[EDITORIALS]Dogfight over new aircraft

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[EDITORIALS]Dogfight over new aircraft

International competition to win the next-generation fighter jet competition is growing fiercer, hinting at serious problems later after a winner is selected.

The government planned to spend 4.2 trillion won ($3.2 billion) for 40 state-of-the-art aircraft by 2008; the project, code-named F-X, is an important national issue that will help determine our military's power in any future war. Although the project looks like a simple arms purchase, the selection cannot be made simply based on the performance and price of the fighter planes; national security conditions and defense policy will have to be factored into this political business. That is why the situation is becoming complicated.

All of the bidders are being supported by their governments, and the winner of the project competition will be guaranteed both tangible and intangible profits.

It is no wonder that many kinds of disputes have surrounded the selection process. There are four competing aircraft: the U.S.-built Boeing F-15K, the French-made Dassault Rafele, the Russian Sukhoi Su-35 and an European consortium's Eurofighter Typhoon. None can be treated lightly. The destiny of some of the bidders depends on this project; one may have to close its production lines if it loses the selection. Therefore, the lobbying activities have been heated, and slanderous rumors have been spread to damage competitors.

The government should have handled the F-X project transparently with well-defined principles in order to forestall any suspicions about the fairness of the selection process. It did not do so. The government has postponed the selection three times since last June, despite its claim that the delays were unavoidable because of the need to negotiate price and technology transfer points. Delays fostered suspicions. There were also rumors that the government changed some of the evaluation criteria in favor of the F-15K before U.S. President George W. Bush's visit to Seoul last month. That has fueled discontent. Even if Boeing did not answer some of the questions on technology transfer, it reportedly received a high grade in the evaluation. It is not surprising that the government has been criticized for favoring a particular bidder.

The evaluation results were a military secret, so the leaking of the evaluation report is evidence of loose management by the defense authorities. Even though the competition for the contract is cutthroat, such things should not be allowed to happen.

Some high-ranking defense officials handling the project were arrested during the Roh Tae-woo administration over 10 years ago, but the government again has failed to manage a military procurement project smoothly. The government reportedly decided to select the F-15K if the evaluations show a difference between the aircraft no larger than 3 percent.

The selection, however, must be made transparently and satisfy the requirements of enhancing our security capabilities and acquiring new technologies.

Once we start buying the aircraft, we cannot reverse the decision. The selection must be based on objective technology evaluations, operational compatibility with existing armaments and the best look possible at the kind of war we may have to fight. Before the decision has even been made, doubts have been raised and there is a dark cloud over the project. The government should settle these doubts about the project before the selection process proceeds.
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