[OUTLOOK]FX choice was a security matterWhen American Boeing and French Dassault are in cutthroat competition to win the Korean Air Force's multibillion dollar next-generation fighter jet procurement order, it is fair and proper for Seoul to purchase American made aircraft, on condition of other things being equal.
The Defense Ministry decided on Boeing's F-15K over the French Dassault's Rafale and plans to purchase 40 planes by 2008 at an estimated total price of 4 trillion won ($3 billion).
The deal underscores the importance of the U.S.-South Korea military alliance. But the decision has drawn very harsh criticism.
Dassault is demanding that the Defense Ministry disclose detailed information on its evaluation of the two competing fighters. Some civic groups are accusing the government of buckling under U.S. pressure, even though the Korean military's preference was not the F-15K, which it said was outdated and cost more. The point of their argument is that the Korean government selected the Boeing craft despite its "shortcomings."
But comparing two planes objectively is equivalent to comparing apples and oranges. Apples cannot be a superior fruit compared with oranges and the taste of the two fruits cannot be ranked either. A general of the air force, who still pilots fighter jets, likened the comparison of the two planes to rating an eagle and a hawk. In short, the two are built for different purposes.
Dassault likened its Rafale to a sportscar, and its rival, Boeing's F-15K, as a limousine. It stressed that the Rafale would perform far better in dogfights. But a dogfight involving fighter jets chasing each other for short distances is outdated in modern warfare, which depends on integrated electronic systems. The F-15K's alleged inferiority in dogfights is offset by its strong performance at high velocity and during vertical ascent.
Rafale boasts AESA electronic radar, which is called "eyes of the dragonfly." But AESA is still under testing. The radar would cost $350 million in the first years after complete development. The Korean Air Force can use the F-15K's MSA radar, which costs less than half the price of AESA, and replace it with Boeing's AESA, to be developed in the future, when the price drops.
Boeing is boasting that the F-15K is superior since two pilots are required; the Rafale is operated by one. Pilots, the company says, are emotionally more at ease dividing the labor when they are not alone, thus leading them to perform better. Many pilots say they prefer having a crew member, but added that if the integrated electronic system functions to its capacity, the superiority of double seaters narrows.
Boeing pointed out that its fighter jet is outstanding in air-to-air, air-to-ground and air-to-ship attacks and that the Rafale does not have the capacity for air-to-ground and air-to-ship attacks. But arms experts said in time the Rafale would be equipped with such capacity. Rafale's drawbacks could soon be remedied.
Comparing the two jets produces an endless list of demerits and merits. The result of the first evaluation showed less than 3 percentage points difference between scoring of the two jets.
The fact that the U.S. Air Force has decided to use F-15 fighter planes only until 2030 weighs heavily on my mind. Even ordinary people are reluctant to purchase cars whose production will be suspended soon, making their parts scarce. But Boeing has founded a company to provide parts and maintenance for the F-15K around the world, according to an arms expert at the Defense Ministry. Korea need not worry about obtaining parts as long as Boeing stands to profit from the lucrative business of providing components.
The Korean Air Force wants heavy fighter jets that can serve as Korea's strategic weaponry. The F-15K fits this purpose. It can hold its own against China's SU-27, North Korea's MiG-29 and Japan's F-15J and F-2 for the next 30 years. Beijing falls within the flight range of the F-15K, which can carry out missions within a radius of 1,200 kilometers. The medium-range Rafale would not be appropriate for this purpose.
Some analysts suggested that the launch of the F-X project should be suspended for a few years, fearing diplomatic friction with the French government if Rafale failed in the bid. This idea was as ludicrous as the contention that the United States would have withdrawn its armed forces from Korea if Boeing had failed to win the project.
Selecting a jet fighter for its F-X project is the right of Korea, a sovereign country. Long-term gains in Korea's security should be the top concern in selecting the plane. The government should redouble its efforts to secure technology transfers and an offset package from Boeing, equivalent to the amount that had been pledged by Dassault.
The writer is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
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