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South Korea Set to Aquire 20 More F-35 Fifth Generation Fighters

Drawbacks of the Lightning II and Potential Alternative Platforms

December 24th - 2017

The South Korean government is set to acquire 20 more F-35A stealth Multirole fighters for its air force, with the country's Defense Acquisition Program Administration preparing funds for the purchase. U.S. President Donald Trump announced in early November regarding his expectation for American increased weapons sales to the country, particularly in light of growing tensions on the Korean Peninsula: The president (of South Korea, Moon Jae In) and I have agreed. They'll be buying a tremendous [amount of military equipment] ”” which they want and which they need, and everybody thinks it makes a lot of sense. We make the best military equipment in the world. Whether it's planes, whether it's missiles, no matter what it is”¦ South Korea will be ordering billions of that equipment."

The purchase of 20 F-35 fighters is expected to cost approximately $4 billion. The operational costs of the aircraft, due to their extreme maintenance requirements, are far in excess of anything South Korea has yet operated. While the F-35s stealth capabilities are expected to make it a considerable asset when operating in North Korea's heavily defended airspace, considering the north's high level air defense cooperation with Russia and its years long development of anti stealth technologies, which have proven effective even when applied even to highly dated weapons systems, the survivability of the U.S. made fighters is uncertain. It is highly likely that North Korea retains the means to target the F-35 with its SAM networks both in its own airspace and in much of the south's airspace as well with longer range missile systems. When operating in North Korean airspace faster, longer ranged, higher payload and more agile platforms such as the F-15K, already fielded in large numbers by South Korea's air force, will likely prove far more effective than the smaller and more delicate F-35. A dedicated strike fighter able to carry twelve bombs, six times as many as the F-35, and operate more frequent sorties at a lower cost, the F-15K is very much the more capable platform in the role for which South Korea has purchased the unspecialized F-35. U.S. pressure is a possible reason for this decision, as the United States has threatened concequences for countries which refuse to purchase its latest fighters in favor of other platforms - Canada being one key example.

The primary weakness of the F-35 when operating on the Korean Peninsula, aside from its extremely low payload of just two bombs or four air to air missiles, is its high maintenance requirements and resulting low sortie rates which leave it spending well over 90% of the time grounded. This makes the fighters not only inefficient when operating against the numerically superior North Korean Air Force, exacerbating the numeral disadvantage by its long absences from the front, but it also makes the F-35 a ludicrous target for North Korean aircraft and missiles when grounded. Indeed, fighters will be stationed well within range of North Korean air and missile strikes, possibly even artillery, and the amount of time they will spend grounded relative to other South Korean platforms such as the F-15K and F-16 only increases this vulnerability.

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