[Viewpoint] Korea’s next-generation fighter

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[Viewpoint] Korea’s next-generation fighter

The Republic of Korea Air Force (Rokaf) is preparing this fall to make a decision on what next generation fighter aircraft will replace its aging F-4 II fighters and other aircraft. The contenders are Lockheed’s F-35 Lightening II, Boeing’s F-15 Silent Eagle and the Eurofighter Typhoon. Japan’s Air Self-Defense Force recently decided to procure the fifth-generation F-35 to replace its F-4s and the Rokaf currently flies the Fourth Generation F-15K; Eurofighter Typhoon has had major sales in Europe and the Middle East, but none in Asia.

This next generation fighter decision will be based on specific formulas relating to cost, performance and other factors, but there should be no doubt that decisions on top-end fighter aircraft also send very strong signals about how serious a nation is regarding its national defense and its alliance relationships. When Japan and the United States clashed over Japan’s decision to indigenize its next-generation fighter (FSX) at the end of the cold war, it was taken by many observers as a signal (mistakenly as it turned out) that Tokyo intended to emphasize techno-nationalism over its traditional alliance relationship with the United States.

When India decided last year not to include the Boeing F-15 or Lockheed F-16 in its final list of candidates for a medium multirole combat aircraft (Mmrca), it was interpreted by many as evidence that momentum in the U.S.-India strategic partnership had stalled. The final Indian decision to go with the aging French Rafale jet fighter this February then suggested that India was more focused on its industrial base than establishing advanced capabilities for air power.

Other air forces took note. When Japan chose the F-35 last December, it sent the signal that Tokyo’s top priority was stealth capability and close alliance interoperability with the United States in the face of a rising Chinese and North Korean threat (In fact, leading politicians in Japan had originally wanted the F-22 fifth-generation fighter, but Secretary of Defense Robert Gates decided there would be no export version).

In that sense, the next-generation fighter decision will have a major impact on Korea’s “brand” in national security. Looking at the decision in a holistic way, several other factors should come into play.

First, while it is important to sustain the industrial and technology base in Korea, techno-nationalism (prioritizing domestic development of technology over cost or performance) carries a huge downside in this era of globalization. This is particularly true in aerospace, where each new generation of fighter becomes exponentially more complex than the generation that preceded it. In the past a national industrial base that produced a decent engine or good airframe was enough for a government to try to build its own fighter, but today the integration of the fighter system as a whole, not to mention integration in a “system-of-systems” digitally linking the fighter to satellites and other platforms, makes that prohibitive for any one nation.

The Defense Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA) clearly recognized this when it decided not to include a domestic candidate for the next-generation fighter competition. Still, the desire to indigenize as much technology as possible will creep into the negotiations over introduction of a foreign fighter. It will be important not to let techno-nationalism get in the way of procuring the fighter that will best give the Rokaf air superiority over the Korean Peninsula.

Second, it will be important to consider the whole life-cycle of the fighter. The per-unit cost of a fighter in the near-term is the tip of the iceberg. Sustaining, upgrading and operating the fighter are huge factors in terms of the ultimate cost and effectiveness of the system. Some in Korea have complained about the complexities of having to work through the U.S. government program of Foreign Military Sales (FMS), preferring a direct contract with U.S. companies.

However, FMS has some significant advantages over direct commercial sales, particularly with the most advanced weapons. By contracting with the U.S. government through FMS, the Rokaf would benefit from the economy of scale that comes from procuring an aircraft that is developed, sustained, operated and continually upgraded by the U.S. Air Force - the most technologically sophisticated military service in the world, bar none.

An FMS contract would also assure the Rokaf that U.S. contractors are already working under strict cost-performance models designed to save the U.S. taxpayers money over the life of the system. And perhaps most important, FMS means that the Rokaf would have more complete access to joint training and doctrine with the U.S. Air Force as it develops transformational ways to utilize stealth, data-links and jointness with ground and naval forces.

Finally, U.S. and Korean defense officials will need to engage in intensive high-level dialogue over the next-generation fighter decision going forward. The point is not to politicize the decision, but rather to ensure that senior U.S. officials are fully aware of the Rokaf requirements and are doing everything they can inside the U.S. government to provide the best information and support possible for DAPA to make its own decision.

One way to think about this decision is to imagine what the Rokaf will look like in 10 or 20 years. Will it be flying a fighter that is second to none in the region, interoperable with the United States, and cost-effective to sustain and operate in its middle age? This is no small decision.

*The author is a senior adviser and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
By Michael Green
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