South Korea received the first of sixty F-35A fifth generation light stealth fighters in March 2018, and the costly single engine platforms are set to play a significant role in the country’s Air Force for decades to come. The F-35, produced by Lockheed Martin, represents the second modern fighter Seoul has acquired from the United States since 2000, with the heavier Boeing F-15K Slam Eagle having been delivered since the mid 2000s and today forming the elite of the country’s aerial warfare capabilities. While South Korea’s armed forces are today set to deploy both platforms in approximately equal numbers, the government’s decision to procure the F-35 rather than further elite variants of the F-15 has received a great deal of scrutiny and is widely suspect of having been made for political considerations at the expense of military effectiveness.
The South Korean military’s contract to procure 40 Lockheed Martin F-35A light fighters signed under the Park Geun Hye administration has been placed under an intensive investigation regarding the possible influence peddling and price lobbying which led the government to choose the platform over an advanced variant of Boeing’s F-15, the F-15 Silent Eagle (F-15SE), which the military had initially intended to procure. The Silent Eagle is closely related to the F-15K, but equipped with a number of advanced next generation features including stealth capabilities, more advanced air to air missiles and fifth generation electronic warfare systems. The F-35 was selected in in the aftermath of South Korea's F-X III competition, and Board of Audit and Inspection of Korea (BAI) has widened its probe into the F-35 selection which occurred at the time. Kang Hwan Seok, spokesman of the Defence Acquisition Program Administration (DAPA), stated regarding the investigation: “The BAI inspection over the F-35 purchase was launched late last year, and the inspection has been widened since January.”
According to a number of officials from the Defence Ministry, BAI recently summoned former defence chiefs, including Defence Minister Kim Kwan Jin and DAPA Commissioner Lee Yong Geol, in relation to the investigation into the F-35 selection process. BAI’s inspection has sought to determine why DAPA overturned its original decision to commission the Boeing F-15SE as the preferred bidder. BAI has also sought to determine why the agency quietly changed the Foreign Military Sales based variable price contract to a fixed one, which strongly favoured the F-35.
In September 2013, Boeing’s offer to provide 60 F-15SE heavy stealth fighters for $7.4 billion was selected was the winner of the F-X III, with rival Lockheed Martin failing to submit proposals below the budget due to the F-35A’s greater cost. The costly Eurofighter Typhoon was also priced out, and despite its lower cost the F-15SE was arguably far more capable than both contenders. The selection of the F-15SE was overturned a few weeks later however under mysterious circumstances involving a letter to the presidential office calling for a reconsideration of the purchase and a decision by DAPA to restart the F-X III acquisition from scratch. According to Defence Minister Kim, the decision to reject the Silent Eagle was influenced by “political judgement.”
Continued in Part Two