Fix military procurement processSouth Korea has finally decided on the third-phase F-X fighter acquisition program, awarding Lockheed Martin an order of 40 F-35A stealth fighters. The Joint Chiefs of Staff held a meeting and endorsed the first-batch purchase after demanding the U.S. defense supplier require operational capability of advanced radar-evading and multi-role capacity prepared for digital warfare. The Air Force will purchase a total of 60 next-generation fighters to replace its aging fighters. It will first order 40 due to the budget squeeze, and the remaining 20 will be chosen among the F-35A, the F-15 Silent Eagle of Boeing and the EAD’s Eurofighter, whichever can best assist the technological development of Korea’s indigenous fighter jet program, KF-X.
Korea has been planning to acquire next-generation fighters since 2007, but the decision was deferred and overturned repeatedly. State-of-the-art capacity cost too much, but affordable options were not good enough to last for the next 30 to 40 years. Former and incumbent Air Force leaders clashed over their favorite choices, undermining the credibility of Korea’s procurement program.
The Joint Chiefs decision is the optimum choice under Korea’s complicated circumstances. Combat fighters with advanced radar-evading capacity are essential for deterring nuclear-armed North Korea. They allow for clandestine pre-emptive attacks should there be signs of nuclear attack preparations in North Korea.
Seoul no longer can delay upgrading to stealth capabilities because both Japan and China will soon be equipped with stealth forces. Seoul needs high-end military resources amid escalating geopolitical tensions and an unprecedented arms race in the region. The Korean Air Force’s 40-to-50-year-old F-4 and F-5 mainstay fighters have outlived their lifespans. The Air Force could be short on fighter jets for one or two years before the next-generation jets are delivered because their aging ones won’t last until 2017. The Air Force plans to use the existing jets as long as possible until their replacements arrive, but that could risk the lives of pilots, considering the recent rise in accidents. The Air Force must be extra scrupulous in maintenance and repairs to minimize accidents.
The Korean military must also fix its ineffective decision-making process.