Korea aviation plan ‘a mess’

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Korea aviation plan ‘a mess’

Whatever you think of the outcome of South Korea’s F-X III fighter selection - now leaning toward the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter - you cannot deny that it is a mess. The government first created a new agency to manage its defense procurements, set clear selection criteria for 60 new fighters and told the Defense Acquisition Program Administration to git’er done. DAPA picked the F-15SE, a decision that the government speedily set aside.

In accordance with a common definition of insanity, the luckless agency must now go through the same process in hopes of a different outcome. DAPA has caught one break: Eurofighter will be back for round two, so DAPA will not be tied across a sole-source barrel after throwing out binding offers presented in 2013.

Fighter procurements are ponderous, complicated and subject to political interference. The last-named attribute is a feature, not a bug: The price tag gets the Treasury involved, other military services have to vote, and the relationship between the supplier and its own national government will last longer than most marriages.

That said, Korea’s decision stands out because the government had tried to do better. After Dassault noisily bailed out of F-X1 in 2002, alleging that the fix had been in for a U.S. win from the outset, Korea tried to clean up its act by forming DAPA.

Whether or not it was based on a study of Sweden’s FMV, the Korean agency emerged with similar key features: civilian, not subordinate to the services, responsible to the whole of government, and including in its brief, domestic research and development. This would all have been fine had the government not responded to DAPA’s first controversial decision by folding like a cheap suit.

Overt pressure on the government came from 15 former air staff chiefs, who signed an emotional screed that not too subtly evoked a possible threat from F-35-armed Japan. There are a few problems with this sort of appeal.

Former generals have no more access to classified F-35 or threat data than the rest of us (or at least they should not). The Japanese threat might play to the man in the Seoul karaoke bar, but one does not need tinfoil headgear to suspect that. In the event of such a conflict, both sides’ F-35s would succumb to software maladies and stop working rather quickly. And while the generals may all be motivated by pure patriotism, we know that if paying retired officers to influence decisions were illegal, the U.S. defense industry would have to move its business development activities to federal correctional facilities.

There may not have been any U.S. government pressure involved. And Barney might be a real dinosaur. Korea’s 60 near-term orders (the aircraft are needed to replace aging F-4s) are important for the F-35. As recent briefings have shown, the program needs 300 non-U.S. orders in the next 4-5 years to prime the production line and support an orderly ramp-up.

Failure to secure those orders may not kill the program, but they will make it harder to gain the sunlit uplands of building 150-plus per year and un-F-22-like costs. The Netherlands cutting its buy to 37 from 85, and the U.K. punting two-thirds of its nominally planned offtake into the long grass of the later 2020s, are not promising signs that the program’s founding partners are good for those early orders.

It would be understandable if Korea underestimated the importance of an F-35 order to Washington and assumed that an F-15 buy would be of equal validity. When F-X III was in its formative years in 2009, the Pentagon’s high sheriffs believed the F-35 program was blasting ahead toward initial operational capability this year. The Asian market was a sideshow, another dish to be gobbled up in due course.

Korea is in no position to ignore U.S. government warnings about the two nations’ strategic relationship. The next year or so will see how and whether Korea manages to reach a decision that meets the needs of its armed forces, its Treasury and its major ally, while restoring international confidence in the integrity of its procurement process.

Korea’s about-face is a tactical win for the F-35. However, the aircraft has yet to win an open, rules-based competition where all sides were expected to bid a fixed price. Most of its committed buyers, including the U.S. services, signed on when the aircraft was promised to be much earlier and cheaper than it is today. And given the repeated claims of advocates that the price of the F-35A is headed down into F-16 country, the fact that it was beaten on price by not only the massive twin-engine F-15 Eagle but also the Eurofighter Typhoon - from the people who make Aston Martins, Porsches and Lamborghinis - has to raise some eyebrows.

We’ll see what happens in the next open, rules-based, fixed-price, professionally executed competition. What? I’m not saying definitively that Barney can’t be some subspecies of theropoda.

*The author is senior international defense editor of Aviation Week.

by Bill Sweetman
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