Stealth fighter jets to cost $117M a piece

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Stealth fighter jets to cost $117M a piece

South Korea will pay 121 billion won ($116.51 million) each for U.S.-built stealth fighter jets in the country’s largest-ever procurement program, military and government authorities told the JoongAng Ilbo yesterday.

“Through six months of negotiation with the United States since March, the total bill of the next-generation fighter jet project was settled at 7.3418 trillion won,” an official from the Defense Acquisition Program Administration said. “Of the sum, we will pay 121 billion won for each fighter jet.”

Korea will spend about 4.8 trillion won to purchase 40 F-35As from American defense contractor Lockheed Martin. The balance of the bill is for maintenance, parts and other costs.

Code-named F-X III, the program is the costliest procurement program in the history of the Korean military. After a failed bidding process that didn’t produce a plane the military liked, the Joint Chiefs of Staff approved a plan in November last year to purchase 40 stealth fighter jets, a de facto endorsement of the F-35As.

The delivery of the 40 new fighter jets will start in 2018.

The Air Force said the price is reasonable taking into account the advanced features of the jets. U.S.-built F-15Ks from Boeing, the most advanced warplanes Korea currently operates, cost 100 billion won each in the early 2000s.

“The budget of the F-X project includes not only the prices of the jets but also maintenance facilities, components, hangars and pilot training,” said an Air Force official. “Because we had a fixed total budget, we would have to save on other areas if the jet price was set high. But the price was decided at an appropriate level, so we didn’t have to trim down on any other areas.”

Because the F-35As are sold through the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program, the price will be recalculated when the jets are handed over to Korea. The FMS program is the U.S. Defense Department’s program facilitating sales of American weapons to foreign governments through the Defense Security Cooperation Agency.

Because the South Korean government did not negotiate directly with Lockheed Martin, there were concerns that the price would rise.

The Korean military authorities said the jets will be delivered starting 2018 and the price could be lowered further at that point because the timing will coincide with mass production of the jet.

A source said the military recently briefed President Park Geun-hye that the jet price could even fall below 100 billion won.

Authorities said the United States will transfer 17 core technologies as part of the purchase package. The United States, however, declined to share stealth technology.

A procurement committee chaired by the defense minister met yesterday and endorsed the deal.

Under the F-X III program, Korea had initially planned to retire 250 aged aircraft by 2020, including F-4s and F-5s, and replace them with 60 next-generation fighter jets by 2021. But because of budget restrictions, the Air Force decided to make an initial purchase of 40 F-35As for the time being.

The additional 20 new aircraft will be purchased later after reassessment of the required operational capabilities, changes in the security climate and technological advancements. The military plans to introduce them starting in 2023.

First initiated in 2007, Seoul initially hosted a bidding in which the F-15 Silent Eagle by Boeing, the Eurofighter Typhoon of the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company, and the F-35As competed.

After thorny price negotiations, only Boeing’s F-15SE advanced to the final stage of the selection, but the government postponed its decision on the winner of the project in September last year. At the time, the military said its decision to drop the only remaining contender in the running was due to the aircraft’s unsatisfactory stealth features.

Arms experts said the price tag was too expensive.

“Although F-36A is a new model with upgraded functions, it is overpriced,” said a researcher at a state-run think tank who asked for anonimity. “Apart from the stealth function, it is a single-engine aircraft and its maximum speed is only Mach 1.6, lower than Mach 2.5 of F-15K. It also has weaker arms capabilities.”

Critics also said Boeing had proposed to sell 60 F-15SEs at the price lower than 8.3 trillion won and the F-35s are priced too high.

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