Jet program urgent, Air Force insists

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Jet program urgent, Air Force insists

The Air Force has stressed its opposition to remarks by senior politicians who argue that a mega-project to purchase 60 next-generation fighter jets should be put on ice until next year, following the presidential election in December.

“Half of the warplanes operated by the Air Force are already aging badly and some of the F-5 jets are set to be retired next year,” a high-ranking official at the Air Force was quoted as saying by the Yonhap News Agency. “The FX project must proceed as initially scheduled.”

Under the project code-named FX III, the Air Force aims to replace its aging fleet with 60 cutting-edge stealth fighters between 2016 and 2021 to shore up its defenses against North Korea’s military. The deal would involve 8.3 trillion won ($7.3 billion) of taxpayers’ money.

The Defense Acquisition Program Administration, the nation’s arms procurement agency, kicked off the project in January and set this year as the deadline for selecting the jets.

But with six months to go before the presidential election, members of the ruling Saenuri Party and the main opposition Democratic United Party have been calling to postpone the multibillion-dollar project and leave it in the hands of the next administration.

“If the news reports are correct that politicians are indeed trying to push ahead with the delay, it shows they really are not aware of .?.?. the aging condition of the current fleet,” another Air Force official was quoted as saying.

The Air Force’s opposition comes as concerns rise that the project could be delayed by up to three years if the buck is passed to the next administration.

Some 180 fighter jets are set to be retired by 2019, leaving the country with just 340 operational warplanes. According to the Korean Institute for Defense Analysis, 430 are required to provide an “adequate” defense of the skies. Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Lightening II, Boeing’s F-15-SE Silent Eagle and EAD’s Eurofighter are vying to be selected.

By Kang Jin-kyu [jkkang2@joongang.co.kr]

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