, from jet fighters to missiles, to lots of other things,” Trump said before his meeting with Moon, without elaborating on the specifics. “And we make the finest equipment in the world by far, and we appreciate the purchase. It’s a very large purchase. And we always appreciate that.”
Trump made a similar remark when he had a bilateral meeting with Moon on Sept. 24. “We’ll be talking [about] the purchase of equipment,” Trump said. “Korea is one of our largest purchasers of military equipment. And we’re working together very well.”
Following the summit, Deputy National Security Adviser Kim Hyun-chong told reporters that Moon briefed Trump about Korea’s purchases in the past and the procurement plan for the next three years.
“Although no budget was fixed, the purchase plan was offered to a specific country,” Rep. Baek told the JoongAng Ilbo Wednesday. “It is a serious problem that the Blue House, without consulting the DAPA, discussed the procurement plan with the United States.”
At a National Assembly audit of the DAPA on Monday, Baek asked its chief, Wang Jung-hong, if he had a contact with the Blue House about a possible purchase of F-35Bs, and Wang replied that he had no such contact. Baek also asked Wang if it was possible for Deputy National Security Adviser Kim to influence a procurement project, and Wang said no.
The Blue House on Thursday denied that it tried to influence the fighter jet purchase. “There is a legal procedure for a procurement project,” a presidential aide said. “It is not true that the Blue House ordered the Air Force to review the possibility of buying F-35Bs shortly after the April summit. But we cannot discuss any specifics concerning the military and national security.”